Claude Steele, a prominent social psychologist and the executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Berkeley, delivered the annual DeMott Lecture to Amherst College's first-year class in Johnson Chapel on Aug. 31, 2014.
Over the summer, the class was assigned to read Steele's book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. The book is an examination of the phenomenon of “stereotype threat,” whereby one’s performance on a particular task can suffer if one is aware that some aspect of one's identity—such as age, race or gender—leads other people to expect one to perform poorly on that task. In effect, stereotype threat can turn a societal stereotype into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Using examples from the feature film 8 Mile, the documentary A Class Divided, a news interview, his experimental psychology research and his own personal life, Steele spoke about stereotype threat and some ways that organizations and individuals can combat its negative effects. He emphasized to the students the power and creativity of scientific research, as well as the importance of diversity in academia. Such diversity, he pointed out, not only helps to break down the stereotypes and stereotype threats that students face, but also leads to expansion and progress within academic disciplines.