May 22, 2012

Subtle influences on self-concept and academic performance

Guest post by Caroline Heijmans 

Caroline Heijmans  
The very essence of one’s individuality – his self-concept – is integrally linked with interpersonal dynamics. Therefore, social scientists show a great interest in self-image and self-esteem-maintenance and the role of these processes in people’s perceptions and reactions regarding others. Research on self-categorization, for instance – has found that people use cognitive strategies to maintain positive perceptions of their social identities (Turner, 1983).

People posses many different social identities as they simultaneously belong to many different social identity groups (e.g., gender, socioeconomic class, race, ethnicity, sports etc.). Their selves are therefore multifaceted. One can be at the same time: woman, highly educated, Asian, and a basketball player. Some of these social identities are negatively stereotyped in a given context, such as ‘women are not good at math’, whereas others are positively stereotyped (e.g., ‘Asians are good at math’). Therefore, only part of the self is associated with any given stereotype, depending on which social identity becomes salient.

Since the pioneering research of Steele and Aronson (1995), most of the current research has focused on the effects of negative stereotypes on members of the target group (stereotype threat; Steele & Aronson, 1995a; 1995b), and different theories have been put forward to explain the underlying processes of this stereotype-based effect. Less emphasis, however, has been put on other effects of stereotypes, whether they are negative or positive (e.g., situations in which stereotypes enhance either performance or self-esteem).

Stereotype boost
Just as negative stereotypes about ones social group can impede targets’ performance, positive stereotypes can enhance it. This positive effect is called Stereotype boost (Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000; Levy, 2001; Shih, Pittinsky, & Ambady, 1999). When, for instance, a positive self-relevant stereotype is made salient, targets tend to perform better than non-primed targets (Shih, et al, 1999). For instance, Shih and colleagues (1999) demonstrated that Asian American women performed better on a math test compared to a control group when their Asian ethnic identity was subtly made salient (positively stereotyped) but worse when their gender was subtly made salient (negatively stereotyped). Work by Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg (1998) provided evidence that direct priming also activates self-relevant stereotypes which in turn have a direct impact on behavior. Priming ‘college professor’ in college students led to better performance on trivia questions (relative to a control group). This effect is probably due to the activation of social categories that are associated with intellectual ability, a positive stereotype that is associated with the participants’ social groups. Thus: the priming of a highly intellectual group leads to better intellectual performance.

Levy (1996) demonstrated a similar effect when comparing different stereotypes on the same social group. His research showed that widespread stereotypes about elderly people had different effects on memory performance depending on the valence of the stereotype. Priming negative stereotypes about old age produced a deterioration of memory while priming positive stereotypes improved memory.

Stereotype lift
While having a pernicious effect on targets, negative stereotypes may also have a beneficial effect on non-targets. As research has demonstrated, members of high status groups tend to perform better when a negative out-group stereotype has been made salient, a phenomenon called stereotype lift (Walton & Cohen, 2003). Research on the stereotype lift phenomenon shows that non-stereotyped groups, such as men, tend to perform better on math tasks (compared to a control condition) when the stereotype about women (‘not good at math’) has been made salient (Walton & Cohen, 2003). The enhancing effect is hypothesized to be a result of downward social comparison (Blanton, Buunk, Gibbons, & Kuyper, 1999; Fein & Spencer, 1997).

Furthermore, negative attitudes toward low-status individuals held by high-status individuals also can boost performance, especially when the latter are high in social dominance orientation (SDO; the extent to which one believes in social hierarchy among social groups). Research by Danso and Esses (2001) with White-Canadian students showed a positive relationship between SDO and performance on an intellectual test when evaluated by an Afro-American (versus White) experimenter. According to Danso and Esses, these participants might believe that they are superior to Afro-Americans in the intellectual domain and that they are entitled to such a position of superiority. Thus, in the presence of an Afro-American experimenter they might work harder to maintain the perception of White intellectual superiority.

Self-image threat
When confronted with self-image threat, people may even actively engage in prejudiced evaluations of others. By using available negative stereotypes they may reclaim for themselves a feeling of mastery and self-worth, and hence feel better about themselves (Fein & Spencer, 1997). Research by Fein & Spencer (1997) revealed, for instance, that participants evaluated an individual target person more negatively if they were led to believe that she was a member of a stereotyped group. This effect did not occur, however, when the participants were provided with an opportunity to restore their positive sense of self-integrity (e.g., by using a self-affirmation procedure). Moreover, when participants received self-image threatening information, they evaluated an individual more stereotypically and negatively if he appeared to be a member of a stereotyped group. These negative evaluations in turn were particularly effective in restoring participants’ threatened self-image.

The above mentioned research on the effects of stereotypes – whether they are positive or negative - underscores the fluidity of self-definition and its role in academic performance. As this self-definition is linked with interpersonal dynamics, teachers, trainers, and other professionals can play a role in the academic success of underprivileged groups by helping students to activate an identity that is associated with positive stereotypes, for instance, by simply asking Asian women to fill out their ethnicity (not gender) on the test form.

Differences in academic performance between social groups are often considered to be due to deleterious effects of negative stereotypes (Stereotype threat; Steele & Aronson, 1995a). Research on Stereotype lift, however, sheds another light on this phenomenon, since lift effects may contribute to these differences and thus widen the academic performance gap. Teachers and trainers should consider this while evaluating their students’ work.

The results of the above mentioned studies can also be used to prevent or diminish stereotyping and prejudice (e.g., in the class room). As Fein and Spencer demonstrated, individuals tend to stereotype more when their self-image is threatened, for instance by negative evaluations. Self-affirmation can help to restore the positive sense of self-integrity. Fein and Spencer, for example, gave their participants a list of positive values and asked them to circle the one that was most important to them. Subsequently, they had to write a couple of paragraphs explaining why this value was so important to them.

  • Blanton, H., Buunk, B. P., Gibbons, F. X., & Kuyper, H. (1999). When better-than-others compare upward: Choice of comparison and comparative evaluation as independent predictors of academic performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 420–430.
  • Cheryan, S., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2000). When positive stereotypes threaten intellectual performance: The psychological hazards of ‘model minority’ status. American Psychological Society, 11, 398-402.
  • Danso, H. A., & Esses, V. M. (2001). Black experimenters and the intellectual test performance of White participants: The tables are turned. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 37, 158–165.
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