Did you know that you can significantly change women’s performance on a challenging math test simply by providing a different explanation of the purpose of the test up front? And the same for Black students? Did you know there are ways to give advice and feedback that are demonstrated to improve performance in groups that suffer from (unconscious but inevitable) internalization of stereotypes? I learned these facts just a few weeks ago and find them astonishing. How can these crazy but simple things be true, and more importantly, why don’t most of us – professional scientists – know about them?

We students, postdocs, and faculty are the current and future gatekeepers of academia – controlling graduate admissions, journal and grant reviews, financial resources, and still more precious mentorship time – so I would say it’s our obligation to understand effects of stereotypes on academic performance. Of course, the “insider” view of an under-represented group seems impenetrable to outsiders. And yet there is decades’ worth of rigorous, often-reproduced psychological research that tells us pretty clearly how stereotypes – to be distinguished from discrimination – do their damage. The book Whistling Vivaldi: How stereotypes affect us and what we can do conveys that research vividly and compellingly. You need to read it.

To be clear, this post and the book it reviews are not about better-known issues of structural racism and gender discrimination – social forces which arguably reduce opportunities for under-represented and marginalized individuals practically from when they are born. Nor am I writing about discrimination in science which has been quantified by, for example, real-world job-application studies and the study of citations. (If you don’t know about those things, you should definitely study them; you should take the unconscious bias course your university likely offers; consider taking an implicit bias test, and then work to reduce your own bias.) Here, I want to shine a light on a phenomenon which is almost more pernicious because, sadly, society’s stereotypes seep inside the very people negatively targeted by those stereotypes whether they like it or not. And academic assessment could be strongly affected.

The essence of the diagnosis in Whistling Vivaldi, which summarizes a mountain of social psychology research by author and long-time Stanford professor Claude Steele and others, is this: simply being aware of a stereotype against your particular group – which is unavoidable – is enough to impair your performance in the area where the stereotype operates. Thus, for example, women are likely to perform worse on a challenging math test than an ability-matched group of men. Not only is the decline in performance is measurable and significant, but so are corresponding physiological stress symptoms. Yet, fortunately, the effect is reversible with suitable intervention. For instance, if a test is portrayed as a diagnostic for something like problem-solving styles, rather than ability, the effect disappears! The reversibility of the effect is the key control that demonstrates the performance deficit does not result from lack of ability. And, yes, these effects and their remedy can be engineered to apply to the most privileged groups.

Whistling Vivaldi also explains a range of interventions that academics should know about, notably the value of social networking both during active study and outside of it. Group study, it seems, wastes less time on unimportant details and allows more strategic thinking about problem solving. Perhaps unrelatedly, simply socializing with other demographic groups, including privileged groups, works to break down the internalized effects of stereotypes, perhaps by providing the important reality check that practically all students face many of the same challenges simply because of their age and student status. Studies show these social interactions improve college course grades!! Whistling Vivaldi also explains the best way to give constructive feedback to stereotype-challenged students.

The book touches on the psychology of teaching and learning, building on the work of psychologist Carol Dweck, and I think this is incredibly important for us as teachers. A key finding is that students who are instructed that intellectual ability is built incrementally in small chunks, rather being genetic and immutable, will perform much better in school. My personal view is that this should also inform our teaching styles/methods at every level: we should attempt to teach incrementally and not assume that some students will never grasp highly technical material. See my prior post. As mathematicians say, all math is locally trivial. The real question is whether we, as teachers, have the insight and patience to make this clear. Maybe every student has their limit (though I’m not sure) but I believe it’s typically a cop-out to blame a lack of learning on student lack of ability, especially in light of stereotype threat and discrimination.

One fascinating meta-study described by Whistling Vivaldi seems particularly important for the way we think about admissions to college and graduate school. When groups of Black and white students are selected to have nearly equal test scores, at almost any grade level or college (via SAT scores which admittedly have been called into question for years), the white students tend to get better grades thereafter when no special intervention is given to either group. However, when both groups of students are provided a ‘self-affirming intervention’ early on – as simple as interacting with upperclassmen in college or even 15 minutes of reflection on values for younger kids – the course-grade advantage of white students not only disappears, but the Black students do better! The earlier test scores may already have been influenced by stereotype threats and so underestimated Black academic potential. Where does it begin and where does it end?

Learning about all this has to make you wonder: Could the demographics of the ‘hard sciences’, long skewed toward white males, have been different if awareness of these issues and findings had been pervasive in years past? I hope so. It seems to me that getting the word out now is essential.

A harder question is, right now, how do we evaluate students who can be adversely affected not only by the external forces of discrimination and lack of opportunity, but by hidden, internalized forces throughout their academic lives? Do we want to assume that someone who apparently hasn’t figured out the rules of science (e.g., doing undergraduate research) can never be successful? These are questions worth wrestling with in your admissions committee meetings.

So, finally, why the title, Whistling Vivaldi? I’m not sure it was the best choice. The title alludes to an anecdote (in a book that is all about data!), namely, one Black American’s strategy to reassure white strangers that he was not a threat. But that’s really a distraction, in my view, from the key points I have highlighted above and which indeed are emphasized throughout the book: members of negatively stereotyped groups suffer from serious disadvantages in academic settings, which can be remediated with relatively modest effort from those running the show.

My thanks to Lillian Chong for reading the post and offering advice.