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"It's like there's a snake in the house."

By Nisma Elias '12 on November 03, 2011 03:05 PM

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Renowned psychologist Claude Steele spoke about stereotypes and social identity before a packed audience in the chapel in Eliot Hall last night for Reed's first Community Reading Project. "Our social identity comes from our group memberships and the social categories to which we belong: age, sex, religion, race, social class, mental health status, the list goes on," explained Steele, whose book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do explores how we construct our sense of who we are.

For the past 25 years, Steele has investigated the concept of identity contingencies--issues that a person has to deal with because they belong to a particular social category. "All identities have negative consequences," he said. As a result, we get frustrated when we don't want to shoehorn ourselves into those negative stereotypes (a term Steele coins as 'stereotype threat'), which leads to underperformance.

When women feel pressurized to score higher in math tests, or white athletes in basketball, they all feel as if "there is a snake in the house," as Steele put it, and actually do worse than if they had never been aware of such contingencies, leading to the underperformance phenomenon.

Steele's talk and follow-up Q & A session provided an illuminating perspective into the way we personalize negative stereotypes and allow them to control the way we behave, in most cases, without our explicit knowledge.