Social contingencies

Thanks to Stacy Kennedy on the Stereotype threat thread I’m reading Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi.

He notes that we in the US live in an individualistic society.

We don’t like to think that conditions tied to our social identities have much say in our lives, especially if we don’t want them to.

We’re supposed to rise above such things. He subscribes to that idea himself. But –

But this book offers an important qualification to this creed: that by imposing on us certain conditions of life, our social identities can strongly affect things as important as our performance in the classroom and on standardized tests, our memory capacity, our athletic performance, the pressure we feel to prove ourselves…[p 4]

We’re all subject to it. All.

Suppose you go to a psych lab and play miniature golf. Suppose you’re told before you start that the task measures “natural athletic ability.” Guess who does badly. White students. Then again suppose you’re told the task measures “sports strategic intelligence.” Guess who does badly. Black students.

Striking, isn’t it.


  1. Matt Penfold says

    I have not read the book, but I wonder is he goes far enough.

    I listened to a fascinating interview this week on Radio 4 where Jim Al-Khalili interviewed Sir Michael Marmot about the Whitehall Cohort.

    The Whitehall Cohort, or rather Cohorts since there was more than one, was a study of civil servants working in Whitehall. One aspect studied was life expectancy. The studies found that those lower in the hierarchy had a significantly reduced life expectancy compared to those at the top, and it was a matter of a decade or more. Studies elsewhere have confirmed this finding.

    The interview is well worth a listen, and can be found here.

  2. says

    Well I’ve only started it, so don’t judge how far he goes by what I said there.

    I’ve read about studies like that, I’m pretty sure. Inequality has consequences.

  3. daveau says

    In my utopian future society…

    Thanks for yet another interesting book to read. I haven’t even started yours yet.

  4. AsqJames says


    Inequality certainly does have consequences (including life expectancy), but in the Whitehall Cohorts, it wasn’t inequality (at least in terms of income, class, etc) which was measured. It was stress, and it was a surprising, possibly revolutionary, result.

    Previously it had been assumed that the higher up the career ladder a person climbed, the more stress that person suffered, and that their risk of heart disease and other stress-related illnesses rose correspondingly. This made sense because people at the top had responsibility over more people/departments/money/whatever. Also, newspapers were more likely to report on the early deaths (or heart attacks or whatever) of prominent people*.

    Marmot showed that the correlation between stress and position in a hierarchical organisation was inverse – the more junior a person was, the more stress they were under. And that they had correspondingly shorter life expectancy.

    * There’s a name I can’t currently recall for this – “familiarity bias”?

  5. says

    This isn’t the same, but it reminds me…

    Years on top of years ago I read something sort of similar to your miniature golf example, with lab rats. Psychology students were given identical rats (okay, there’s variation, but you know what I mean — you can buy lab rats in huge lots, bred for the purpose and virtually identical) but some students were told their rats were the smart rats and others that their rats were the stupid ones. Result showed exactly that–the difference being made by the researchers.

    Okay, in miniature golf the prejudice affects your own performance, but the students’ “performances” were also changed, even though they only performed actions such as observation and reporting.

  6. julian says

    the more junior a person was, the more stress they were under.

    That makes sense to me. It’s the peons who generally get stuck with the all nighters and work no one else wants to do. Plus the higher up you are the more means you have of relieving stress and people to assist you with the more difficult projects.

  7. octopod says

    When you get there, can you post regarding what whistling Vivaldi has to do with it?

    Sounds like an interesting book, though.

  8. Stacy says

    octopod, I can answer that.

    Steele relates an anecdote about a young black man who noticed that white people tensed up when he walked by them on the streets.

    He took to whistling Vivaldi. That made the white folks relax.

    The whites were scared because they’d internalized the stereotype of young black men as scary thugs. By whistling Vivaldi the young man diffused that stereotype (by invoking another, that of European, educated, wealthy or at least middle class culture– which placed him outside the “scary” group.)

    The moral is that we’ve all internalized these things and they affect us more than we realize. We will react to very subtle cues, and it happens, usually, without our conscious awareness.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *