Inside the Psychologist’s Studio: Claude SteeleArticles . Blog
Elizabeth Phelps: Thank you, and thank you for being
here. When I was first asked as president Elizabeth Phelps: Thank you, and thank you for being
here. When I was first asked as president of APS who I’d want to interview, the person
that jumped to mind was Claude Steele. Claude is one of the rare psychological scientists
who has, in my opinion, changed the world. His groundbreaking discoveries of how our
own identity and sense of self interacts with our social environments to affect our behavior
provided a novel lens under which to think about the influence of social factors in psychology.
He showed how a disadvantageous pairing between our social identity and a social situation
can have a seemingly subtle impact on behavior with potentially profound consequences.
Prior to this interview I was talking to my friend and collaborator, Mahzarin Banaji,
who worked with you as a postdoc, about Claude, and I was trying to put my finger on what
it is about Claude’s work that I find so compelling, and she summed it up for me perfectly:
she called Claude the Albert Einstein of social psychology. So, no pressure Claude.
What she meant by this was, much like Einstein was said to have this gift of instinct, to
see the world in a unique way that changed physics, Claude’s gift is that sort of natural
instinct to see the world, the social world, and the person in it, in a unique way that
perfectly captures that interaction. So, before I begin talking to Claude about
his research and his life, I want to give you a little of Claude’s background, so
I’m just going to go through his academic history.
He was an undergraduate at Hiram College, in Ohio, and went to Ohio State University,
where he received his PhD. His first faculty position was at the University of Utah, which
he left after a few years to take a position at the University of Washington, Seattle.
He then served on the faculty at University of Michigan for several years, and from there,
went on to Stanford University for 18 years. While at Stanford, he eventually served in
a number of administrative positions, including the Director of the Center of Comparative
Studies of Race and Ethnicity; the Director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral
Sciences; and the Dean of the Stanford Graduate School for Education. He left Stanford to
become Provost at Columbia University in New York City, and has recently started a new
position as the Provost of the University of California at Berkeley.
Needless to say, Claude has countless academic publications, and received numerous awards
and honors, including being elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences. I could
go on and on about Claude, as you can imagine, and talk about his publications, but I don’t
really think anyone is here to listen to me talk about Claude, I think they’re here
to hear Claude talk about Claude, so we’ll just get to it.
I just want to thank you, to start, for agreeing to sit down with me today, it’s just such
an honor for me. Claude Steele: It’s a big honor for me… and to
get to talk about yourself, I mean, who could turn that down?
Phelps: Well, every good psychologist knows you should let somebody else talk about themselves,
right? I want to start at the very beginning, if
you don’t mind, I just want to ask you if you could just fill us in on your background,
your family, where you grew up, and really how you got inspired to end up at Hiram College
and studying psychology. Steele: I’m not sure that that really called
on a lot of inspiration. I went there, my mother had gone to that college, and when
I got out of high school, or I was graduating from high school, I applied there and the
University of Illinois. I grew up in Chicago, and so those seemed to be, in those days,
the two options. I was a swimmer, and Hiram College gave me a swimming scholarship, so,
it was easy, I went there. Phelps: Did you know, when you went there,
that you wanted to study psychology? Steele: No, no I didn’t. If I had to answer
that question, I would have said I wanted to be a dentist, because the guy, the dentist
in my neighborhood, was named Claude, and he had a very attractive wife, and I thought,
how bad could it be to be a dentist? So, you know how kids at that age…
So, I went pretty much unknowing about psychology, as I’m afraid too many college kids come
in without much exposure to psychology as a field. But when I took the first psychology
course, it was nothing to brag about, this was the day, this was the height of behaviorism,
and the reduction of all psychology to behavior. I remember the first lecture was, the first
thing the lecturer said was, “Don’t think that psychology is about the mind, it’s
about behavior,” that was the ethos of the day. And I still liked it.
Phelps: Did you disagree, when you were in that class?
Steele: I thought it was interesting, what he said, and I wanted to know what he meant.
I found behaviorism fascinating, and still do, maybe as many psychologists of my age
do. You know, it was turned over within a short number of years as the major paradigm
in psychology, and kind of lost as the driving framework for the field. But, there were many
exciting, interesting things about it, about the regulation, that you could regulate yourself
through regulating behavior, and B.F. Skinner was the most radical version of that, he had
all these interesting self-modification programs and self-improvement programs. That was kind
of the tenor of the times, there was excitement around that idea.
Phelps: Were there any early mentors or role models that inspired you along this path?
Steele: There was. Ralph Sebula and George Morgan were the psychology professors, and
Ray Knight, were the psychology professors at Hiram when I went there, and for some reason,
maybe they were recruiting kids to be psychology majors, I don’t know, but they seemed interested
in me. So I took psychology courses, and you know how things just came together, I loved
it. I didn’t know I was going to feel that way about, but once I was in there, I felt
very comfortable in psychology, and I liked all parts of it.
Phelps: You gave up the idea of being a dentist named Claude.
Steele: Yeah. Soon it seemed kind of ridiculous, that I could have been
Phelps: Your prefrontal cortex wasn’t wholly there yet, so it’s okay.
So then you went to the Ohio State University, which has a history of excellent training
in social psychology. What was the topic of your graduate research, and what did you take
from it? Steele: Supererogatory Indirect Attitude Change
was the title of my dissertation. Phelps: That was the title?! Want to unpack
that for us? Steele: Boy if I can remember that… but
I’ll say this about Ohio State, I had the good fortune to go there when Tim Brock and
Tony Greenwald and Bibb Latané and Tom Ostrom, my advisor, were all going to make that a
strong social psychology program. It’s one of those real fortuitous turns of life, that
you go to a place when the place all of a sudden starts to form and take shape. That
was a very fortunate turn of events for me. I did work on the idea that a persuasive message
directed at one argument could have an effect on some other related argument, and sometimes
even unrelated arguments, and the dissertation was trying to figure out how on earth could
that happen. The way I’d characterize the general problem is it was sort of early social
cognition, that’s kind of what Tom Ostrom eventually moved into was a clear focus on
social cognition as an approach to social psychology.
Phelps: So if you were to go back and read your dissertation today, how do you think
you would evaluate it? Steele: Wow. First, I’d hope it was written
well, and I don’t know, I feel a little trepidatious about that.
Phelps: Do you have a copy anywhere? Steele: I bet I have a copy somewhere. I’ve
moved a lot. Phelps: They have one at Ohio State probably.
Steele: And you lose things when you move so I can’t guarantee that. I may have a
copy. Maybe I’ll go back and look at it. Phelps: Yeah it’d be interesting.
So your first research lab was at the University of Utah. What was the first study you did
when you actually had your own lab? Steele: We called innocent women in Salt Lake
City on the telephone… Phelps: You knew they were innocent?
Steele: They were randomly picked. Maybe I didn’t know that, but I presumed that…
and we insulted them. Then we called them back two days later and asked them to cooperate
with a food co-op by listing everything in their kitchens. These were the days when compliance,
what made people comply, was a big question. I had the idea that people might comply in
order to just feel better about themselves, so if you did something relatively minor that
made them feel not so good about themselves… Like, we would say on the phone… I’m not
proud of this, I have to stress… Phelps: It’s a little odd to call innocent
women and insult them. Steele: This was social psychology before
IRB’s. We’d say, in the way of setting up the call, “It’s pretty much common
knowledge that women in your community aren’t very good drivers” or “They aren’t very
cooperative with community projects,” we would say something like that, and then they’d
get a call two days later asking them to do this long and involved thing. And low and
behold, if they’d gotten a prior call that was negative, they were more compliant, they
helped a lot more than they did if you said nothing. There, we had a finding, and we published
it, and I would say, interestingly, it did provide a foundation for what later became
research on self-affirmation processes. It did have a life later, but it took a long
time for that to happen. The most interesting part of the finding was that people were called
a name about one thing, but they were willing to do something completely unrelated that
would make themselves feel better, more willing to do that, even though it couldn’t redress
the name they were called at all. Why would that be? How could unrelated things work like
that? That finding undergirded self-affirmation theory.
Phelps: Your first major theoretical contribution. So you only stayed at University of Utah a
few years, and then you went to University of Washington, how come you moved so quickly?
Steele: African-Americans in Salt Lake City in 1971…
Phelps: It was not pretty? Steele: It wasn’t a comfortable situation.
Dorothy my wife and I, we’d never been west of the Mississippi, so I just didn’t know
what it would be like. This was in the days when the Mormon Church was very different
than it is now, and it had explicit strictures against blacks… we were in housing discrimination
suits right away. Phelps: Oh my goodness.
Steele: We looked quickly to get out, and got out to Seattle, and that was wonderful.
Phelps: So were there any other primary challenges you’d say, aside from that, early in your
career that you had to face? Steele: Well yeah, I say this, I have a great
deal of empathy for young people in the field. Finding a problem to work on, and getting
a program of research that can be productive, was an effort, and it took me a while to do
it. Phelps: Well you started right away, it sounded
like. Granted, it was an odd avenue to take, to call women and insult them on the phone…
Steele: Yeah… you had to be there. It was the times.
Phelps: But it sounds like you jumped into something, maybe your whole theory didn’t
evolve there, but at least you fairly quickly got into a topic that really intrigued you
enough. So let’s move to that, you spent close to 20 years at the University of Washington,
and that was really the place where I think you developed self-affirmation theory more
fully, and really became well known and popular. Can you just kind of tell us about your intellectual
path that led you to develop that idea, and what is your view of the significance of this
work in the field of psychology? Steele: … You learn a lot from teaching,
and certainly, I think I learned the most about social psychology from teaching it.
In the process, you have ideas, and I’d always wondered about cognitive dissonance
theory, which was certainly the dominant framework of the day. The idea was a profound idea,
that mental life was driven forward by a need for cognitive consistency, consistency among
important ideas, perceptions… Phelps: I always though cognitive dissonance
explained graduate school, you know… you don’t get paid any money, you work really
hard, you don’t get a lot of reward, and yet you love it.
Steele: And you say you love it, and then you have a consistent set of cognition! Exactly,
that’s a perfect example… But I always wondered, is it really consistency
that people are after in these experiments, these dissonance experiments, because I could
just see from real life that people every day tolerated inconsistencies pretty easily.
So the alternative idea was that people aren’t concerned about consistency, they’re concerned
about maintaining an ongoing image of the self as good and competent and adaptively
adequate, morally competent and adequate, and that inconsistency of the sort used in
dissonance experiments, what that does is to puncture that self-image, and then we scramble
around to repair it, and that’s what is dissonance reduction, that’s that rationalization
that tries to eliminate the inconsistency. If what I was arguing was true, you could
do something that would just repair this global image of self-competence. If you could repair
that image, and leave the inconsistency intact, people would tolerate the inconsistency because
they didn’t care about it. What they cared about was this larger image of a coherent,
competent sense of self. That’s what we embarked on in the research, you can see that
came out of that name calling research; people would, after they’d been made to feel not
so good, they would do things even unrelated to the charge, the name, in order to feel
better. It was about maintaining this sense of
self, and that that’s what drives mental life and psychological life forward, is this
ongoing motor, this engine, which we all have all the time, that tries to maintain an image
of ourselves as morally and adaptively adequate, it takes a lot of work and that we’re always
doing it, we’re knitting together a perception of the self that way. If I could just affirm
that, people would tolerate all kinds of inconsistencies, and that’s basically what our experiments
were about, and that led to the manipulation of self-affirmation.
The theory sort of lived on in time because of the manipulation, it turned out that if
you affirm people, if you allow them to affirm something as very important and central to
them, we can take negative information better, we can admit to health problems better, we
can do all kinds of things because we have this global sense of self restored, and then
we’re better able to deal with, to tolerate inconsistencies and threats of lesser sorts.
Phelps: So if you had to give advice, practical advice, based on self-affirmation theory,
what would it be? Steele: I would say, and I think we know this
at some intuitive level, that before you make judgments about things, get a little distance,
a little perspective, because that allows for this larger sense of who you are to come
into play, come into view, and contextualize the particular, which otherwise will run away
with you and capture you. You get sort of tunneled into dealing with that particular
thing, but you know, if a couple days go by, you’ve had a good conversation with a friend,
you saw a good movie, I don’t know, whatever your remedies are… even have a good drink,
because that’s also one of things that we looked at… that particular thing is no longer
that capturing of you. Phelps: So, speaking of drinking, when you were
at University of Washington, you started to get involved in research on alcohol addiction,
which is a little odd for a social psychologist, so how’d that happen?
Steele: I can remember that, thinking, “Boy, not only is my career off to a slow start,
but here I am studying this problem that nobody in my field cares about! What kind of judgment
is this that I lack?” It just came about because it was one of the
flagship problems in the psych department at the University of Washington at the time.
Alan Marlatt, a great alcohol addictive behaviors researcher, was a good friend, we played poker
together, and he would tell me about these things, and I went away on a vacation, and
I just had an idea. I thought, “I bet that’s true,” and then I came back and did a very
primitive meta-analysis of the literature, and it supported that.
Phelps: On alcohol addiction? Steele: The idea was that the main thing alcohol
does to you is fuzzy up your thinking, you can’t see the consequences of your action,
you can’t see norms of conduct that you’d normally bring to bear. All that’s blind,
you’re in a myopia; all you see is what’s in front of you. So if what’s in front of
you is an impulse to do something that, if you were sober, you’d normally just hold
it in, but if alcohol robs you of this capacity, your behavior is going to be more excessive
and more extreme. A lot had been looked at in the literature
with regard to aggression and things of that sort, but to make this point, we tried to
show that you’d even be more helpful. If you were intoxicated, and somebody asked you
to do something that was helpful, but that was really onerous, and you did not want to
do, and that when you were sober and in possession of your resources, your faculties, you would
not do it; that was the control group. If you got a little drunk, you would do it. That’s
what that research focused on. Phelps: So you brought people into the laboratory
and you gave them beers? What’d you do, how did this work?
Steele: Yeah, we gave them vodka and tonics… Uh, this literature, this was fun doing this
research, I have to say. But, we used to get people’s blood alcohol level to .08, and
that’s sort of, in the literature, where you’re good and intoxicated at that point.
Takes about 45 minutes, depending on your body weight, about three drinks, and you’re
kind of flying. When you’re flying, and the experimenter comes in and says, “Look
would help me do more…” and this horrible, boring, decoding task, where you had to cross
the A’s and E’s out of a paragraph of legal jargon, and you’ve already done it
and you’re tired of it, and when you’re sober you say “No thanks, I gotta go,”
but when you’re drunk like that and you’re flying, you say “Yeah, sure, I’ll help
ya!” So that was fun. Phelps: So that was the theory of alcohol
myopia, correct? Steele: Yeah, it also had a part of it that,
why does alcohol make you reduce anxiety and depression and so on. The idea was the same
thing, it fuzzies up your thinking, so that you can only think about what’s myopically
in front of you, and if you put something, like a party or a baseball game or something
you like, in that little aperture of remaining capacity, if you stick that in there, you’re
gonna have a good time. Alcohol creates a euphoria, because it blocks out all those
disturbing worries and things, and focuses you on this little thing.
Phelps: So this concept of this myopia, is it a component of other addictive behaviors,
like us constantly checking our iPhones, or something like that?
Steele: I think it is! I’ve thought about that, yeah…
Phelps: So when you’re in meetings with undergraduates, and they’re checking they’re
iPhones when they’re in a conversation with the provost, you think about that?
Steele: I wish I was in conversations with more undergraduates, I’m usually in conversations
with lawyers at this point. Phelps: Are they checking their iPhones all
the time? Steele: They’re checking their iPhones.
Phelps: That’s annoying. So what did you love about University of Washington? You were
there for an awfully long time. Steele: Yeah, we loved the city, we loved
our life there. Our kids were born and raised there, and Seattle is a really smart, cool
town, and we felt fortunate to have wound up there. It had jazz, it had environmental
beauty, all kinds of things that make you happy.
Phelps: You know, you said earlier that you felt like you had a slow start to your career,
and then you moved into alcohol… why do you feel that was slow? Because you got sort
of two major theories going early on. Steele: Well, I didn’t tell you about those
years there, between the name calling experiment and the emergence of those two lines of research,
and there was a good six or seven years in there that were pretty anxiety arousing, I
have to say. Phelps: Was that around the tenure time?
Steele: Yeah, during the tenure time, and I’ve described this before, I could do scattered
experiments, and get them published, and I got tenure. But they were unrelated, and I
didn’t really know how to get a program of research going, and I always admired Stanley
Schachter’s work, and I reread all of it one summer, and I thought, “That’s how
you do it!” You get a problem and you get some data and you figure out the best interpretation
you can for what that data is, and then you test that, in the most creative way you can,
and then you track down a problem that way, experiment after experiment, a narrative starts
to unfold. Once I understood that, I understood how to get these, the product of that understanding
was the getting of these two lines of research going.
Phelps: Did you ever meet Stanley Schachter? Steele: I’ve never met him.
Phelps: His work sort of taught you how to be a…
Steele: Yeah, he was a great writer, he was a great writer, and that made the work and
the narrative very accessible. Phelps: So you’re a pretty good writer,
too, do you want to tell us about your writing process? What’s difficult for you, what’s
easy for you? Steele: Well, I do take writing very seriously,
I’ve always liked it, I’ve liked it all my life, I think I might have been a writer
if I hadn’t been a social psychologist, if I hadn’t found that field. I don’t
like being alone enough maybe to be a real novelist, and I like social psychology because
it’s so interactive, and all the ideas you have are a product of all the relationships
you have. I wrote this book about stereotype threat, in a way to convey how social the
birthing of ideas and experiments and questions, that’s what I loved about that. But the
writing part, I just like being clear and fun to read. I want to get that in the work
Phelps: Which is, I think, an underappreciated thing in psychology, or science in general,
just excellent writing that people can read and follow and see the story, and so I really
appreciate that about your work. Your book, that you just mentioned, which
is about stereotype threat, so I’m going to ask you about that in a second, but your
book’s called “Whistling Vivaldi, and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.”
So, Whistling Vivaldi, where did that come from?
Steele: That was a story from Brent Staples, who’s an editorialist for the New York Times,
African-American, and he wrote a book, a biography, and he described, a story in it was him walking
down the streets of Chicago, Hyde Park, as a graduate student. He’s a pretty big guy,
and finding that, he was making, his mere presence, was making whites feel uncomfortable,
and he realized that he was being seen through the lens of a stereotype. Now he’s a graduate
student, but he’s being seen as a potentially menacing black guy. So, he feels trapped by
this perception, and doesn’t know what to do, and incidentally, is trying to become
a whistler. So he practices… Phelps: That was a just a side habit?
Steele: He was doing this, you have to know Brent to make sense of this…
And so he starts whistling Beatles tunes and Vivaldi, which, I’ve only met one person
in real life who could whistle Vivaldi, but it can be done. So he’s going down the street
doing this, and people hear him, and they see him differently. It was just a story that
captured the phenomenon, the experience of sensing that you can be seen in terms of a
stereotype about your group, and not in terms of who you are, and that people are reacting
to you in terms of that, guided by that stereotype. Phelps: And did you experience that growing
up? Steele: Oh sure. Yeah… you know, we all
experience stereotypes, but I think maybe daily…
Phelps: But you weren’t thinking about it like that at the time?
Steele: No, no I had no idea of it. Although, in retrospect, I can, as I try to do in the
book, go back to periods of my life where I think it was particularly intense, and I,
maybe self servingly, who knows, as a theorist, but I interpret those experiences in terms
of stereotype threat. Graduate school. Phelps: Graduate school in particular.
Steele: Yeah. I mean, that’s what I talk about in the book, is that experience. There
are, of course, others, but at the time… it’s just a deduction from the world you’re
in, that’s one of the insights about it that surprised me the most. It’s not so
much who you really are, because I had one personality in my world that was pretty outgoing,
but in graduate school, there you are, the only African-American student in the whole
graduate program at the time. There was another guy, a year ahead of me. You just can’t
quite be confident that you’re not being seen in a certain way, or if you make a mistake,
you’re being judged in a certain way in terms of that stereotype, and this is a high
stakes situation you want to succeed in. You’ve bet on it, you’ve put yourself behind it,
so it’s a highly pressured situation, and it’s all about the thing that you’re group
is negatively stereotyped about. Who’s smart? Who’s really smart? Who’s good? Who’s
really good? There’s nobody in the field from your group who was really good.
So anyway, it’s those deductions from the cues from the elements of the situation that
just, like it or not, give you this problem to deal with.
Phelps: So your two early major contributions, self-affirmation theory, alcohol myopia, they
were pretty much University of Washington, and then you really didn’t start to investigate
stereotype threat so much until you got to University of Michigan, is that correct?
Steele: Didn’t start to think about that problem until I got to Michigan.
Phelps: So why’d you move there? And can you just take us on the path, the intellectual
path of how you developed that idea and that theory, and the things that inspired you?
Steele: Michigan had offered me a job that was half-time psychology and half-time directing
a minority support program at Michigan… Phelps: Did you get a lot of those offers
as a minority in academia? Steele: Oh yeah, so it wasn’t too surprising,
although Michigan’s a great social psychology program.
Phelps: Was it a burden, or was it something you looked forward to doing?
Steele: I was pretty good in my career avoiding administrative work for a long time…
Phelps: Until now Steele: Sounds ironic, and against recent
choices I’ve made. But at the time, I really wanted to do that, to go to Michigan to be
in the social psych program, because it was so exciting, such an atmosphere. But, I didn’t
want to do that program, so we said no. Then the next year they came back with a full job
in psychology, and I said yes. And I went there, and I felt a certain amount of liberation.
First, social psychology was strong, and was strong in Michigan, and that was nice to be
in a world where that was so well regarded. The program was sort of like a New York City
of social psychology, there were just ideas all over the place. I got put on a committee,
I describe this in the book, and I saw data that were a puzzle to me, that African-American
kids, even with very high test scores, were not doing as well as other kids with those
test scores. Why shouldn’t they? They’ve got comparable preparation here. They should
be doing as well in terms of grades and graduation rates. They weren’t, and still aren’t.
Why was that? That was the problem, and something about being in that different environment,
licensed me to take the problem as a problem to design research about. So, I feel a great
deal of gratitude to people that kind of implicitly allowed that to happen, and the really great
thinkers there, Bob Zajonc, and Hazel Markus, and Dick Nisbett, they changed problems, and
they didn’t stick with one problem, and that was, you can do that! So I did it, and
floundered in the woods for a long time before something coherent like stereotype threat
eventually emerged, probably five years. Phelps: So what was your first study on that
topic, that really, you think, crystalized some of your ideas?
Steele: Well, there was, with Steve Spencer; the two people, the two students who I worked
with during that era who are really intricately involved in everything about that work, was
Steve Spencer and Josh Aronson, and the first study Steve and I did with women and math,
because we found the same thing happened for women in advanced math courses, that was happening
to minority, to African-American’s across the board, and we found out that was a national
trend, it wasn’t just a Michigan problem. So we did an experiment to see if we could
bottle this thing in the laboratory, and then of course if you get it into the laboratory,
this is the beauty of social psychology, then you can take it apart, you can see how it’s
mediated, and what the parameters are, and what it generalizes to, but first you got
to get a hold of it experimentally, and so we brought in really good men and women math
students, and we gave them a half hour really difficult math test, and our prediction was
that for women, even though they were as good as the men, because we carefully matched them,
they wouldn’t do as well, because when they got frustrated, and this test was set up to
be frustrating, there’d be this extra worry that they were confirming what everybody seems
to think about women’s math ability. And sure enough, that happened, and eventually,
pretty quickly, we came up with a way of really proving, if I can use that word loosely, that
this suppression was stereotype threat by taking stereotype threat out of that situation,
and seeing their test scores go up. We took stereotype threat out of the situation simply
by telling them that, “You know, you may have heard that women aren’t as good as
men on difficult math tests, you might have heard that, but that’s not true for this
math test. The math test you’re taking today, women always do as well as men.” Now of
course, it was the same math test in which they’d underperformed when you didn’t
say anything, but when you said that, their performance went up to match that of equally
skilled men. And when that happened, I knew we had something. I knew that there was some
piece of psychology that was a part of this, and that it was a powerful piece, because
it could affect intellectual performance, things that we think of are kind of above
reproach, you know, “You give people a test, that’s pretty much what they can do.”
Phelps: So you’ve shown this a bunch of times, in different contexts, you know, I
was a white sprinter, that was a problem… Steele: Yeah, we’ve talked about that, that’s
interesting. Phelps: Yeah, I mean, I could only get second
or third. Anyways, so we know this now, right, and this
concept, I think as I told you… Steele: I think we do. There’s still some
doubters, but I think we do. Phelps: I teach Intro Psych, and as I told
you the other night, all of my intro students know about this concept before I teach it
to them, so I really think it has emerged in our popular conception about how different
social groups affect our behavior. But now that we know this, what can we do about it?
Like, where do we go with that information to try to reduce the impact of stereotype
threat on our behavior that is unfavorable? Because sometimes I think it helps.
Steele: Yeah, I do too. Well, I think we’re learning a lot of things about what to do
about it. Conveniently for this interview, the New York Times had that article this Sunday
about interventions, which derive from that kind of framework, and Carol Dweck’s work
and Hazel’s work; this sort of showing that the psychological side of learning is a big
factor. Phelps: So that was a student at the University
of Texas in Austin, and about her path, trying to find her place as a black student, a black
nursing student, I believe. Steele: That’s right. So, that student was
just like the students I saw those almost 30 years ago, 25 years ago, at Michigan who
were underperforming. And sadly, it’s still like a lot of first generation students, under-represented
minority students. As they encounter these university environments… I’m gonna call
that the fundamental educational challenge of America, in some sense… these universities,
that we’re immensely proud of, strong universities, are kind of designed for a relatively homogeneous,
pretty well prepared student body, that’s what they’re kind of designed to deal with.
But, increasingly, they’re confronted with a student body that is really quite diverse,
comes from very different backgrounds, they have very different kinds of identity issues
and questions about them, and those students, as they come on campus, they face a host of
unknowns about themselves, and how much they belong there and how comfortable they can
be and whether they can make it there, and just a host of unknowns that are very threatening.
A certain part of their consciousness is allocated to sorting through that, figuring that out,
like I was doing when I was in graduate school. “Do I belong here?” “Do I fit?” Just
because of their identities, is an extra task they have to deal with, and somehow or another,
our institutions have to figure out how to deal with that. I thought that article, and
the emerging literature on interventions that Greg Walton and Jeff Cohen and Valerie Purdie,
and… I’m just gonna block on a whole bunch of names of wonderful, dear students… but
that literature, that’s the thing I’m most proud of. I think it constitutes the
strongest evidence about the importance of these processes in the everyday experience
of people. Phelps: Right, so Greg was your colleague
at Stanford, and it was at Stanford where you first got into administration. What made
you want to move into administration from your standard research career? Was it this
inspiration you had from your work? What motivated you to go that direction? And what did you
gain, and what did you lose by doing that? Steele: Boy, those are heavy questions.
Phelps: Sorry, I’m just getting a little heavy here, winding up. It’s gonna get heavy.
Steele: Well, I didn’t want to do administration, and I first was the chair of the psychology
department at Stanford, that was my first real administrative job, and I liked it, I
kind of liked it. You can make things happen for other people.
Phelps: You must have been good at it, because they kept asking you to do other things.
Steele: I was okay at it, I don’t know if I was always good at it, but you can get better
at it. For a psychologist, I have to say, there’s a lot of fun, it’s a deeply, deeply
interesting, it’s like being in the middle of a Shakespearean play.
Phelps: The drama of the department. Steele: The drama of the department, the drama
of the university… it’s rich. Phelps: All the students will get to know
that. Steele: It’s got all the dimensions of a
great drama: money, crisis, publicity, fear of publicity, mishandled dimensions…
Phelps: Sometimes the fights are so bad because the stakes are so low.
Steele: Exactly. I would say I just grew to be more and more actually interested in it,
intellectually and in fundamental ways, interested in it and interested in how universities work,
and in how you can make them, or how you have to work to make them meet the needs of people,
to meet the challenge I just described, that fundamental educational challenge, that’s
always a back mission of mine: how can we get these great institutions, which I think,
some of the greatest institutional creations in the history of the world, these great institutions.
Berkeley, for example, I don’t want to brag about it, but…
Phelps: Well, go ahead, you’re here, it’s your time.
Steele: It’s an amazingly great institution. And at the same time it is, in the United
States, an engine of upward mobility. Berkeley has twice as many low-income students in it
as most Ivy League universities have students. Phelps: Wow.
Steele: So the scalability of that, and the need to deliver high quality education to
a broad and more diverse population is just critical to the United States’ prosperity
and survival and equality of life for all of us. So I think it’s a great mission to
work on, and I do feel that way about it, and I think a lot of people who do that work
now feel that way about it, that there’s something at stake, and that it’s important
work. So, that idea eventually captured me. Phelps: And so, as provost, you feel like
you have at least the position to start to make some change, some bigger change.
Steele: In about seven percent of what you do, you have a chance to make change. The
rest of it, you’re handling things. Phelps: Well, that’s a lot… in the scheme
of things. I just have a few sort of more personal questions.
Steele: Oh. The real tough questions. Phelps: Sorry. So, do you have any secret
talents? Steele: I like to think I can make barbequed
ribs as good as anybody on Earth, and with pretty modest equipment. If you tell me you
can make barbequed ribs, I want to know what you’re making them on, and then we’ll
see… they do have equipment now that, almost anybody can make really good ribs. But, given
the bad equipment I have… Phelps: So, put you in the desert, with some
hot rocks… Steele: I could make some good ribs.
Phelps: Little barbeque sauce. Steele: It’s taken a lifetime.
Phelps: I think I have to come to your house some night, have some ribs.
Okay, so speaking of coming to your house for dinner, if you could have dinner with
one person from any time in history, who would that be?
Steele: Oh, I know the answer to that question. Phelps: Oh, you do? Are you gonna tell me?
Steele: Miles Davis. Phelps: Oh yeah, I could totally see that.
What would you ask him? Steele: Oh man, I don’t know where I’d
begin. I feel that I’ve learned a lot from him. My son is a musician, and his generation,
he’s interested in other people, but from my generation, Miles Davis was just, he just
pulled together the artistry, the art. To me, in 20th century, Picasso, Miles Davis…
so, I’d love to have dinner with him and just talk to him about all kinds of things.
He had a very dark side; don’t get married to him.
Phelps: Thanks for the advice. Steele: But he was brilliant with his bands.
I really thought about that with students. He benefited from letting his players bring
everything they had to the band, and that made his music constantly fresh and changing.
I think that’s a valuable point in science. Phelps: So, learn from our students, always
do, always do. Steele: You want to make it social. Let them
tell you stuff. Even when they’re first year students and don’t know much about
the field, their judgments about psychology can be quite good.
Phelps: Well, they’re a little closer to not being clouded by all the things we’ve
learned. So this is my last question. If you could
talk to Claude Steele on his first day of being a professor at the University of Utah,
what would the Claude Steele of today tell the Claude Steele then?
Steele: Well, I suppose some of the, I’ll call them tricks, I learned, I wish I knew
then, I would’ve made that earlier part of the career go a little faster.
Phelps: The tricks like… Steele: Tricks like, when you’re thinking
theoretically, when you’re thinking about psychological things, take the perspective
of the actor, not the observer. The observer is, you’re looking at somebody, you’re
trying to understand them, it’s really hard, and the experiments I was designing when I
thought that way were thin and get little bitty effects and nothing else. But when you
take the perspective of somebody who’s in a psychological situation, who’s actually
in it… a student, somebody who’s intoxicated… as soon as you do that, everything is a lot
clearer, and your intuition is much better informed, so the kind of experiment you design
and work you do, for me, just was like a switch, things started to work, and I could be conversant
in that space. So, that was a big trick of thinking. Maybe that holds for all science,
I don’t know, but for social psychology, it was an extremely helpful perspective. I
can go back in the field and look at work that I think came from that perspective versus
an observer’s perspective. Cognitive dissonance theory is a perfect example of taking actors’
perspective, “I got this thought, I got that thought, how am I gonna reconcile them,
what’s the deal, who is that?” That’s kind of where you want to be thinking about.
Phelps: That’s the end of our interview. I just want to say it was so much fun for
me, and such an honor, so thank you so much. Steele: Well, thank you, you’re a great
interviewer. Phelps: Oh, well, I try to bring out my inner
Oprah. Steele: You’ve got a future.
Written by Valentin Lakin
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