Brief social belonging intervention provides lasting benefits for students from ethnic minority groups

Currently, one of the most interesting and practically useful research areas within psychology is that of short-term psychological interventions. A new article in Science shows how one of these types of interventions, the social belonging intervention, can play an important role in solving the disadvantages of ethnic (and other) minority groups.

The fear of not belonging

In order to achieve anything in life, it is necessary to use the opportunities and resources that you have at your disposal. But sometimes socio-psychological concerns can hinder people from making the most of the opportunities and resources they are given. This can happen, for example, with students from an ethnic minority group who are starting a higher education.

When such students notice that they are underrepresented in that environment, they can suffer from belonging uncertainty, in other words: they fear that they actually do not belong in that environment. When they have this concern, they can interpret all kinds of setbacks as confirmation of the idea that they actually do not belong in that environment. This can lead to a downward spiral where they begin to participate less in study and social activities and begin to withdraw.

The social belonging intervention (2011 study)

Psychologists have developed an intervention to nullify the effects of this belonging uncertainty. Walton & Cohen (2011), for example, had first-year students (N = 92) with an ethnic minority background (African-American) read stories of senior students with a similar ethnic background for an hour. In these stories, these senior students described various setbacks and everyday problems and obstacles they had encountered in the transition from high school to college and how gradually their experiences got better and better. These stories described the problems as normal in the transition to university and as temporary and thus not as proof of not belonging.

Compared to ethnic minority students from the control groups, students who received this intervention then had higher grades in their second year of study and reported at the end of their education that they felt more of a sense of belonging, were happier and healthier. Other studies subsequently showed similar effects of such social belonging interventions in other contexts and with other groups at a disadvantage.

How can such a small intervention have such an important and lasting effect?

Several aspects of this study are surprising. First, how such a very small intervention (reading stories for an hour) can have such an important and long-lasting effect. Second, that a large majority of the students involved could not accurately recall the intervention and that a large majority also attributed their success to some degree to that intervention. One explanation for the effectiveness of the social belonging intervention is that it initiates a different way of interpreting and dealing with everyday events. The figure below shows this.

The fear of not belonging leads to a negative spiral of thoughts and behaviors, while the thought that the experienced problems and setbacks are normal in the situation leads to a positive spiral of thoughts and behaviors.

Follow-up research (2020)

Brady et al. (2020) conducted a follow-up study in the same individuals who participated in the Walton & Cohen (2011) study. These respondents were now about 27 years old. They asked them to describe four things: 1) their career satisfaction and success, 2) their general psychological well-being, 3) their physical health, and 4) their commitment and leadership in their community. The figure below summarizes the main primary results.

As this figure shows, respondents reported more satisfaction, success, well-being, health and engagement than control group respondents (which consisted of individuals from the same ethnic background) and comparable to slightly better than dominant ethnic group respondents. The students who had received this short social belonging intervention many years earlier.

Making use of student mentors

The researchers also looked at the role of student mentors. It turned out that students who received the intervention had made more use of student mentors and that this help had played an important role in their study success. Ethnic minority students from the control group were found to make less use of this helpful help from mentors. To illustrate, a student from the control group wrote: “I couldn't say I had any help from a mentor at school. Not because there were no interested teachers, but I didn't look it up myself. ”

One student from the intervention group wrote: “The first year was very difficult for me. I struggled with the subjects and felt I didn't belong. I started to spend more time with my tutor. We bonded well and she helped me realize that I belonged in school. Thanks to her I was able to make better contact with my fellow students and deliver better results. We are still in touch. ”