Claude M. Steele Research Paper

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One of the most influential social scientists of the past five decades, the American social psychologist Claude Mason Steele is best known for two conceptually related lines of research and theorizing: the effects of negative stereotypes on the achievement and identities of minorities and women and people’s psychological adaptation to self-image threats. He has also conducted research on the psychological effects of alcohol consumption.

Self-Affirmation Theory

In 1988 Steele published what would become the most widely embraced modification of Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance, arguably social psychology’s most influential theory of human motivation. Festinger (1957) had proposed that when people become aware of holding two inconsistent cognitions (e.g., I smoke cigarettes and smoking is unhealthy), they are motivated to reduce the resulting psychological discomfort by restoring consistency (e.g., by persuading themselves that smoking is not really very harmful). Steele challenged the central tenet of dissonance theory—that people find inconsistency per se uncomfortable and have a fundamental need for consistency between cognitions. Steele proposed that people are bothered not by mere psychological inconsistency but by the negative portrayal of the self that the inconsistency implies. Like earlier dissonance revisionists (e.g., E. Aronson 1969), Steele stressed the critical role of the self-concept in mediating the induction and reduction of dissonance, but unlike them, he rejected any inherent human preference for consistency, relegating inconsistency to a mere signal that the integrity of the self-image is under threat. For Steele, the psychic origin of dissonance phenomena is the actor’s desire to maintain a sense of global “self-integrity,” and this desire supersedes any need for consistency.

Steele further posited a self-system comprising self-conceptions, values, talents, and so on, which make up a pool of resources upon which the actor may draw to restore a sense of self-integrity when self-image threats arise. This fact, Steele proposed, gives the actor a great deal of flexibility in responding to self-threats. Employing Festinger’s oft-used example of the cigarette smoker who reduces dissonance by downplaying the risks of smoking, Steele argued that the smoker can maintain a sense of global integrity by reminding himself or herself of virtues in other domains of his or her life (I’m a great father, I’m a valuable member of the church, etc.). Such self-affirmations restore global self-esteem, thus allowing the individual to tolerate the self-threat implied by smoking despite the evidence that smoking is unhealthy.

Steele and his students tested the self-affirmation formulation by replicating standard dissonance paradigms in which a person is induced to engage in dissonance-arousing behavior (choosing between equally attractive gifts, writing a counter-attitudinal essay in support of an unpopular social policy, etc.) and then has his or her attitudes (e.g., toward the gifts or social policy) measured. If participants were given a self-affirmation of some sort (e.g., writing a few sentences about an important value), they showed no evidence of dissonance; in a wide variety of studies (Steele 1988), self-affirmations eliminated the attitude change that typically results from inducing dissonance.

Self-affirmation became influential as much for its highly transportable methodological paradigm—using value affirmations, for example—as for its theoretical alternative to dissonance. Examining the role of self-esteem threat has since become a thriving enterprise, as researchers can easily induce self-affirmation into the study of a variety of social-psychological phenomena, such as persuasion (e.g., Cohen, Aronson, and Steele 2000), prejudice (e.g., Fein and Spencer 1997), health (e.g., Creswell et al. 2005), and underachievement (e.g., Cohen et al. 2006). Although debate still continues on the role of inconsistency in cognitive dissonance, self-affirmation theory has established itself as a staple in current social psychology.

Stereotype Threat

Dissatisfied with the standard explanations for African Americans’ lagging test scores and achievement and viewing many phenomena through the hospitable lens of self-affirmation theory, Steele proposed a social-psychological alternative to the standard explanations that focused either on poverty or genetic differences in average intelligence. Steele proposed that black students face a self-threatening situational predicament that occurs as a result of their awareness of unflattering racial stereotypes. In a widely read article published in the Atlantic (Steele 1992), he proposed the possibility that African Americans are hampered by the stigma of intellectual inferiority—a phenomenon that later came to be called “stereotype threat” (Steele and Aronson 1995). In situations where the stereotype is applicable, such as during an intelligence test, African Americans face an extra psychological burden not felt by a comparable white student taking the same test, a sense of risk that the test may confirm a racial inferiority coupled with a heightened motivation to disprove the stereotype. Such a situation, Steele argued, generates anxiety, distraction, and other psychological impediments to test performance. Steele further proposed that, over time, students would defend against stereotype threat by disidentifying with academics, that is, reducing the extent to which they based their self-esteem on doing well academically.

A series of experiments performed with Joshua Aronson (Steele and Aronson 1995) offered strong support for the predictions about test performance. In each of the experiments African American college students performed significantly better on a standardized verbal test when the test was presented in a way that minimized the concern with confirming the stereotype. For example, in one experiment the test takers were told that the test was either a measure of their intelligence or that it was a nonevaluative laboratory problem-solving exercise. While this difference had no effect on white test takers, African American test takers performed nearly twice as well when the test was portrayed as nonevaluative.

These experiments drew national attention among educators and were referred to in two U.S. Supreme Court cases debating the use of affirmative action policies in hiring and college admissions. A publicized disagreement about the wisdom of affirmative action between Steele and his twin brother, Shelby Steele, the noted conservative scholar, drew additional attention to the research. Subsequent research confirmed the utility of the theory for understanding gender gaps in mathematics achievement, demonstrating that stereotype threat had similar effects on the mathematics performance of females (Spencer, Steele, and Quinn 1999).

In the decade after 1995 well over a hundred replications of stereotype threat effects on test performance were published, marking it as one of the most influential theories in the history of social psychology. Critics of the theory debate the degree to which stereotype threat underlies test-score gaps in the real world, but the theory has generated a handful of successful intervention studies that demonstrate that by reducing stereotype threat, race and gender test-score gaps are significantly reduced (Aronson, Fried, and Good 2002; Cohen et al. 2006; Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht 2003).

Alcohol Myopia

Steele and his students also conducted research on the psychological effects of alcohol consumption, documenting what they referred to as “alcohol myopia,” (Steele and Josephs 1990), the effect of narrowing the drinker’s focus upon immediate events and stimuli and reducing focus upon distant events, stimuli, or thoughts. Steele and his students documented that this narrowed focus plays a role in alcohol’s well-known reduction of social inhibitions and reduction of emotional stress. After holding positions at the University of Utah, the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University, Steele became the director of the Center for the Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.


  1. Aronson, E. 1969. The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance: A Current Perspective. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 4, ed. L. Berkowitz, 1–34. New York: Academic.
  2. Aronson, J., G. Cohen, and P. R. Nail. 1998. Self-Affirmation Theory: An Update and Appraisal. In Cognitive Dissonance: Progress on a Pivotal Theory in Social Psychology, ed. E. Harmon Jones and J. Mills, 127–147. Washington, DC: APA Books.
  3. Aronson, J., C. Fried, and C. Good. 2002. Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38: 113–125.
  4. Cohen, G., J. Aronson, and C. M. Steele. 2000. When Beliefs Yield to Evidence: Reducing Biased Evaluation by Affirming the Self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 26 (9): 1151–1164.
  5. Cohen, G. L., J. Garcia, N. Apfel, and A. Master. 2006. Reducing the Racial Achievement Gap: A Social-Psychological Intervention. Science 313: 1307–1310.
  6. Creswell, J. D., W. Welch, S. E. Taylor, et al. 2005. Affirmation of Personal Values Buffers Neuroendocrine and Psychological Stress Responses. Psychological Science 16 (11): 846–851.
  7. Fein, S., and S. J. Spencer. 1997. Prejudice as Self-Image Maintenance: Affirming the Self through Derogating Others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73: 31–44.
  8. Festinger, L. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  9. Good, C., J. Aronson, and M. Inzlicht. 2003. Improving Adolescents’ Standardized Test Performance: An Interventionto Reduce the Effects of Stereotype Threat. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 24: 645–662.
  10. Spencer, S. J., C. M. Steele, and D. M. Quinn. 1999. Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35: 4–28.
  11. Steele, C. M. 1988. The Psychology of Self-Affirmation: Sustaining the Integrity of the Self. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 21, ed. L. Berkowitz, 261–302. New York: Academic.
  12. Steele, C. M. 1992. Race and the Schooling of Black Americans. Atlantic Monthly. April: 68–78.
  13. Steele, C. M. 1997. A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Ability and Performance. American Psychologist 52: 613–629.
  14. Steele, C. M., and J. Aronson. 1995. Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (5): 797–811.
  15. Steele, C. M., and R. A. Josephs. 1990. Alcohol Myopia: Its Prized and Dangerous Effects. American Psychologist 45: 921–933.

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