Claude Steele

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Claude Mason Steele
Born (1946-01-01) January 1, 1946 (age 70)
Phoenix, Illinois
Fields Psychology (Social)
Institutions University of Utah
University of Washington
University of Michigan
Stanford University
Columbia University
University of California, Berkeley
Alma mater Hiram College (BA)
Ohio State University (PhD)
Doctoral advisor Thomas Ostrom
Known for Stereotype threat, self-affirmation
Influences Kenneth Clark, Ralph Cebulla, Thomas Ostrom

Claude Mason Steele (born January 1, 1946) is an American social psychologist and currently the executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of California, Berkeley.[1] Steele previously was the I. James Quillen Dean at the Stanford Graduate School of Education,[2] as well as professor emeritus in psychology at Stanford.[3] Previously, he served as the twenty-first provost of Columbia University for two years, and before that, as a professor of psychology at various institutions for almost forty years. He is best known for his work on stereotype threat and its application to minority student academic performance.[4] His earlier work dealt with research on the self (e.g., self-image, self-affirmation)[5][6] as well as the role of self-regulation in addictive behaviors.[7] In 2010, he released his book, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, summarizing years of research on stereotype threat and the underperformance of minority students in higher education.[8]

Education and early life[edit]

Steele was born on January 1, 1946, to parents Ruth (social worker) and Shelby (truck driver) just outside Chicago in Phoenix, Illinois, during the Civil Rights movement. Claude recalls his African-American family[9] (including his twin brother, Shelby Steele and two other siblings) as being deeply interested in social issues and the civil rights movement, as these were very much on American minds at the time.[10] Steele even remembers his father taking him and his brother to marches and rallies whenever possible.[11] His father pushed him to achieve security in the context of securing employment, but Claude construed achievement as success in education.[9] He enrolled at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, where he earned a B.A. in psychology in 1967.

At Hiram, Claude’s passion for reading novels naturally led to an interest in how the individual faces the social world.[9] After being fully immersed in the Civil Rights movement and the issues of racial equality, rights, and the nature of prejudice as a child, Steele formed a desire to study these topics in a scientific manner; and was especially keen to discover their effects on social relationships and quality of life.[12] Claude was inspired by African-American social psychologist Kenneth Clark’s TV appearance discussing the psychological implications of the 1964 race riots in Harlem, New York,[10] which led to an excitement for doing behavioral research. Claude conducted early experimental research at Hiram College in physiological psychology (looking at behavioral motives in Siamese fighting fish) and social psychology (studying how African-American dialect among kids maintains ethnic/racial identity),[9] where he worked under the mentorship of social psychologist, Ralph Cebulla. He then continued on to graduate school to study social psychology, earning an M.A. in 1969 and a Ph.D. in 1971 at Ohio State University, with a minor in statistical psychology. His dissertation work with faculty adviser Thomas Ostrom at Ohio State focused on attitude measurement and attitude change.

Academic career[edit]

After receiving his PhD in 1971, Claude Steele got his first job as an assistant professor of psychology for two years at the University of Utah and then moved to the University of Washington for fourteen years, receiving tenure in 1985. In 1987, he moved to the University of Michigan, where he was professor of psychology for four years, during the latter two of which he simultaneously held the position of research scientist at Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. In 1991, he moved to Stanford University, where he was professor of psychology for eighteen years, receiving the title of Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences in 1997. During his eighteen years at Stanford, he also served as chair of the Department of Psychology (1997–2000), director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (2002–2005), and director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (2005–2009), among various other positions (see Teaching and Administrative Appointments, below). In 2009, he left Stanford to become the twenty-first provost and chief academic officer at Columbia University for two years, where he was responsible for faculty appointments and tenure recommendations, along with overseeing financial planning and budgeting.[13] In 2011, he left Columbia and returned to Stanford, where he served as the I. James Quillen Dean for the Stanford Graduate School of Education. In March 2014, he became the executive vice chancellor and provost of the University of California, Berkeley.[14]


Throughout his academic career, Claude Steele’s work fell into 3 main domains of research under the broad subject area of social psychology: stereotype threat, self-affirmation, and addictive behaviors. Although separate and distinct, these three lines of research are linked together by their shared focus on self-evaluation and how people cope with threats to their self-image and self-identities.[10]

Addictive behaviors[edit]

Although many people primarily associate Claude Steele with his significant contributions in the development of stereotype threat research, the 14 years of his post-doctoral academic career that he spent at the University of Washington were focused on addictive behaviors and the social psychology behind alcohol use and addiction. He was interested in the role of alcohol and drug use in self-regulation processes and social behavior. Among his major findings are that alcohol myopia, or the cognitive impairment due to alcohol use, reduces cognitive dissonance,[15] leads to more extreme social responses,[16] increases helping behavior,[17] reduces anxiety when combined with a distracting activity,[18] and enhances important self-evaluations.[7]


While studying the effects of alcohol use on social behavior, Claude Steele was simultaneously formulating a theory about the effects of self-affirmation.[10] Developed in the 1980s, self-affirmational processes referred to the ability to reduce threats to our self-image by stepping back and affirming a value that is important to our self-concept.[6] Steele often uses the example of smokers who are told that smoking will lead to significant negative health outcomes. The perception that they may be evaluated negatively due to their willingness to engage in negative behaviors threatens their self-image. However, affirming a value in a domain completely unrelated to smoking but important to one’s self-concept, e.g., joining a valued cause, or accomplishing more at work, will counter the negative effects of the self-image threat and re-establish self-integrity.[6] Self-affirmation theory was originally formulated as an alternative motivational explanation for cognitive dissonance theory, namely, that threats to the self led to a change in attitudes, rather than psychologically inconsistent ideas, and that self-affirmational strategies can reduce dissonance as effectively as attitude change.[19]

Steele’s research on self-affirmation and its effects demonstrated the power of self-affirmation to reduce biased attitudes,[20] lead to positive health behaviors,[21] and even improve the academic performance of minority students.[22]

Stereotype threat[edit]

Claude Steele is best known for his work on stereotype threat and its application to explain real-world problems, such as the underperformance of female students in math and science classes[23] as well as African-American students in academic contexts.[4] Steele first began to explore the issues surrounding stereotype threat at the University of Michigan, when his membership on a university committee called for him to tackle the problem of academic underachievement of minority students at the university.[8] He discovered that the dropout rate for African American students was much higher than for their White peers, even though they were good students and had received excellent SAT scores. This led him to form a hypothesis involving stereotype threat.[24] Stereotype threat refers to the threat felt in particular situations in which stereotypes relevant to one’s group identity exist, and the mere knowledge of the stereotypes can be distracting enough to negatively affect one’s performance in a domain related to the stereotype.[4] Steele has demonstrated the far-reaching implications of stereotype threat by showing that it is more likely to undermine the performance of individuals who are highly invested in the domain being threatened,[25] and that stereotype threat can even lead to significant negative health outcomes among African Americans.[26] These theories of stereotype threat can be applied to better understand group differences in performance not only in intellectual situations, but in athletics as well.[27]

Steele has spearheaded many successful interventions aimed at reducing the negative effects of stereotype threat, including how to provide critical feedback effectively to a student under the effects of stereotype threat,[28] inspired by his graduate school adviser, Tom Ostrom’s, motivating style of feedback,[8] as well as how teacher practices can foster a feeling of identity safety and, as a result, better performance outcomes among elementary school minority students.[29]

Whistling Vivaldi[edit]

In 2010, Claude Steele published his first book, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us,[8] as part of the Issues of Our Time series of books[30] exploring timely issues from the voices of modern intellectuals. Whistling Vivaldi focuses on the phenomenon of stereotype threat as it explains the trend of minority underperformance in higher education. In his book, Steele discusses how identity contingencies, or those cues in an environment that signal particular stereotypes attached to an aspect of one’s identity, can have a drastic negative effect on a person’s functioning, and how these effects can explain racial and gender performance gaps in academic performance. Steele also offers a host of strategies for reducing stereotype threat and enhancing minority student performance, as well as the hope that the societal knowledge of stereotype threat will lead to an understanding and acceptance of diverse group differences.

Personal life[edit]

Claude Steele currently lives with his wife, Dorothy Munson Steele, and children in California. Claude and Dorothy have been known to collaborate on projects dedicated to prejudice in American society[31] and minority student achievement.[29] His twin brother, Shelby Steele is a conservative writer and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.[32]

Teaching and administrative appointments[edit]

Awards and honors[edit]




  1. ^ "Office of the Provost, U.C. Berkeley". Retrieved 2014-05-22. 
  2. ^ "Stanford University School of Education". Retrieved 2011-11-07. 
  3. ^ "Department of Psychology, Stanford University". Retrieved 2011-11-07. 
  4. ^ a b c Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. ‘’Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62’’(1), 26-37.
  5. ^ Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Lynch, M. (1993). Self-image resilience and dissonance: The role of affirmational resources. ‘’Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64,’’:885-896.
  6. ^ a b c Steele, C. M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), ‘’Advances in Experimental Social Psychology’’ (Vol. 21, pp. 261-302). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  7. ^ a b Steele, C. M. & Josephs, R. A. (1990). Alcohol myopia: Its prized and dangerous effects. ‘’American Psychologist, 45’’(8): 921-933.
  8. ^ a b c d Steele, C. M. (2010). ‘’Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us’’. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
  9. ^ a b c d Steele, C. (interviewee). (2004). Interview of Claude Steele [Interview Audio Recording]. Retrieved from National Academy of Sciences Web site:
  10. ^ a b c d (2003) Claude M. Steele: Award for distinguished senior career contributions to the public interest. ‘’American Psychologist, 58’’(11): 909-911.
  11. ^ Strumolo, A. L. (1997). Shelby Steele. Contemporary Black Biography.
  12. ^ Krapp, K. M. (1999). Notable black American scientists. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research.
  13. ^ Greenbaum, L. (2011, June 13). Provost Steele accepts position at Stanford. ‘’Columbia Spectator’’. Retrieved from
  14. ^ "Stanford News Release". Retrieved 2014-05-22. 
  15. ^ Steele, C. M., Southwick, L. L., & Critchlow, B. (1981). Dissonance and alcohol: Drinking your troubles away. ‘‘Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41’’(5): 831-846.
  16. ^ Steele, C. M., & Southwick, L. (1985). Alcohol and social behavior I: The psychology of drunken excess. ‘’Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48’’(1): 18-34.
  17. ^ Steele, C. M., Critchlow, B., & Liu, T. J. (1985). Alcohol and social behavior II: The helpful drunkard. ‘’Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48’’(1): 35-46.
  18. ^ Steele, C. M. & Josephs, R. A. (1988). Drinking your troubles away II: An attention-allocation model of alcohol’s effect on psychological stress. ‘’Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 97’’(2): 196-205.
  19. ^ Steele, C. M. & Liu, T. J. (1983). Dissonance processes as self-affirmation. ‘’Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45’’(1): 5-19.
  20. ^ Cohen, G. L., Aronson, J., & Steele, C. M. (2000). When beliefs yield to evidence: Reducing biased evaluation by affirming the self. ‘’Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26’’(9): 1151-1164.
  21. ^ Sherman, D. A. K., Nelson, L. D., & Steele, C. M. (2000). Do messages about health risks threaten the self? Increasing the acceptance of threatening health messages via self-affirmation. ‘’Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26’’(9):1046-1058.
  22. ^ Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. ‘’Science, 313’’(5791): 1307-1310.
  23. ^ Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. ‘’Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35’’: 4-28.
  24. ^ Lesinski, J. (1997). Claude Mason Steele. Contemporary Black Biography.
  25. ^ Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When White men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. ‘’Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35’’: 29-46.
  26. ^ Blascovich, J., Spencer, S. J., Quinn, D. M., & Steele, C. M. (2001). African Americans and high blood pressure: The role of stereotype threat. ‘’Psychological Science, 13”(3): 225-229.
  27. ^ Claude M. Steele. (2011). National Science Board. Biography. Retrieved from
  28. ^ Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. ‘’Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25’’: 1302-1318.
  29. ^ a b Steele, D. M., Steele, C. M., Markus, H. R., Lewis, A. E., Green, F., & Davies, P. G. (2008). How identity safety improves student achievement, ‘’Manuscript submitted for publication’’.
  30. ^ "Issues of Our Time". Retrieved 2011-11-13. 
  31. ^ Markus, H. R., Steele, C. M., & Steele, D. M. (2002). Color blindness as a barrier to inclusion: Assimilation and nonimmigrant minorities. R. A. Shweder, M. Minow, & H. R. Markus (Eds.) Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies. (pp. 453-472). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
  32. ^ "Hoover Institution, Stanford University". Retrieved 2011-11-13. 
  33. ^ Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52(6): 613-629.