Feeling the Churn

It’s movie awards season. For me and my family, this usually means heading to the theaters to catch a nominated film or renting ones that we may have missed in the theaters. After Argentina,1985 won the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Non-English Language, I began searching to see if I could find it someplace in one of the streaming services to which we subscribe. I found the film on Amazon Prime Video and gathered my wife and daughter last Sunday night watch to the film.

I don’t use Amazon Prime Video often. We’ll rent a movie occasionally through the service, but I spend a lot more time using one of our other streaming services. Despite this limited use, I navigated the Prime Video menu and selected the film. For some reason, Amazon (inaccurately) predicted that we’d prefer to watch the dubbed version of the movie rather than read subtitles. So, I stopped the movie, fumbled through the captioning menu, and tried to restart the movie with English subtitles rather than the default dubbing. I was somewhat successful. While the movie was now playing in Spanish with English subtitles, the positioning and size of the captioning made it difficult to read. So, I navigated back to the captioning menu but accidentally restarted the movie again. At this point, I started getting frustrated. We had watched the first few minutes of the movie several times at this point. So, when my daughter asked if I needed a hand, I angrily tossed the remote to her. And I sat there silent and angry.

At the time, my daughter wondered why I had gotten so angry. She was graciously offering to help me in a time of need. She streams a lot of movies and almost always uses the captions when she watches. She has much more experience knowing that to access Prime Video’s captioning you have to click a certain button and use the directional remote to navigate to the menu. She also can expertly navigate to the captioning menus in Hulu, HboMax, AppleTV+, and Netflix. She’s a captioning wizard. She is well positioned to offer captioning assistance to anyone in need. So, why had I gotten so angry?

It has taken me a while to realize that my negative emotions really had nothing to do with her abilities or my own. They’re rooted in something else. This morning, I was listening to the ReThinking with Adam Grant podcast and Adam was interviewing Claude Steele. While he has held numerous academic positions at Columbia and Stanford, Steele is best known for his work on stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is defined as a “socially premised psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one’s group applies” (Steele & Aronson, 1995). According to stereotype threat, members of a marginalized group acknowledge that a negative stereotype exists in reference to their group, and they demonstrate apprehension about confirming the negative stereotype by engaging in particular activities. Steele describes this apprehension as “churn.” When someone feels like they’re in a situation where they could possibly be seen or treated in terms of the group, they can feel a mental and physical stress. They’re in a state of churn.

I know it might be tough to read that I’m somehow chalking up my anger to stereotype threat but let me explain. As I’m getting older, I’m becoming acutely aware that others may see me differently. My beard is whiter. My hair is greyer. I’m no longer identifying with the cool, hip, young academics. More often than not, I’m one of the older and more experienced faculty members in meetings. While I blog and podcast and write about technology, I feel I’m increasingly being lumped into the “old guy” category. With that comes my perceptions that others may see me as not being technologically able. That’s a huge identify shift for me. I’ve been the “tech kid” forever. Back in middle school, I was programming on a TRS-80. In high school, I helped to set up the movie projectors in classrooms. I built a microprocessor in college and learned to program in three different languages. Over the last five years, I’ve run technology workshops at my university, at local school districts, and at national conferences.

And now, I can’t use a stupid remote????

Thankfully, the ReThinking episode offered some guidance and some comfort. In their discussion, Adam Grant summarizes the challenges of stereotype threat and offers some ways to navigate the churn.

“The mistake a lot of us make in stereotype threat situations is we think, ‘Okay, if this performance goes poorly, it’s creating a permanent and pervasive signal about my lack of ability. You know that that’s bad. I’m never gonna be good, and I’m never gonna be good at anything.’ And if people learn to make more specific and local attributions and say, ‘Okay, this performance or this test is not diagnostic of my ability. It’s not diagnostic of my ability today. And it’s also not diagnostic of my ability tomorrow. It’s just a, a snapshot of my performance in one particular moment, which happened to be a very stressful, high-anxiety experience,’ it’s a little bit easier then to not dis-identify with the domain, but not overreact to the performance in that moment as representative of the domain.”

So, maybe I can’t always figure out how to turn on the captions. It’s okay.  Thankfully, I have a smart, capable daughter who can help me in a time of need. And that’s nothing to get angry about.


Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.


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