A Model, Interventions, Implications


In this article we discuss how social or group identities affect achievement. We also present a model of identity engagement that describes how a salient social identity can trigger psychological threat and belonging concerns and how these can produce persistent performance decrements, which through feedback loops can increase over time. The character of such processes may be revealed only over time because they are recursive in nature and interact with other factors in chronically evaluative social environments. Finally, we address how this model helped in the development of successful interventions. KEYWORDS—stigma; stereotype threat; achievement gap; race; gender; achievement; identity; social identity What motivates people to achieve is one of psychology’s classic questions. It is thought that motivation often depends on whether an endeavor is linked to one’s sense of social identity and feelings of belonging. For instance, one’s family, racial or ethnic group, and religious affiliation can be important sources of social identity and social belongingness and so provide powerful motives for achievement. Research has begun to shed light on how identity contributes to motivation. A seminal study led students to identify with math by having their teachers label them as a ‘‘very good arithmetic student’’ or as ‘‘working hard in arithmetic’’ (Miller, Brickman,& Bolen, 1975). Compared with participants who had not been so labeled, the students in these two groups earned higher math performance, an effect present after 2 weeks. In a series of studies with our colleague Gregory Walton, we explored the relationship between social identity and motivation by making an achievement domain a basis of social belonging (Walton & Cohen, 2007a). A state of mere belonging, the minimal conditions needed to make individuals feel connected to others in an achievement domain, was produced in students. Students were either told that their birthday fell on the same day as someone who was amath major, assigned to a small group identified as the ‘‘numbers group,’’ or presented with the possibility of forming social ties in math. Each of these manipulations, by creating a sense of connectedness to others in math, independently raised participants’ achievement motivation, for instance increasing their persistence on an insoluble math puzzle by 70%. SITUATIONAL IDENTITY THREAT Amajor lesson of recent research is that social identities, such as one’s race or gender, can interact with other factors in situational to affect achievement. Steele and colleagues examine situational factors that can trigger stereotype threat (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 2002), a fear of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group. It can undermine performance by raising stress and increasing mental load (Schmader & Johns, 2003). For instance, when told that a difficult standardized test measured intellectual ability, African American college students performed much worse than they did when told the same test did notmeasure their ability (see Steele et al., 2002). White students, by contrast, maintained their performance. That is, African Americans underperformed when aware that failure could reinforce a negative stereotype about their race. Similar effects have been found for women in math,White men in certain athletic domains, and poor students in school (see Steele et al., 2002, for a review). Negative characterizations of valued social identities—when salient in a situation—can be threatening and so undermine achievement. Social identities can affect the motivation to achieve through their interaction with a sense of belonging. Belonging uncertainty, doubt as to whether one will be accepted or rejected by key figures in the social environment, can prove acute if rejection could be based on one’s negatively stereotyped social identity (Walton & Cohen, 2007b; see also Mendoza-Denton, Address correspondence to Geoffrey Cohen, Department of Psychology, University of Colorado, Muenzinger Psychology Bldg., Boulder, CO 80309-0345; e-mail: geoffrey.cohen@colorado.edu. CURRENT DIRECTIONS IN PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE Volume 17—Number 6 365 Copyright r 2008 Association for Psychological Science at STANFORD UNIV on June 24, 2010 cdp.sagepub.com Downloaded from Downey, Purdie, Davis, & Pietrzak, 2002). For instance, for nonstereotyped students, a bad day in school or an experimentally created sense of social isolation in an academic domain had little effect (Walton & Cohen, 2007b). However, for African American students, apparently identical hardships undermined their sense of belonging and motivation to achieve. Moreover, when African Americans’ belonging uncertainty was experimentally resolved, they did not experience the undermining effects of hardships. As discussed below, those who experienced such resolution later earned a higher GPA than their African American peers. The above research illustrates three key ideas. First, although a situation may seem identical for all those in it, it may differ radically for different groups of people. In classrooms, White students are in a situation testing their academic skills. African American and Latino students also confront this prospect. However, they also face the extra burden of knowing that their skills, and those of others in their group, could be viewed through the lens of a stereotype that questions their group’s intellectual and academic abilities. This concern can occur regardless of the actual level of prejudice. Second, intellectual achievement is malleable (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002). Subtle factors can profoundly affect performance. For instance, the effects of stereotype threat on women’s math performance and career aspirations were reduced when they were merely asked to generate a list of qualities shared by men and women (Rosenthal & Crisp, 2006). Third, because people derive self-worth from their group, they can be vulnerable to collective threat, a threat to the image of their group (Cohen&Garcia, 2005). Because this threat involves other group members and situations in which one is not personally evaluated, it can be more pervasive and chronic than other ego threats. For example, merely making African Americans aware that somebody else in their group could confirm a negative stereotype of their race led to a drop in their self-esteem and test performance. These three ideas informed both our theoretical model of social-identity threat and interventions that closed achievement gaps in schools. SOCIAL-IDENTITY THREAT IN CHRONICALLY EVALUATIVE ENVIRONMENTS In a social environment, no one performance or psychological state occurs in isolation. It interacts with other psychological and environmental factors often through recursive cycles. This notion lies at the core of the Identity Engagement Model presented in Figure 1. Although we focus on the implications of our model for minorities’ school achievement, similar processes can affect performance in a variety of settings, including intergroup conflict and negotiation, and can apply to any number of social identities (Cohen et al., 2007). As shown in Figure 1, on entering an important social environment like a classroom, people will often make a general assessment by asking, sometimes implicitly, ‘‘Is this is a situaCues disconfirm identity threat Threat appraisal: Ability and desire to cope with threat? Vigilance Is identity engaged? Performance contingent on taskand individual-related factors (e.g., feedback quality, self-efficacy, ability) Yes Sustained or improved performance Yes No Cues confirm identity threat Lower performance – + Fig. 1.The Identity EngagementModel of the effects of social-identity threat on performance. If people think their identity could be the basis of negative treatment, that identity will be psychologically engaged, leading them to be vigilant for situational cues related to whether or not they are in fact being treated negatively. If the cues disconfirm such identity threat, performance will be relatively more contingent on taskand individual-related factors, often leading to sustained or improvedperformance. If the cues confirm identity threat, an appraisal process will follow, in which people assess whether they have the ability and desire to cope with the threat. If the answer is yes, sustained or improved performance will tend to follow. If the answer is no, lower performance will tend to follow. Recursion can occur at several junctures, as when threat-confirming cues exacerbate vigilance or when low performance exacerbates the experience of threat, leading in turn to worse performance. 366 Volume 17—Number 6 Identity, Belonging, and Achievement at STANFORD UNIV on June 24, 2010 cdp.sagepub.com Downloaded from tion in which my identity (e.g., as a minority) could be tied to negative outcomes?’’ If they answer yes, their identity will be psychologically engaged. People tend to become vigilant when this occurs. They monitor for cues as to whether they are vulnerable to negative treatment based on their identity (Kaiser, Brooke, & Major, 2006; Purdie-Vaughns, Steele, Davies, Ditlmann, & Randall-Crosby, 2008). A minority student, for example, might scrutinize a teacher’s nonverbal behavior for bias. Such vigilance is a general and adaptive process. If people discover cues that refute the threat of devaluation, they will tend to feel fairly treated and their performance will depend relatively more on taskand individual-related factors, such as the quality of instruction and their self-efficacy. This will often lead to sustained or improved performance. In one study, relative to Whites, African Americans receiving critical feedback on an essay saw the feedback as more biased and displayed less motivation to revise it (Cohen & Steele, 2002). But when told that the feedback was motivated by the instructor’s use of high standards and belief in their ability to reach them—that is, when assured that the stereotype was not in play—African Americans responded as positively as White students did. Moreover, when told this, stereotyped students complied more with specific suggestions for improvement and thus their performance benefited more from the feedback (Cohen & Steele, 2002). If, however, people discover cues that confirm the existence of a threat, such as racial bias, an appraisal stagewill tend to follow. Here individuals assess whether they have the ability and desire to deal with the threat. Performance can suffer if people think the threat surpasses their ability or desire to overcome it. However, if individuals think that they can overcome the threat, a challenge response is likely, in which performance is maintained or improves. For instance, identifying with one’s group can be a psychological resource that offsets the threat of negative stereotypes (Cohen & Garcia, 2005). Psychological processes are recursive and interact with other factors in the social environment. The sense of threat can lower a person’s performance, heightening their sense of threat, which then further lowers performance in a repeating cycle until either performance stabilizes at a low level or an adaptation occurs. Such adaptation could occur when students disidentify or disengage from school or when an authority intervenes to interrupt the repeating cycle. Recursion can also occur in the vigilance stage. If people see bias, their vigilancemay rise, heightening sensitivity to bias-confirming cues. This repeating cycle could not only initially undermine trust but make trust increasingly difficult to regain. Other repeating cycles can occur in interplay with the environment. For instance, an underperforming studentmay be viewedby teachers as less able, or be assigned to a lower academic track, or affiliate with lower-performing peers, any of which could inhibit performance further and in turn increase psychological threat. There are at least two implications of our model. First, the effects of social-identity threat unfold over time in interaction with other psychological and environmental factors. Effects in the laboratory may prove only the first stage of a prolonged and complex process in the real world. Second, because recursive processes depend on continual feedback loops, a well-placed interruption can produce large and long-term effects. This can prove especially likely if the interruption occurs early enough to prevent a downward spiral from emerging or introduces a positive recursive cycle. For instance, interventions may prove especially effective if they reduce threat, which then improves people’s performance, further reducing threat, in a self-reinforcing cycle.


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