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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 23-Jun-13

 


Sunday 23-June-13

Boosting minority performance

Have you ever feared failure? Most of us have, though not all are willing to admit it. Although for some it is a relatively minor affair, for others it is a terribly debilitating blight on their lives. Fearing failure can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the focus on failing takes our eyes off success.

A principle behind this is consistency. We tend to behave consistently with our beliefs as not to do so is to risk the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. And as our beliefs about ourselves are strongly shaped by the beliefs of others about us, even negative beliefs, (as in the looking-glass self) we can be shaped into failure by the way others perceive us (or, more accurately, how we think they perceive us). This is a critical pattern that is found in bullying as the victim effectively accepts the imposed inferior position.

This also happens with minorities who, sadly often (though unconsciously), accept the out-group stereotypes imposed on them by others, including of being unintelligent, antisocial and generally inferior. The effect on students at school is that many become under-achievers and may go on to live as a burden on society rather than becoming a contributing citizen.

There is a remarkably simple solution to all this. Researcher Geoff Cohen and colleagues used a simple psychological intervention that reversed the downward spiral and led to academic success up to two years' later.

All they did was to ask 12-year-old students at an American school to choose one or more values, such as relationships, music and politics, then spending ten minutes writing about why those values were important to them. This process was repeated three to five times across a single year.

The result for African American students was to boost their annual result by half a grade, as compared with control students who did a dummy exercise. Those who completed the intervention were also less likely to be put into a remediation class for poorly performing students. Those who started on lower grades showed the greatest benefit. There was also a sustained benefit -- two years on, the participants were still accelerating.

So why does this work? A simple reason is that it gets the students to consciously evaluate what is important to them and so breaks the unconscious conformance to conflicting stereotypes.

Applying this principle more broadly, we can all benefit from occasionally taking stock, clarifying what is really important and what we want to achieve in life, and then comparing this to what is actually happening and where we are likely to end up on our present course.

Reference: Geoffrey Cohen, Julio Garcia, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Nancy Apfel, & Patricia Brzustoski (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science, 324, 5925, 400-403


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Dave, I very much like your bottom line. It is easy to lose sight of these things. Thank you.  

 -- Graham J


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