Theoretical Background

What is a social-psychological approach?

A social-psychological approach focuses on the social context or situation, and peopleís subjective construal of that context, in order to understand, predict, and potentially alter their behavior. Although individualsí habits and personality are certainly important factors affecting their behavior, social psychologists believe that the seat of causality rests in the social situation and in peopleís construal of that situation. The key to making significant personal and social change involves understanding those situational processes and environmental regularities that influence peopleís behavior.

A social-psychological intervention approach assumes that people already possess many of the needed skills, areas of knowledge, and sources of motivation they need to succeed, and that the key to changing behavior is to remove situational barriers inhibiting the expression of these factors. Effective intervention involves providing the appropriate psychological intervention in the appropriate situation and at the appropriate time.

We have brought this social-psychological approach to bear on what we think is one of the most important social issues in America right now: the racial academic achievement gap. We aim to close this gap by developing and testing interventions that reduce the psychological impact of negative stereotypes and their adverse effects on academic performance. Regardless of whether or not they are believed, the well-known stereotypes about the intellectual abilities of Latino and Black American students have a significant impact on the performance of these students. Simply believing that other people might believe the stereotype can increase their academic stress and lessen their trust in academic authorities. The success of our approach rests in lessening the disruptive effects of negative stereotypes.

For decades, educators and scientists alike have tried to understand the racial achievement gap in American schools. Most explanations have centered on disparities in school preparedness stemming from economic disadvantage. Few doubt the importance of this factor. But as more sophisticated analyses and theories have been developed, it has become clear that economic disadvantage is not the only factor. Instead, evidence is mounting that one reason for the achievement gap involves social psychological factors that dampen performance by reducing minority studentsí ability to express the skills, knowledge, and motivation they already possess. Our approach puts at center stage these social psychological factors and ways they can be addressed so as to improve the performance not only of minority students but of all students whose performance may be inhibited due to psychological factors. Much of this work is based on a theoretical framework we call Social Identity Threat.

Social Identity Threat

Why is social identity—that part of peopleís self concept based on the groups to which they belong—so important? It is the basis for peopleís beliefs, goals, behavior, and their relationships. Who we are and who other people think we are is largely derived from our group memberships. How does social identity relate to academic performance? Widely known racial stereotypes about intellectual ability persist. Consider the situation faced by many African and Latino Americans students in school. They are aware of these commonly known negative stereotypes impugning the intelligence of their race, and they may worry that performing poorly could confirm the stereotype in the minds of others. This stereotype threat ( see Steele & Aronson, 1995 [link] and Spencer, Steele, & Quinn, 1999 [link]), a type of social identity threat, and the stress related to it can lead to under-performance by burdening people with an extra stressor not experienced by non-stereotyped students.

We have found that subtle features of the environment can trigger this stress. For example, one series of our studies demonstrated that simply observing a fellow member of oneís race in a stereotype-threatening situation (such as taking an IQ test) is enough to bring about feelings of threat and subsequent drops in performance in a mere observer. This collective threat points to how potent and ubiquitous the threat of negative stereotypes is and how it can affect a variety of academic situations. Our research has identified numerous other cues in the environment that can cause decrements in performance among negatively stereotyped students.

A theory-informed understanding of social identity threat has enabled us to develop effective intervention strategies. We have developed precise, psychologically attuned interventions that reduce the power of negative stereotypes to disrupt studentsí performance.

Self-Affirmation Theory

One way to reduce the power of negative stereotypes to disrupt studentsí performance and motivation is to boost studentsí overall sense of self worth and integrity (see Steele, 1988 [link]). The idea behind self-affirmation theory is that threats to self-identity will not have as much impact if people are reminded that their self-worth derives from many sources and not just the one in which they feel threatened. For negatively stereotyped students, the academic domain may be especially threatening to their self view, and therefore, stressful. This stress can make it difficult for them to perform up to their capabilities, or worse, can make them decide to avoid this negative influence by withdrawing from evaluative situations in which the stereotype is relevant.

However, most people have numerous identities, or components of their self image. A person can feel good about their performance in school or in athletics or as a family member or friend or about their religious practices. A threat in any one of these areas will not be as disruptive if people are reminded of alternative sources of self-identity.

We have developed an intervention based on self-affirmation theory and successfully used it in the classroom to improve minority studentsí academic achievement (see Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006 [link]). Our technique improved the performance of African American and Latino minority students (cutting their failure rate in a course for the term from 11% to 3%). It did so through a series of writing assignments that affirmed for them alternative sources of self-identity.

Creating trust in inter-group settings

Educators face a dilemma. Critical feedback may be necessary to improving studentsí performance, but it may also cause discouragement and distrust. This may be especially the case in cross-race situations, in which minority students may wonder if the critical nature of the feedback reflects bias against their racial group. We have been successful in developing an intervention that lessens the perceived probability of the stereotypeís being applied in such settings (see Cohen, Steele, & Ross, 1999 [link]). Our intervention increases the trust students have in their mentorís feedback. This has the important outcome of preserving, even increasing, studentsí motivation to use the feedback to improve their work. See Cohen, in press [link] for more detail.

The efficacy of this intervention, our laboratory research suggests, rests in its message that faith in the studentís potential rather than racial bias motivates the critical nature of the feedback. Students are more open to teacher comments that are critical of their work when they are assured (through theory-informed strategies) that the criticism is not coming from race-based biases. In fact, they take the feedback positively and see it as a sign that their teacher takes them seriously and was willing to give them honest feedback. Students in our treatment group in this study improved their grades by nearly a half of a grade point. At its heart, this intervention frees the student from the psychological burdens of being negatively stereotyped so that they can perform at the level they want to and are capable of.