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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The science of expectations
Science has a must-read article this week on racial achievement and how expectations fuel results (perspective article here). It's based on research on the stereotype threat, a phenomenon discovered about a decade ago that blacks tend to perform more poorly on aptitude testing when stereotypes about their academic performance are emphasized or implied before being tested. The WaPo has an article discussing this research both in racial and gender stereotype threats, and here is a more sciencey one. Basically, the stereotype threat exists when blacks or women or other susceptible groups are made to feel they will perform badly before they are tested, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the performance gap can be reduced, or even eliminated as in the case in studies on women, when you bolster the confidence of the subject before they take the test.

This new article in Science shows that not only does the stereotype threat exist, but it can be corrected by merely having black 7th graders write a "self-integrity" essay before being tested. The authors describe the procedure.

Following standard procedures, the affirmation and control exercises presented a list of values (such as relationships with friends or family or being good at art) (12). In experiment 1, treatment students were asked to indicate their most important value, control students their least important value. In the replication study, treatment students were asked to indicate their two or three most important values, control students their two or three least important values.

Treatment students in both studies then wrote a brief paragraph about why their selected value(s) were important to them. Control students wrote about why the chosen value(s) might be important to someone else. To reinforce the manipulation, students indicated their level of agreement with statements concerning their chosen value(s) (such as "I care about these values," in the treatment condition versus "some people care about these values," in the control condition). Upon completion, students placed the exercise packet in its envelope, sealed it, and returned it. Envelopes were collected and forwarded to the researchers. Teachers immediately resumed their lesson plan. One exercise was completed during the academic term in the first study, two in the replication study


The amazing thing was that this relatively simple intervention of making students think about their values or "self-affirm" as they describe it, reduced the academic acheivement gap between whites and blacks by a significant amount, especially among "low-performing" or "moderately performing" students (little or no improvement was seen in students that were already performing well). The affirmation or self-integrity assessment had no effect on whites' performance (ostensibly because they lack a stereotype threat). Here's the second figure from the paper.



It's truly amazing to see that the performance of students can improve so dramatically, simply by counteracting the their negative expectations of themselves based on racial stereotypes. I think this demonstrates two things. One is that institutional racism is still a problem, and second that those Bell Curve-believing idiots are just studying institutional racism. What do my science readers think?

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