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Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us

3.83 of 5 stars 3.83  ·  rating details  ·  919 ratings  ·  151 reviews
Through dramatic personal stories, Claude Steele shares the experiments and studies that show, again and again, that exposing subjects to stereotypes—merely reminding a group of female math majors about to take a math test, for example, that women are considered naturally inferior to men at math—impairs their performance in the area affected by the stereotype. Steele’s con...more
Hardcover, 242 pages
Published April 12th 2010 by W. W. Norton & Company
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Radiolab Suggested Readings
116th out of 178 books — 175 voters
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1st out of 7 books — 1 voter

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Community Reviews

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Elizabeth Hunter
At last there is theory and evidence to explain under-performance by various groups in academic and professional settings that does not fall back on the idea that, for example, women simply aren't as good as men at math and science, that black students can't hack it in university, that older workers are simply inferior to younger workers. That idea is stereotype-threat, the concern that one's performance may conform to a negative stereotype of one's group, which results in an extra cognitive loa...more
Amrita Singh
i just finished whistling vivaldi! excellent points were obviously made, but i can't help but feel that it was repetitive and that its facts were almost over-supported with evidence (almost the same conclusions are reached over and over and over again). this could simply be because of its nature as a scholarly novel and an exploration of the author's focus in his career.

i think that too much time was spent exploring what exactly identity threat was (at times i wanted to throw my hands in the ai...more
Matthew Zhang
Drawn in by the array of colorful, minimalistic lettering and the promise of “an intellectual odyssey of the first order” on the front cover, I was, for once, excited to read the summer’s required reading: “Whistling Vivaldi.” Distributed by Northwestern for the Class of 2018 freshmen, the novel’s subject matter - as summarized by the subtitle, “how stereotypes affect us and what we can do” - was a fairly obvious topic to introduce to a student entering an environment lush with diversity, but no...more
Interesting, in a Malcolm Gladwell sort of way.
Mary Whisner
Steele reports on about 30 years of psychological experiments exploring how people act when they are in a situation where they might be stereotyped negative. One or two experiments would make good anecdotes, but the basic studies have been replicated hundreds of times in many contexts. Together the body of research is very persuasive.

The closing chapters offer some ideas for how to make things better--e.g., how a white teacher can give critical feedback to a black student that will be trusted (b...more
Paul Goble
A leading social psychologist presents a compelling overview and personal history of the field of "stereotype threat." Even when prejudice is not actually present, the mere thought that ones underperformance might confirm a negative stereotype about ones identity group (blacks, males, whites, females, etc) creates stress which then causes underperformance. This phenomenon has been amply demonstrated through laboratory experiments then confirmed in "real world" tests. Ongoing research is now show...more
Colleen Moore
How does the simple fact of who you are affect your performance and feelings? This book addresses how situations, our assumptions about situations, and our identities can combine to put us at ease or on edge. When we're on edge, we can underperform. Although the book centers on racial identity, all of us have multiple aspects of our identities that can affect us powerfully, depending on the situation. The last three chapters show how to reduce the negative effects of identity threats. Interestin...more
Such an important book for educators-- for everyone, really-- who want to make schools (or work places or any setting where people from different backgrounds come together) more inviting and supportive for people from all identity groups. Fascinating look at what Steele calls stereotype or identity threat and how it affects the performance of people within a threatened group in myriad ways. Also looks at what things might be done to mitigate such a threat. Heard about the book from T.R. at June...more
Thorn MotherIssues
An absolute must-read for parents and teachers, this branches off from the finding that people do worse on tests if doing badly would reflect negatively on them by conforming to stereotypical expectations of a stigmatized group to which they belong. So girls do worse on math tests if they're in any way aware of the idea that boys are better at math, etc. Despite the cover, the book basically only deals with race and gender, but gives a lot of details about the way identity threat or stereotype t...more
Social psychologist Claude M. Steele is the author of Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. The book provides a description of the research and findings by Steele and his colleagues on stereotypes and identity and explains the “performance gap” between stereotyped and non-stereotyped groups. Their work has illuminated the phenomenon of “stereotype threat” - a fear that one’s behavior may in fact confirm the stereotypes related to one’s social category, e. g. race, sex,...more
Aug 05, 2014 Mijeong rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Mijeong by: HGSE
Read for HGSE summer reading

I do not read many books on education- I much prefer fiction, fantasy books. However, I am glad I read this book- I was not very mindful of identity contingencies and really, how much of an impact they have on performance.

In writing about his own journey in the field, Claude Steele was able to make me follow in depth the subtle nuances of the topic. At one point, I thought how it may have been better if the book had been more concise and covered more studies and topi...more
João Martins
My one criticism of this book is its long-windedness. It's not that it's long (220 pages for the paperback), just that it could've been 150 pages or less and contain precisely the same information.

The book takes its readers through a gradual understanding of the phenomenon of "identity threat", in which a fear, conscious or not, of being negatively stereotyped leads to impaired capabilities. The concept is actually more general than this, but this facet of it is easier to understand.

The author i...more
An elegant little book reviewing decades of research showing that people live up to the negative stereotypes about their groups when those stereotypes are invoked by the situation, and not when the situation is reframed to take the stereotype out. Girls are just as good at math as boys except when the situation reminds them that they’re not supposed to be; African Americans students are just as good at analyzing literature as white kids except when they’re reminded they aren’t; we’re all better...more
Paul Ivanov
An important book: a good read about stereotype threat. Turns out we perform worse when reminded of our identity if there's a stereotype that our identity group is a poor performer on a given task because we expend energy (mental resources) on ruminating and trying our best not to confirm that stereotype. Examples include women performing worse on a math test if they fill out a gender identity survey, white and black college students flipping their miniature golf putting performance depending on...more
Morgan Blackledge
Whistling Vivaldi is the (unfortunately titled but none the less excellent) popularization of author Claude Steele (and colleagues) research into the phenomena of stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat is the experience of anxiety in a situation in which a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about his or her social group.

Stereotype threat has been shown to reduce the performance of individuals who belong to negatively stereotyped groups.

For example: when African Americans wer...more
Jul 07, 2014 Ashley rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Graduate Students, educators, activists
Recommended to Ashley by: Sheridan Center
Shelves: what-i-study
This is an approachable, readable book about the ways that stereotypes and other "identity contingencies" impact the way that students perform in American colleges. Steele uses his background in psychology and interest in closing the black-white achievement gap to discuss the ways in which "identity contingencies," e.g. the ways that power accrues to different people in different situations, can negatively influence the ability for minority students to perform. I didn't disagree with anything in...more
The subject matter of this book easily rates 10 out of 5 stars. It is extremely important to understand and come to grips with. The writing itself is very clear and outlines all the necessary points in great detail. However, this is trying to be a fun and readable book for the people who like their science the Malcolm Gladwell way, and in that it falls a bit short. The best example of this is the chapter which starts off explaining how the Seattle Supersonics under coach Lenny Wilkins turned aro...more
this book is being shared around campus at the instigation of the folks at the Honors College. The premise is fascinating -- What makes people ignore their instinctive categorization of others? Does a black man quietly walking down the street provoke more fear in other pedestrians on the sidewalk than a black man tunefully whistling Vivaldi? Do we act as we are perceived or do our actions create perceptions? Can girls do math? Can white men jump? Can a farm-hand play an instrument?

Wish I could...more
marcus miller
Thought provoking book which explores the concepts of identity and what Steele terms, "stereotype threat." Since we all face stereotypes, we all deal with stereotype threats. As Steele points out in numerous examples, even those stereotypes which might be seen as positive can have debilitating effects on some people. What happens if I don't live up to the stereotype?

Much of Steele's research and work relates to education and the questions of why some groups perform better than others. Steele an...more
Samuel Crenshaw
An important read of how our held stereotypes about both ourselves and others can radically influence our performance and actions in varied situations. These anxieties or 'stereotype fears' can and do have a lasting affect on our ability to succeed in school, the workplace, and our interpersonal relationships. The book is based in heavy social science research but is presented in a very readable manner with many anecdotes and stories to show the relevance of the data and the push forward the ove...more
I highly recommend this book! It made me question a lot of conventional wisdom about the underperformance of certain groups, and gave me a new way of understanding people's behaviors and motivations.
Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi was unfortunately not as much a profound theoretical and socio-historical perspective on race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc. as it was a product of empirical data and years of notable social psychological research repackaged, reformulated and dispersed to the general population.

In spite of evidence to the contrary, it wasn’t that I didn’t like the book or even greatly disagree with the concepts discussed within the text; I just felt that it w...more
Such a fascinating topic, but I wish the voice of this book had been more narrative and less academic. Looks at how students' awareness of stereotypes affects academic performance, through a series of meticulously documented experiments.

For all the great information and carefully explained experiments, I found the pace plodding. The book has been touted as a must-read by many school administrators and I'm afraid the tone/voice will get people bogged down. I also wish the idea of critical mass ha...more
I have to figure out a way to get more of my students to read and discuss this book...
Seemingly well researched with some poignant messages about the power of negative stereotypes on our performance, especially as it pertains to people who have a high desire to achieve. All in all, it seemed too general of an overview and didn't really spend much time on discussing solutions. It makes an excellent read for individuals and students just beginning to think about the impact of stereotype, race-relations, and the impact of prejudice. It is, in many ways, fairly eye opening. One of th...more
We can all be stereotyped. And we all resent the negative versions of our stereotypes. We tend to fear confirming the negative stereotypes. And that fear can cause us to underperform tasks we can do well if we think we are trying to prove something that runs against a negative stereotype.

Steele calls that stereotype threat. It is a subtle, ubiquitous, and potentially corrosive force. Whistling Vivaldi is very well researched and explains this phenomenon well. Steele also presents us with strate...more
This is a very readable summary of previously published research, some of it very compelling, and some of it more conjectural. At its best, it leaves you startled at the subtlety of the impact of stereotypes. At its worst, it demonstrates why so many have trouble calling the domain social "science"; it may be more appropriately described as "observational philosophy" (which is to say it is is often valuable and insightful, but by no means scientifically rigorous). The questions Steele and his co...more
Justyn Harvey
I enjoyed reading the entire book. From beginning to end, the author was able to keep my interest. As a psychology major, the subject matter was very interesting. However, I believe that Dr. Steele was able to make the book readable to all people. The book does a great job at shedding light on some topics that may not even seem relevant, especially to the majority group in the American nation. From talking about how stereotypes affect us to how we may be able to combat those stereotypes as profe...more
This book is worth a skim, although I wish it had clearer summaries of the ideas presented. Dr. Steele goes over the impact of 'stereotype threat' on academics and interactions between people. He shows how people, divided by social roles (white/black, man/woman, etc.) can under-perform when social cues tell them that they'll be judged as part of a group that traditionally is believed to do poorly -- e.g. a women or a black on a math test, a white man competing athletically with black men, a whit...more
I was really amazed with the premise of the book: that anyone who is reminded in any way of a stereotype against them before a test inevitably does worst on the test than if they are told the test won't test for this stereotype. That's a vast simplification but that's basically what the author sets out to test and analyze. Which he does, over and over, and while the tests and results are always fascinating it does become a bit repetitive when the conclusions reached are the same ones, over and o...more
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Claude M. Steele is a former professor at Stanford University who is now executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Berkeley.

The above is from the website of Smith College, where Steele's Book Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues To How Stereotypes Affect Us has been chosen for the 2014 Summer Read Program for first year students.
More about Claude M. Steele...

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“Some years ago, two social psychologists, Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett, argued that when it comes to explaining people's behavior-something like achievement problems, for example there is a big difference between the "observer's perspective"-the perspective of a person observing the behavior-and the "actor's perspective"-the perspective of a person doing the behavior. As observers, Jones and Nisbett said, we're looking at the actor, the person doing the behavior we are trying to explain. Thus the actor dominates our literal and mental visual field, which makes the circumstances to which he is responding less visible to us. In the resulting picture in our minds, the actor sticks out like a sore thumb and the circumstances to which he is responding are obscured from view. Jones and Nisbett held that this picture causes a bias when we try to explain the actor's behavior. We emphasize the things we can see. We emphasize things about the actor-characteristics, traits, and so on-that seem like plausible explanations for her behavior. And we deemphasize, as causes of her behavior, the things we can't see very well, namely, the circumstances to which she is adapting.” 1 likes
“The problem is that the pressure to disprove a stereotype changes what you are about in a situation. It gives you an additional task. In addition to learning new skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking in a schooling situation, or in addition to trying to perform well in a workplace like the women in the high-tech firms, you are also trying to slay a ghost in the room, the negative stereotype and its allegation about you and your group. You are multitasking, and because the stakes involved are high--survival and success versus failure in an area that is important to you--this multitasking is stressful and distracting.

...And when you realize that this stressful experience is probably a chronic feature of the stetting for you, it can be difficult for you to stay in the setting, to sustain your motivation to succeed there. Disproving a stereotype is a Sisyphean task; something you have to do over and over again as long as your are in the domain where the stereotype applies. Jeff seemed to feel this way about Berkeley, that he couldn't find a place there where he could be seen as belonging. When men drop out of quantitative majors in college, it is usually because they have bad grades. But when women drop out of quantitative majors in college it usually has nothing to do with their grades. The culprit, in their case, is not their quantitative skills but, more likely, the prospect of living a significant portion of their lives in a domain where they may forever have to prove themselves--and with the chronic stress that goes with that.

This is not an argument against trying hard, or against choosing the stressful path. There is no development without effort; and there is seldom great achievement, or boundary breaking, without stress. And to the benefit of us all, many people have stood up to these pressures...The focus here, instead, is on what has to be gotten out of he way to make these playing fields mere level. People experiencing stereotype threat are already trying hard. They're identified with their performance. They have motivation. It's the extra ghost slaying that is in their way.”
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