"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 Shelby, the author The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (1990),  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 Monthly—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 vulnerability." 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 and Claude.)

Shelby is a conservative and Claude is a liberal, and they 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 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 would.

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 threat."

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." (Race 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 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 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.

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

"[w]idely 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:

"[R]ather 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 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 worse grades than their SAT or ACT scores (or high school GPA) would predict.

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 indicate?

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 under affirmative action programs.

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 for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]