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Steele, Claude Mason 1946–

Claude Mason Steele 1946

At a Glance

Developed New Theory

Tested Stereotype Vulnerability

Recommended Educational Reforms

Supported Affirmative Action


Social psychologist, professor

For more than 20 years, social psychologist Claude Steele has labored over his research, which deals primarily with three topics: addictive behaviorsespecially alcohol addiction; how people cope with negative self-images; and the effects of group stereotypes. Steeles theory of stereotype vulnerability, the idea that the perception of a negative stereotype of ones own group can have a disruptive effect, stirred up the academic community and attracted attention in the popular press. Robert B. Zajonc, director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, described Steele to Denise K. Magner of the Chronicle of Higher Education: He is one of the very few people I know who can perform abstract analyses of a problem without losing a sense of compassion for the social aspects.

Claude Steele and his identical twin brother, Shelby, whose parents are an interracial couple who met because of their involvement in the civil rights movement, grew up in Phoenix, Illinoisa working-class suburb of Chicago. The Steele children were immersed in the social issues of the day. Our household was like a graduate school in race relations, Claude recollected to New York Times Magazine writer Ethan Watters. My mother was a social worker and my father was a truck driver, but they were both very intellectual people.

Little did the Steele sons know that their paths would later cross repeatedly in their choices of careers and academic interests. Claude studied psychology, earning a doctorate from Ohio State University in 1971. After a short stint at the University of Utah, he hired on at the University of Washington Seattle. During his 14-year tenure, Steele and his colleagues won half a dozen grants from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a federal organization, to study various aspects of alcohol abuse. Their research topics included the role of personal and media attacks in alcohol abuse, drinking and anxiety, and drinking and stress.

Shortly after joining the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1987, Steele was asked to take part in a committee studying the universitys student recruitment and retention efforts. He was surprised to find high dropout rates for African Americans despite their excellent preparation and SAT test scores. While the dropout

At a Glance

Born January 1, 1946, in Chicago, IL; married Dorothy Munson; children: Jory, Claire, Claude, Benjamin. Education: Hiram College (Hiram,), B.A., 1967; Ohio State University, M.A., 1969; Ph.D., 1971.

University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, assistant professor of psychology, 1971-73; University of Washington, Seattle, WA, assistant professor to professor psychology, 1973-85, became assistant professor of psychology, 1985-87; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Ml, professor of psychology, 1987-91; Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, research scientist, 1989-91; Stanford University, Stanford, CA, professor of psychology, 1991. Consulting editor to Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and Motivation and Emotion, 1987, and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Attitudes and Social Cognition, and Psychological Review, 1990.

Member: American Psychological Association, American Psychological Society (board of directors member), Association of Black Psychologists, Society of Experimental Social Psychology.

Selected awards: Dissertation Year fellowship, Ohio State University Graduate School, 1970-71; Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences fellowship, 1994-95; Cattell Faculty fellowship, James McKeen Cattell Fund.

Addresses: Office Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Building 420, Stanford, CA 94305-2130.

rate for white students was 42 percent, for African American students it soared to 70 percent. Of the African American students who stayed in school, their marks averaged half a letter grade lower than their white counterparts.

When I realized that the smartest black students were having these terrible troubles, I figured something else was going on, Steele recalled to Watters. Intrigued, he began a series of studies to discern the causes of this gap. He talked with studentsthey obviously wanted to succeedand he determined that the lower grades were not a systematic form of racism on the part of the faculty. Then he began to theorize a new cause and test his hypothesis.

Developed New Theory

After publishing his findings in scholarly journals, in the April 1992 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Steele explained them to the general public. Steele determined that high dropout rates for African American college students occurred even among the well-prepared students who had no major financial disadvantages. Moreover, something depressed achievement at all levels of schooling, from elementary school to graduate school. According to Steele, for any student to do well in school, he or she must believe that school achievement can be a promising basis of self-esteem, and that belief needs constant re-affirmation even for advantaged students.

Much of American society, whether overtly racist or not, maintained Steele, devalues the accomplishments of African Americans, even though in many areas of endeavor African Americans have made significant contributions. If they want to succeed, African Americans are forced to assimilate into white society, which means that they must change styles of appearance, speech, and values in mainstream settings. The offer of acceptance in return for assimilation carries a primal insult: it asks them to join in something that has made them invisible.

In addition, African Americans must constantly face the threat of being considered racially inferior, a stereotype that has long been entrenched in American society. African American students quickly learn that their acceptance will be difficult to win and will require re-earning at each level of schooling. Our idea was that whenever black students concentrate on an explicitly scholastic task, they risk confirming their groups negative stereotype, Steele explained to Watters. This extra burden, in situations with certain characteristics, can be enough to drag down their performance. We call this burden stereotype vulnerability. Whether or not a student consciously accepts the negative stereotype, he or she must deal with the stereotype. At inopportune times, such as in the middle of taking a test, the mental energy used to combat the stereotype distract from the matter at hand.

For some African American students the goal of educational achievement becomes so daunting that they de-emphasize the importance of schooling and measure their success in different arenas, such as through their relationships with peers. Steele calls this phenomenon disidentification with education. To make matters worse, Steele wrote in the Atlantic, once disidentification occurs in a school, it can spread like the common cold. Peer pressure to disidentify can become fierce.

Tested Stereotype Vulnerability

During the 1980s and 1990s, Steele has conducted many studies to test his concept of stereotype vulnerability. For example, with Joshua Aronson, he asked two groups of African American and white college students to take a 30-minute test made up of questions from the verbal section of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) that were sufficiently difficult to test the limits of the participants skills. One group was told that the test would measure their intellectual ability, while the other group was told the test was simply a problem-solving laboratory and could not measure intellectual ability. The study results showed that the African American students in the first group performed lower than their white counterparts, though in the second group the whites and African Americans performed at the same level. Steele argued that the first group felt the pressure of the negative stereotype of lack of intellectual ability and fulfilled the expectation of lower performance.

Stereotype vulnerability, Steele found in later studies conducted with Steve Spencer, can be a barrier to achievement of other social groups. For example, Hispanics, or women in academic fields traditionally dominated by mensuch as mathematics and sciencemay have to combat the stereotype of incompetence. White men may have to deal with the stereotype that Asian men outperform whites on certain math exams. And the elderly often have to deal with the negative image of forgetfulness as a product of age.

According to Steele, the concept of stereotype vulnerability even applies to race relations. I think much of what is mistaken for racial animosity in America today is really stereotype vulnerability, he told Watters. When African Americans and whites interact, they each have to deal with negative stereotypes of their own groups. The whites do not want to be taken for racists, while the African Americans want to deny negative stereotypes of their race. With so much happening at the self-image level, interactions may be uncomfortable and be misunderstood as hostility. The groups may decide the interaction is not worth the effort and give up.

Recommended Educational Reforms

For decades special programs have been in place at learning institutions nationwide to improve the academic performance of African Americans. However, Steeles research points to the faulty basis of many such programsinstead of challenging students to succeed, they expect them to fail. Steele believes that he has pinpointed the changes necessary to make the American school system better serve its students. If what is meaningful and important to a teacher is to become meaningful and important to a student, the student must feel valued by the teacher for his or her potential as a person, Steele argued in the Atlantic.

Furthermore, students must be challenged: their skill level should be considered and the students moved along at a pace that is demanding, but not defeating. Schools must be racially integrated, and African American literature, art, music, and political and social perspectives must be an integral part of the curriculum, not just relegated to a few special times of the school year or to special topics courses. By taking these actions, Steele told Magner, youre telling black students in a profound way you believe they have ability.

At the University of Michigan, incoming African American students had been labeled at risk and given special mentoring and other programs, to no avail. Based on the results of Steeles studies, in 1991the year Steele left the University of Michigan for Stanford Universitythe University of Michigan began a different kind of trial project. In the 21st Century Program, incoming students were randomly selected and, as freshmen, were housed in the same dormitory. They were required to take a certain number of the same classes with other students from the dormitory and attend workshops and group study. Instead of remediating the students, all were expected to excel, and instead of self-segregating, the students remained an integrated unit. In three of four years of the pilot project, the grade gap between African American and white students decreased significantly.

Supported Affirmative Action

Steele has supported affirmative action, though he admitted to Ben Gose in the Chronicle of Higher Education that it has so many meandering excesses that it makes it difficult for anyone to defend it. He has realized that although minority programs can contribute to stereotype vulnerability, many African Americans who are given the opportunity to attend universities can excel under conditions that eliminate the vulnerability, as seen with the 21st Century Program. Claudes brother, Shelby, a professor of English at San Jose State University, is one of Claudes harshest critics on this subject.

In his best-selling collection of essays, Content of Our Character (1990), Shelby described his concept of racial vulnerability, which is similar to Claudes theory of stereotype vulnerability. Shelby further maintained that African Americans who underperform are suffering from their own internalized inferiority complex and should throw off the status of victims. Claude has disagreed wholeheartedly. These kids want to make it, he told Watters. These kids are in their dorm rooms confronting the beast of their deepest fears. Instead of telling them that it is their responsibility to overcome the psychology that they are feeling in their gut, lets get rid of the beast.

Relations between the Steele brothers have long been strained. At one point, Shelby accused Claude of stealing his ideas, particularly concerning vulnerability to racial stereotypes. Claude denied the accusation and explained how their similar concepts differ. About Shelby, Claude told Watters, I think of it as almost an unfortunate detail that we wound up following similar terrain and coming down on an issue like affirmative action on different sides. It suggests a bigger difference than there really is, he added. The brothers have agreed not to publicly discuss each others work.

Claude Steeles concept of stereotype vulnerability is likely to elicit debate for some time to come. Many scholars believe that stereotyping can affect academic performance, but they maintain that it is only one of numerous factors that work together. Charles Murray, in his controversial book The Bell Curve, co-authored with Richard J. Herrnstein, maintains that genetic factors explain the difference in intellectual performance between ethnic groups. Murray challenged Claude Steele to conduct studies that measure intelligence quotient and cognitive ability, not just verbal or mathematical ability. Steele had planned to do just that.

Steele would like to see the fruit of his research put to practical use and has begun to write a book discussing his recommendations for school reform. About narrowing the gap in academic achievement among various minority groups, Steele told Gose, If I could wave a wand and change the schools tomorrow, I dont think it would take that long.


Atlantic Monthly, April 1992, pp. 68-78.

Boston Globe, November 18, 1994, p. 23.

Chronicle of Higher Education, April 1, 1992, p. A5; August 18, 1995, p. A31.

Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1995, pp. Al, A14.

Newsweek, November 6, 1995, pp. 82-83.

New York Times, August 31, 1995, p. A25.

New York Times Magazine, September 17,1995, pp. 45-47.

San Francisco Chronicle, October 31, 1994, p. A23; August 12, 1995, p. A15.

Jeanne M. Lesinski

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Steele, Claude M.

Steele, Claude M. 1946





One of the most influential social scientists of the past five decades, the American social psychologist Claude Mason Steele is best known for two conceptually related lines of research and theorizing: the effects of negative stereotypes on the achievement and identities of minorities and women and peoples psychological adaptation to self-image threats. He has also conducted research on the psychological effects of alcohol consumption.


In 1988 Steele published what would become the most widely embraced modification of Leon Festingers theory of cognitive dissonance, arguably social psychologys most influential theory of human motivation. Festinger (1957) had proposed that when people become aware of holding two inconsistent cognitions (e.g., I smoke cigarettes and smoking is unhealthy), they are motivated to reduce the resulting psychological discomfort by restoring consistency (e.g., by persuading themselves that smoking is not really very harmful). Steele challenged the central tenet of dissonance theorythat people find inconsistency per se uncomfortable and have a fundamental need for consistency between cognitions. Steele proposed that people are bothered not by mere psychological inconsistency but by the negative portrayal of the self that the inconsistency implies. Like earlier dissonance revisionists (e.g., E. Aronson 1969), Steele stressed the critical role of the self-concept in mediating the induction and reduction of dissonance, but unlike them, he rejected any inherent human preference for consistency, relegating inconsistency to a mere signal that the integrity of the self-image is under threat. For Steele, the psychic origin of dissonance phenomena is the actors desire to maintain a sense of global self-integrity, and this desire supersedes any need for consistency.

Steele further posited a self-system comprising self-conceptions, values, talents, and so on, which make up a pool of resources upon which the actor may draw to restore a sense of self-integrity when self-image threats arise. This fact, Steele proposed, gives the actor a great deal of flexibility in responding to self-threats. Employing Festingers oft-used example of the cigarette smoker who reduces dissonance by downplaying the risks of smoking, Steele argued that the smoker can maintain a sense of global integrity by reminding himself or herself of virtues in other domains of his or her life (Im a great father, Im a valuable member of the church, etc.). Such self-affirmations restore global self-esteem, thus allowing the individual to tolerate the self-threat implied by smoking despite the evidence that smoking is unhealthy.

Steele and his students tested the self-affirmation formulation by replicating standard dissonance paradigms in which a person is induced to engage in dissonance-arousing behavior (choosing between equally attractive gifts, writing a counter-attitudinal essay in support of an unpopular social policy, etc.) and then has his or her attitudes (e.g., toward the gifts or social policy) measured. If participants were given a self-affirmation of some sort (e.g., writing a few sentences about an important value), they showed no evidence of dissonance; in a wide variety of studies (Steele 1988), self-affirmations eliminated the attitude change that typically results from inducing dissonance.

Self-affirmation became influential as much for its highly transportable methodological paradigmusing value affirmations, for exampleas for its theoretical alternative to dissonance. Examining the role of self-esteem threat has since become a thriving enterprise, as researchers can easily induce self-affirmation into the study of a variety of social-psychological phenomena, such as persuasion (e.g., Cohen, Aronson, and Steele 2000), prejudice (e.g., Fein and Spencer 1997), health (e.g., Creswell et al. 2005), and underachievement (e.g., Cohen et al. 2006). Although debate still continues on the role of inconsistency in cognitive dissonance, self-affirmation theory has established itself as a staple in current social psychology.


Dissatisfied with the standard explanations for African Americans lagging test scores and achievement and viewing many phenomena through the hospitable lens of self-affirmation theory, Steele proposed a social-psychological alternative to the standard explanations that focused either on poverty or genetic differences in average intelligence. Steele proposed that black students face a self-threatening situational predicament that occurs as a result of their awareness of unflattering racial stereotypes. In a widely read article published in the Atlantic (Steele 1992), he proposed the possibility that African Americans are hampered by the stigma of intellectual inferioritya phenomenon that later came to be called stereotype threat (Steele and Aronson 1995). In situations where the stereotype is applicable, such as during an intelligence test, African Americans face an extra psychological burden not felt by a comparable white student taking the same test, a sense of risk that the test may confirm a racial inferiority coupled with a heightened motivation to disprove the stereotype. Such a situation, Steele argued, generates anxiety, distraction, and other psychological impediments to test performance. Steele further proposed that, over time, students would defend against stereotype threat by disidentifying with academics, that is, reducing the extent to which they based their self-esteem on doing well academically.

A series of experiments performed with Joshua Aronson (Steele and Aronson 1995) offered strong support for the predictions about test performance. In each of the experiments African American college students performed significantly better on a standardized verbal test when the test was presented in a way that minimized the concern with confirming the stereotype. For example, in one experiment the test takers were told that the test was either a measure of their intelligence or that it was a nonevaluative laboratory problem-solving exercise. While this difference had no effect on white test takers, African American test takers performed nearly twice as well when the test was portrayed as nonevaluative.

These experiments drew national attention among educators and were referred to in two U.S. Supreme Court cases debating the use of affirmative action policies in hiring and college admissions. A publicized disagreement about the wisdom of affirmative action between Steele and his twin brother, Shelby Steele, the noted conservative scholar, drew additional attention to the research. Subsequent research confirmed the utility of the theory for understanding gender gaps in mathematics achievement, demonstrating that stereotype threat had similar effects on the mathematics performance of females (Spencer, Steele, and Quinn 1999).

In the decade after 1995 well over a hundred replications of stereotype threat effects on test performance were published, marking it as one of the most influential theories in the history of social psychology. Critics of the theory debate the degree to which stereotype threat underlies test-score gaps in the real world, but the theory has generated a handful of successful intervention studies that demonstrate that by reducing stereotype threat, race and gender test-score gaps are significantly reduced (Aronson, Fried, and Good 2002; Cohen et al. 2006; Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht 2003).


Steele and his students also conducted research on the psychological effects of alcohol consumption, documenting what they referred to as alcohol myopia, (Steele and Josephs 1990), the effect of narrowing the drinkers focus upon immediate events and stimuli and reducing focus upon distant events, stimuli, or thoughts. Steele and his students documented that this narrowed focus plays a role in alcohols well-known reduction of social inhibitions and reduction of emotional stress. After holding positions at the University of Utah, the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University, Steele became the director of the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

SEE ALSO Achievement Gap, Racial; Alcoholism; Cognitive Dissonance; Festinger, Leon; Intelligence; Motivation; Priming; Self-Affirmation Theory; Self-Concept; Self-System; Social Psychology; Stereotype Threat; Stereotypes; Underachievers


Aronson, E. 1969. The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: A Current Perspective. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 4, ed. L. Berkowitz, 134. New York: Academic.

Aronson, J., G. Cohen, and P. R. Nail. 1998. Self-Affirmation Theory: An Update and Appraisal. In Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology, ed. E. Harmon Jones and J. Mills, 127147. Washington, DC: APA Books.

Aronson, J., C. Fried, and C. Good. 2002. Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38: 113125.

Cohen, G., J. Aronson, and C. M. Steele. 2000. When Beliefs Yield to Evidence: Reducing Biased Evaluation by Affirming the Self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26 (9): 11511164.

Cohen, G. L., J. Garcia, N. Apfel, and A. Master. 2006. Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention. Science 313: 13071310.

Creswell, J. D., W. Welch, S. E. Taylor, et al. 2005. Affirmation of Personal Values Buffers Neuroendocrine and Psychological Stress Responses. Psychological Science 16 (11): 846851.

Fein, S., and S. J. Spencer. 1997. Prejudice as Self-Image Maintenance: Affirming the Self through Derogating Others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73: 3144.

Festinger, L. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Good, C., J. Aronson, and M. Inzlicht. 2003. Improving Adolescents Standardized Test Performance: An Intervention to Reduce the Effects of Stereotype Threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 24: 645662.

Spencer, S. J., C. M. Steele, and D. M. Quinn. 1999. Stereotype Threat and Womens Math Performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35: 428.

Steele, C. M. 1988. The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 21, ed. L. Berkowitz, 261302. New York: Academic.

Steele, C. M. 1992. Race and the Schooling of Black Americans. Atlantic Monthly. April: 6878.

Steele, C. M. 1997. A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Ability and Performance. American Psychologist 52: 613629.

Steele, C. M., and J. Aronson. 1995. Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797811.

Steele, C. M., and R. A. Josephs. 1990. Alcohol Myopia: Its Prized and Dangerous Effects. American Psychologist 45: 921933.

Joshua Aronson

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