Whistling Vivaldi cover  The Nickel Boys cover

Subtle or direct, what society assumes about us changes our actions (for the worse). 

By Kris Dreessen

Suppose an aspiring female chemist enters a high school competition, and before her presentation, she notes that most of the other participants are male. She remembers hearing at some point that “girls” aren’t supposed to be good at science. She knows she’s created an outstanding project, but these thoughts needle their way in and make her anxious.

And her presentation doesn’t go as well as it otherwise would have.

Negative stereotypes can have that effect, says Jim Allen, associate professor of psychology at Geneseo. When confronted with a negative stereotype about themselves — whether related to gender, race, age or other traits — people experience anxiety about reinforcing the stereotype.

“That anxiety interferes with performance,” Allen says. “So they worry about confirming the stereotype and become hyper-vigilant to the threat. They monitor their performance really, really carefully. In doing so, that focus on the stereotype and not their own agenda gets in the way of their performance.”

Women not excelling in STEM fields is one negative stereotype. Other common ones are older people not managing technology well, African Americans being unintelligent, or white men being bad at sports.

Allen uses his interactions with a cell phone provider as an example. “I am aware that older guys aren’t supposed to know about phones,” he says. “As I think about that in front of store employees, I may start to fumble around, hyper-aware that I’m being seen this way.” The staff may not be looking at him that way; the consequences of negative stereotypes affect people they relate to, when directly or subconsciously confronted with it.

In the 2010 book “Whistling Vivaldi: How Negative Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do,” Claude M. Steele offers insight into the psychology of this “stereotype threat,” how it affects us and how we can minimize it in our daily lives.

Allen, who has conducted decades of research on social psychology as well as the psychology of happiness and well-being, uses “Whistling Vivaldi” in his social psychology courses because it presents important research in an accessible way.

One of the research examples: African American students who were told they were taking an exam that did not measure intellectual aptitude performed better than those who took the same exam but were told the scores did measure aptitude.  Their concerns about confirming the negative stereotype lowered their performance, says Allen.

Research, says Allen, is clear that people are affected by their environments, situations and many other factors. If someone does poorly on a test, for example, he says, it may not be that they just don’t know the material.  Or the high school, aspiring scientist didn’t prepare a good presentation.

Allen says his students indicate they have been influenced by negative stereotypes. Including such discussions in the curriculum, he feels, increases empathy and helps students understand how others’ actions are affected by outside influences.

“We can’t walk in the shoes of another person,” says Allen, “but examining things like this helps us to get a glimpse into what it is like for them.”


Walk a Mile…

Associate Professor of Psychology Jim Allen recommends these books for their insight into people’s experiences and  interactions with their environment.

  • “The Nickle Boys: A Novel,” by Colson Whitehead (2019), which won a Pulitzer Prize, is the dramatized story of two boys who are unjustly sentenced to reform school in 1960s Florida. Their experiences are based on the real story of the Dozier School, a reform school that operated for 111 years and was revealed for its many abuses. It is a story about challenges others have faced.
  • “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead (2016), is painful to read but almost everybody should read it. The story describes the lives of Cora and Caesar as they try to gain their freedom from a Georgia plantation using the Underground Railroad. This book comes closer to describing what must have been the morality, the horror and emotional state of being a slave than any other I have ever read.
  • “Maiden Voyage,” by Tania Aebi (1996), is the memoir of a young woman who, at 18, was struggling to find her place in life when her father offered to either pay for college or get her a 26-foot sailboat with which to sail around the world, solo. Aebi took the sailing challenge with no real experience — and succeeded. As an avid backpacker and sailor, my tolerance of risk is pretty large, but not this level of risk. Aebi lets us inside the mind of someone undertaking this and how she gets through.
  • “The Milagro Beanfield Wars,” by John Nichols (1974), was also made into a film directed by Robert Redford, “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988). Nichols based this story on his experiences advocating with Hispano farmers against conservancy districting in the early 1970s. The novel and film tell the story of how Joe, a handyman and farmer, becomes an advocate and hero after he accidentally breaks a water valve reserved for major companies in his small New Mexico town. It sets off a water rights battle between farmers and developers as Joe tries to protect his bean field.