“Stereotype Threat” a.k.a. Occam`s Butterknife
The identical twin brothers Claude M. Steele and
Shelby Steele offer a fascinating living experiment
in the effects of nature and nurture.
The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in
is a research fellow across campus at
the Hoover Institution. Both are graceful writers—Shelby
Harper`s Monthly and Claude for The Atlantic
Monthly—although Shelby is more literary and Claude
And both have devised psychological theories to account
for shortcomings in
black academic performance.
Shelby says blacks suffer from "racial
vulnerability.” Claude claims they are victimized by
Yet although the Steeles are famous blacks, they
aren`t terribly black-looking. When I asked my wife
Shelby on TV and guess his ancestry, she said he
looked Greek. (Here are pictures of
Shelby is a conservative and Claude is a liberal, and
don`t get along terribly well because of their
disagreement over affirmative action. Shelby thinks
Claude stole and distorted his racial vulnerability
concept. Claude, in contrast, thinks Shelby`s tough-love
policy blames the black victims of white prejudice for
educational failings that are actually
caused by—follow me closely here—blacks` anxiety
over the danger of proving correct whites` stereotypes
about blacks` lack of intelligence.
experiment Claude performed on some Stanford
sophomores almost a decade ago has become wildly popular
among liberals. They see it as the Rosetta Stone
explaining the mystery of
racial inequality. It supposedly proved that on
standardized tests like the SAT college entrance
exam, blacks would score the same as whites on average
if only mean people like me
wouldn`t ever mention the fact that they, uh,
don`t score the same.
What Steele found was that when he told his black
subjects that the little custom-made verbal test he was
giving them would measure their intellectual ability,
they scored worse than when he provided a less
threatening description of the exam.
Here`s the logic behind this extrapolation: At some
point back in the mists of time, a
stereotype somehow emerged that blacks do less well
on the SAT. So, now, blacks are seized by panic over the
possibility they might mess up and score so poorly that
they validate this stereotype.
And, indeed, this nervousness makes them score
exactly as badly as the stereotype predicted they
It`s really a lovely theory. In its solipsistic
circularity, it`s practically unfalsifiable.
Still, you might object that
Occam`s Razor suggests a simpler
explanation—that the arrow of causation runs in the
opposite direction, with the stereotype being the
result, not the cause, of decades of poor black
performance on the SAT.
But that just shows you are a mean person, too.
If you were a nice person, then you would know that if
we all just believe that everybody will score the
same, then everybody will score the same!
Just like when we were children and all clapped at a
Peter Pan to show we had faith that Tinkerbell
Of course, to me as a former marketing executive,
there`s an obvious alternative explanation of Steele`s
findings: the students figured out what this prominent
professor wanted to see, and, being nice kids, they
delivered the results he longed for. This happens all
the time in
market research. After all, this was just a
meaningless little test, unlike a real SAT where the
students would all want to do as well as possible.
Nevertheless, countless commentators have claimed
Steele`s study proves the only reason blacks score worse
on the SAT than whites is because of this "stereotype
Here are a few examples:
“When students were told they were being tested for
ability, the Black students performed more poorly than
the White students. Was this because of stereotype
threat? The researchers administered the test to other
students, telling them the goal was to find out how
people approach difficult problems. This time the
researchers found no discernible difference between
the performance of Black and White students.”
and Guts, Jennifer Roback Morse, December 27,
1999, in Forbes, p. 165)
“A Stanford psychology professor, Steele has done
research indicating that Black students who think a
test is unimportant match their White counterparts`
scores. But if told a test measures intellect, Black
students do worse than White students.” (“Passing
the Fairness Test,” October 5, 1999, The Boston
Globe, p. A16)
“In another experiment, when Blacks were told that
they were taking a test that would evaluate their
intellectual skills, they scored below Whites. Blacks
who were told that the test was a laboratory
problem-solving task that was not diagnostic of
ability scored about the same as Whites.” (Leslie,
November 6, 1995, in Newsweek, p. 82)
This enthusiasm is particularly odd because the idea that blacks collapse
under a pressure would seem racially derogatory. Back in the bad old days,
it was bigoted whites who jeered that black sports pioneers like
and Jackie Robinson
would choke as soon as the spotlight was on them. They didn`t. Similarly,
didn`t suddenly forget his lines when the curtain came up on
Othello, nor did Marian Anderson sing off-key at the
Lincoln Memorial. In fact, they all seemed to experience the opposite of
stereotype threat: "stereotype stimulation," a burning desire
to prove their naysayers wrong.
So eventually, that old stereotype died out.
In reality, however, nobody cares about these logical
implications because nobody truly believes in
Stereotype theory`s fans just want to use it to wish
away the white-black test score gap.
Unfortunately for them, the January 2004 issue of the
scientific journal American Psychologist, the
publication of the American Psychology Association, ran
Paul R. Sackett, Chaitra M. Hardison, and Michael J.
Cullen documenting that Steele`s research is
misinterpreted in both popular and scholarly
publications as showing that eliminating stereotype
threat eliminates the African American-White difference
in test performance.”
The psychologists` point:
than showing that eliminating threat eliminates the
large score gap on standardized tests, the research
actually shows something very different. Specifically,
absent stereotype threat, the African American–White
difference is just what one would expect based on the
African American–White difference in SAT scores, whereas
in the presence of stereotype threat, the difference is
larger than would be expected based on the difference in
In other words, Steele only showed he could persuade
black students to do worse than they did on the
SAT. He did not show he could make black Stanford
students score better than they had on the Verbal
SAT—which was about a half-standard deviation below the
white Stanford students in the study.
Far from than debunking the SAT, Steele tacitly relied
on the SAT as a fair measure of ability. (Curtis
Crawford of the
www.DebatingRacialPreference.org website has
examined the new critique in detail for the
National Association of Scholars.)
What Steele`s fans have failed to grasp is that Steele
was not investigating how the SAT was too hard on
blacks, but how it was too easy on them. Blacks
at elite colleges tend to get
than their SAT or ACT scores (or high school GPA) would
1992 Atlantic article, Steele dealt frankly
with this little-known fact:
"This pattern has been documented so broadly across so
many regions of the country, and by so many
investigations (literally hundreds), that it is
virtually a social law in this society–as well as a
blacks at top schools do even worse than their scores
that in the Fifties and Sixties, back before racial
quotas, the grades of a black student at an elite
college tended to rise from freshman to senior year.
Today, though, Steele finds that their GPAs typically
decline. Apparently, many
quota kids, who could be
doing fine at less selective schools, shield their
self-esteem by "disidentifying with" (i.e.,
downplaying) academic achievement.
matters worse," wrote Steele in 1992, "Once
disidentification occurs at a school, it can spread like
a common cold… Pressure to make it a group norm can
evolve quickly and become fierce."
This fear of
being labeled an "oreo"
helps explain Steele`s disheartening finding that even
blacks more qualified than the average white
student on campus tend to underachieve, with the same
implication of stereotype threat theory: the simplest
way to destroy the stereotype that college`s black
students` qualifications are inferior is to stop
admitting blacks with inferior qualifications
affirmative action programs.
those of us who
talk honestly about racial differences in test
scores don`t do it because we are mean.
We do it
because only honesty will help us all to figure out how
to do anything about it.
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and