“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.

Both are celebrated black intellectuals who have
achieved comparable academic eminence—Claude
is a professor of social psychology at Stanford, while

, the author of 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
writes for

Harper`s Monthly
and Claude for The Atlantic
—although Shelby is more literary and Claude
more quantitative.

And both have devised psychological theories to account
for shortcomings in

black academic performance.

Shelby says blacks suffer from “racial
Claude claims they are victimized by

“stereotype threat.”

Yet although the Steeles are famous blacks, they

aren`t terribly black-looking
. When I asked my wife
to inspect

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.

A little

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

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
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
performance of

Peter Pan
to show we had faith that Tinkerbell
would recover.

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.” (

    the Fairness Test,” October 5, 1999, The Boston
    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.” (

    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
Joe Louis,
Jesse Owens,
and Jackie Robinson
would choke as soon as the spotlight was on them. They didn`t. Similarly,
Paul Robeson
didn`t suddenly forget his lines when the curtain came up on

, 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

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
a pointed


Paul R. Sackett, Chaitra M. Hardison, and Michael J.
Cullen documenting that Steele`s research is

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
SAT scores.”

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

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

worse grades

than their SAT or ACT scores (or high school GPA) would

In a

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
racial tragedy.”

Why do
blacks at top schools do even worse than their scores

Steele found
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.

“To make
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
or incognegro
helps explain Steele`s disheartening finding that even
blacks more qualified than the average white
student on campus tend to underachieve, with the same
grade deterioration.

The real
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

Bottom line:
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

movie critic

The American Conservative
His website

features his daily