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Whistling Vivaldi (Book review)

written by Coert Visser 14 May 2010

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Whistling vivaldiBOOK REVIEW: Steele, C.M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (Issues of Our Time). New York, W.W. Norton & Company.

Claude Steele

Claude Steele

This book by social psychologist and Columbia University provost, Claude Steele, is a splendid example of how psychologists can make valuable contributions to society. In the book, Steele writes about the work he and his colleagues have done on a phenomenon called stereotype threat, the tendency to expect, perceive, and be influenced by negative stereotypes about one’s social category, such as one’s age, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, profession, nationality, political affiliation, mental health status, and so on.

Experiments demonstrating the impact of stereotype threat

When trying to understand certain performance gaps between groups, Steele and his colleagues did not focus on internal psychological factors.. Instead, they tried to understand the possible causal role of identity contingencies, the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity. Over the years they carried out a series of creative experiments in which there was a control condition in which a task was given under normal conditions life. In the experimental condition, the identity contingency was either cleverly removed or it was deliberately induced. Here are three examples of experiments to clarify how they worked.

Experiment 1: Steele and Aronson (1995)

In this experiment the researchers had African American and white college students take a very challenging standardized test. In the control condition, the test was presented as these tests are always presented – as a measure of intellectual ability. This condition contained the stereotype that African Americans would be less intelligent. In the experimental condition the test was presented in a non-evaluative way. The test takers were told that the researchers were not interested in measuring their ability with the test but that they just wanted to use the test to examine the psychology of verbal problem solving.

In the control condition, the African American test takers, on average, scored much lower than the white test takers. For the white test takers there was no difference in their scores between the control condition and the experimental condition. For the African American test takers there was a big difference between the control condition and the experimental condition. They solved about twice as many problems on the test in the experimental condition. Moreover, there was no difference between the performance of the black test takers and the white test takers.

Experiment 2: Aronson, Lustina, Good, Keough, Steele & Brown (1999)

In this experiment, the researchers asked highly competent white males to take a difficult math test. In the control condition the test was taken normally. In the experimental condition, the researchers told the test takers that one of their reasons for doing the research was to understand why Asians seemed to perform better on these tests. Thus, they artificially created a stereotype threat. In the experimental condition, the test takers solved significantly fewer of the problems on the test and felt less confident about their performance.

Experiment 3: Shih, Pittinsky & Ambady (1999)

In this experiment, a difficult math test was given to Asian women under three conditions. In condition one, they were subtly reminded of their Asian identity, in condition 2 they were subtly reminded of their female identity. In the control condition they were not reminded of their identity. The women reminded of their Asianness performed better than the control group, whereas those reminded of their female identity performed worse than the control group.

How does stereotype threat harm performance?

Today, research on stereotype threat effects is done throughout the world by many researchers. Much insight has been gained into what it is and how it works. Briefly, you know your group identity and you know how society views it. You are aware that you are doing a task for which that view is relevant. You know, at some level, that you are in a predicament: your performance could confirm a bad view of your group and of yourself as a member of that group. You may not consciously feel anxious but your blood pressure rises and you begin to sweat. Your thinking changes. Your mind starts to race: you become vigilant to all things relevant to the threat and to what your chances of avoiding it are.

The book title comes from an observed behavior: an African American whistling Vivaldi to make clear that certain stereotypes attached to the group don’t apply. You get some self-doubts and start to worry about how warranted the stereotype may be. You start to constantly monitor how well you are doing. You try hard to suppress threatening thoughts about not doing well or about the negative consequences of possibly failing. While you are having all of these thoughts you are distracted from the task at hand and your concentration and working memory suffer.

Does it always happen? No. There is only one prerequisite for stereotype threat to happen: the person in question must care about the performance in question. The fear of confirming the negative stereotype then becomes upsetting enough to interfere with performance. It is now known that stereotype has the strongest negative impact when people are highly motivated and performing at the frontier of their skills.

Solutions: bridging performance gaps through small interventions

Can something be done about it? Yes. The promising news is that there are some rather small interventions which can help a lot. Experiments have shown that subtly removing or preventing stereotype threats can completely or largely eliminate performance gaps between stereotyped groups and non-stereotyped groups.

Examples of helpful interventions are:

  1. Make it clear in the way you give critical feedback that you use high standards and let the person know that you expect him or her to be able to eventually succeed.
  2. Improve the number of people from the social category in the setting so that a critical mass is reached.
  3. Make it clear that you value diversity.
  4. Foster inter-group conversations and frame these as a learning experience.
  5. Allow the stereotyped individuals to use self-affirmations.
  6. Help the stereotyped individuals to develop a narrative about the setting that explains their frustrations while projecting positive engagement and success in the setting.


The tone of the book is informal, friendly, and personal, and the content is profound. The topic is highly relevant both to the development of social psychology and to the development of our educational systems and societies at large. Of course it also can inspire positive psychology research: how have certain individuals managed to overcome stereotype threat, how do certain organizations manage to bridge performance gaps, how do societies manage to do the same?



Steele, C.M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (Issues of Our Time). New York, W.W. Norton & Company.

Steele, C.M. & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69, 797-811

I am especially in awe of the work Steele has done in collaboration with Joshua Aronson, who is now an eminent professor at New York University.

Four Heads are Better Than One (Algonauts) courtesy of Unhindered by Talent
Summer Glau @ Serenity Premiere (whistling woman) courtesy of RavenU
School friends courtesy of woodleywonderworks

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Kristen 14 May 2010 - 8:19 am

Wow – never heard of stereotype threat before, but it makes perfect sense, and is an excellent example of the power of positive thinking. As for myself, if someone were to imply that I would not succeed at something, I’d be MORE determined to overcome that perception. But I can understand how those with poor self-image, negative outlook, and victim mentalities can let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Thanks for the review of the book and introduction to the topic.

Coert Visser 14 May 2010 - 8:33 am

Thanks for your comment Kirsten!

Elta 14 May 2010 - 9:19 am

Another Wow & thanks Coert, I could never resist a ‘dare’!
PS. Reminded me of the Pygmalion Principle

Coert Visser 14 May 2010 - 9:20 am

thanks Elta! glad you like it


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