Author: Claude M. Steele, PhD
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
Copyright year: 2011
Since “Whistling Vivaldi” was first published in 2010, it’s likely you’ve read it or at least browsed through it at a bookstore. If not, it’s worth a read, both for its important content on the impact of stigma on the stigmatized and its accessible description of a two-decade research process. I’ve been aware of and have taught about the phenomenon of stereotype threat for some time, but I learned a lot about the pervasiveness of the phenomenon and also about the author, one of my favorite social psychologists, by reading this book.
In “Whistling Vivaldi,” Claude Steele paints a compelling picture, through personal stories and research results, of how simply being aware of negative stereotypes toward our social group diminishes our ability to perform. Whether the group is white students who are told a golf task measured athletic ability, motivated women taking a difficult math test or high-ranking black students taking a test they believed to be of intellectual ability, the threat of stigma is sufficient to have a significant deleterious effect on performance. According to Steele, this phenomenon, which he and his colleagues call stereotype threat, permeates American culture, particularly in schools and colleges.
The title of the book comes from the experience Steele describes of Brent Staples, now a columnist for the New York Times but at the time of the story a graduate student in Chicago. Staples, an African-American, observed white individuals and couples reacting to him with fear as they walked past him in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Staples noticed that when he whistled the tunes of classical composer Vivaldi, white passersby seemed to relax and some even smiled. The change in how Staples was seen, from the stereotype of a potentially violence-prone African-American youth to an educated, refined person, reveals to Steele both the threat of historic stereotypes and the power of situational contingencies to diffuse that threat, both to the white passersby and to Staples himself.
By focusing on identity contingencies, particularly the identity threat that emerges when faced with a negative stereotype of one’s group, Steele and his colleagues take the heat off of the individual or the family for failures in performance. The same students from the same background will perform differently depending on the salience of stereotype threat. This is a powerful idea, because it means that by changing the situation, we can effect a change in achievement.
In the last few chapters of the book, Steele offers some concrete remedies. He is not a Pollyanna; he argues we have not yet achieved a post-racial society, as illustrated by worsening school segregation and ongoing discrimination. He does provide some practical strategies for reducing stereotype threat, some of which can be applied to the classroom: fostering intergroup conversations among students from different backgrounds, building in a process for students to affirm a positive sense of self and offering feedback that communicates a belief students can meet high standards.
“Whistling Vivaldi” is as much the story of social psychology research as it is of the construct of stereotype threat itself. Steele methodically and carefully takes us on his scientific journey, from one research question to another, from application to one group to application to another, from collaboration with one partner to collaboration with others. He carefully sets up the experiments as they unfold over two decades without getting too bogged down in the technicalities; he reports the blunders as well as the successes in terms of predicted results. In this sense, the book provides a valuable roadmap to those at the beginning of their research careers. As Steele himself says, the research process is much like solving a mystery, and while painstaking at times, the story builds to its meaningful conclusion by taking us there step by step.