Category Archives: Social Cognition

Are you afraid to go to Mexico? Mental shortcuts may promote misperceptions about risk

By Kevin R. Betts

Whenever I mention growing up in Metro Detroit to people in my current city of Fargo, I find myself begrudgingly answering questions about street crime and gang violence — regional attractions and achievements, in contrast, are rarely mentioned. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising given Detroit’s current label as “America’s most dangerous city” and generally gritty reputation. But I can understand why Mexico’s tourism division speaks of fighting battles against misunderstood risks and geographical imprecision propagated by politicians and the media. Speaking to Newsweek about Mexico’s recent achievements, a Mexican official says “Everything you do is like the fourth paragraph. It should be the headline.

The generalized American fear of traveling to Mexico is not without reason. The country’s drug war alone has lasted four and a half years and left 35,000 dead. Yet, politicians and the media speak of this violence as if it were the only story to be told about the country. In reality, risks faced by Americans in Mexico are quite low. Newsweek’s Bryan Curtis crunches the numbers: “…if you look at the number of Americans killed in Mexico since the drug war began in 2006, and then isolate the number of innocents “caught in the crossfire,” it amounts to only 10 or 20 killings per year….This is in a country with hundreds of thousands of American expats and more than 17 million American tourists.” David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute, confirms: “It would be naïve to say there is zero risk…But it would be alarmist to say the risk is much higher than ‘very low.’

So why do so many Americans fear crossing their southern border? It probably has a lot to do with the way in which we process information about unknowns. The availability heuristic, for example, is a rule of thumb we use to predict the likelihood of events based on the ease with which examples can be brought to mind. When we think of Mexico, we may visualize beheadings, kidnappings, and mass graves — images that have been provided for us by politicians and the media in recent years. Just as our attention is drawn toward these acts of violence, our attention is drawn away from Mexico’s natural beauty, delicious food, and friendly people. Another rule of thumb known as the representativeness heuristic contributes to this misperception by leading us to judge the probability of one event by finding a comparable event and assuming the probabilities will be similar. So when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that violence is commonplace in places like Acapulco as well. Or more precisely, when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that all parts of the city are equally dangerous.

Residents of Detroit understand that their community is more than “America’s most dangerous” and violence in one part of the city says little about violence in another part of the city. Likewise, Americans should realize there is more to Mexico than drug wars and that violence in one region says little about violence in other regions.

Read more:

Bishop, M.A. (2006). Fast and frugal heuristics. Philosophy Compass, 1/2, 201-223.

Come on in, the water’s fine (Newsweek)

America’s most dangerous cities (Forbes)

How Netflix just made a bad thing worse

By Kevin R. Betts

Netflix witnessed a storm of customer outrage and tumbling stock prices this month as they dramatically increased their price for subscription to the service. Early this morning, CEO Reed Hastings reacted with an email to customers. The email started, “I messed up. I owe you an explanation.” And an explanation did follow – not only about why the price hike would continue, but also about how subscribers would now be paying for two services, Netflix and Qwikster, if they wished to continue with the full set of features previously provided. I predict that this latest move will lead to even more problems for the company.

I am a longtime subscriber to Netflix and enjoy their DVD and streaming services immensely. Sure, I was irritated with the dramatic price increase just like many other customers. But I accepted it and opted to continue receiving their services. The latest change has led me to reconsider my options, however. I enjoy movies and television, but do I really need to subscribe to more than one independent service provider for this? I never saw a reason to subscribe to Hulu plus or Amazon Prime for their video services because Netflix was already meeting my needs. So why should I subscribe to both Netflix and Qwikster? I shouldn’t and I now intend to update my video subscription service accordingly.

What Netflix must realize is that my decision to opt out of one service has little to do with its actual price. Hastings makes clear in his email to customers that “There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!).” Rather, it is my perception that has changed. I do not want to pay for two very similar video services. And I predict that many other customers will think and react similarly. Consider research addressing the effectiveness of partitioned versus bundled pricing. Sheng, Bao, and Pan (2007) state, “It is profitable to partition a total price into two separate parts only when the surcharge is relatively small compared to the base price, or the surcharge has a well-justified purpose. Otherwise, an all-inclusive price might generate higher purchase intentions, thus increasing demand.” Not only did Netflix partition its prices in such a way that has already proved to drive away customers, but they now want us to continue our patronage through two independent service providers. And away go another group of subscribers.

I hope that Netflix has thought about this issue more than I have because it is likely to have long-term consequences for their success as a company. Dramatic price hikes this month drove enough customers away. Making it psychologically easier for us to forgo their services is unlikely to make things better.

Read more:

Netflix renames DVD-by-mail service, adds video games (CNN)

Sheng, S., Bao, Y., & Pan, Y. (2007). Partitioning or bundling? Perceived fairness of the surcharge makes a difference. Psychology and Marketing, 24, 1025-1041.

View more posts by Kevin R. Betts

Truck driver… no wait a professor! Can glasses really change impressions of you?

By Erica Zaiser

I came across this cartoon recently from

Obviously it is meant to be humorous but it also made me wonder:  Does having a trait like glasses change people’s initial impressions of you? And has there been any research on this topic? Turns out, there has.

According to research by Hellstrom and Tekle (1994), people infer not only occupations based on physical traits but also personal characteristics like intelligence and trustworthiness. The researchers conducted studies in which participants rated the personality characteristics and speculated about the occupation of several male faces with either glasses, hair, or a beard. The researchers found that the combination of having glasses, a beard, and no hair was associated most highly with intellectual professions. The opposite in each category led to the strongest belief that the face belonged to someone in a trade profession or a factory worker.

Another set of studies by Terry and Krantz (1993)    further suggest that both men and women with glasses are rated as more competent and also have less social forcefulness. However, in their studies they found that beards were related to less competence. A key difference in this study was that the researchers looked at each difference separately whereas the first study looked at the combination of factors together. So perhaps a beard alone can diminish perceptions of competence but  not when paired with glasses or bald hair in which case a beard has a positive effect on competence ratings.

Of course, these studies only varied a few physical traits and didn’t take into account all the other subtle influences that help form first impressions. Nonetheless, it makes me wonder, would people respect my research more if I wore glasses?

Read More: Dimensions of Trait Attributions Associated with Eyeglasses, Men’s Facial Hair, and Women’s Hair Length

Person perception through facial photographs: Effects of glasses, hair, and beard on judgments of occupation and personal qualities

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Michele Bachmann gets God’s help for election

By, Adam K. Fetterman

Associated Press

Making appeals to religion is nothing new for American politics. Nearly every candidate makes statements such as “God bless America” or claims that their candidacy is a calling from God. However, on the other end of the spectrum, claiming atheism, or a lack of belief, appears to be political suicide. This, in fact, speaks to the pervasiveness of appeals to religion in American politics. Michele Bachmann, an always controversial conservative figure, is certainly no exception. In fact, some have claimed her to be supportive of a theocratic political environment. She invokes religion in nearly every context of her political ideology, which is no surprise given her background. Not only does she do this explicitly, but she also appears to be doing it implicitly. As Michelle Goldberg writes, at the debate in which she announced her candidacy for president, Bachmann did not speak as much about her religion. Goldberg attributes this to Bachmann’s attempt at trying to reach a larger swath of constituents (such as individuals who did not want to hear preaching). Even so, she was still able to make implicit references to the bible. One may ask, why so many appeals to religion?

It is effective! According to research by Bethany Albertson (2011), religious appeals influence voters without their awareness. Using implicit attitude measures, Albertson found that religious appeals not only affect implicit attitudes toward politics, but also behaviors. Furthermore, it also works on those who have previously self-identified as Christian. Given the religious history of America, this finding is not surprising. However, it should be alarming given that our country was intended to keep religion distinct from political mechanisms. Blurring this line is a clear tactic being employed by Michele Bachmann and, as we have seen, it may work. The question is, how much religion is too much?

“Bachmann’s Unrivaled Extremism” By, Michelle Goldberg – The Daily Beast

“God Help the Atheist Politician” By, Jon Rice – Watch Blog

“Bachmann, Santorum Pledge Allegiance to Theocracy in America” – By, Kevin Gosztola

“Dominionist Battle Cry ‘We are the Head and Not the Tail’ Used by Bachmann in Debate” By, Rachel Tabachnick

Albertson, B. (2011). Religious appeals and implicit attitudes. Political Psychology, 32, 109-130

Read all of Adam K. Fetterman’s posts here.

Should Pakistan be considered a terrorist state?

By Kevin R. Betts

When the U.S. SEAL team raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan earlier this month, they did so without any approval from Pakistani officials. They covertly flew helicopters into the region, raided the compound in a fierce firefight, and killed bin Laden and several others. The secretive nature of this raid follows from years of American distrust toward Pakistan, an ostensible ally in the fight against terrorism. Recent events have merely added fuel to the fire. Given that the U.S. was able to locate bin Laden from thousands of miles away, Americans are now asking why Pakistani military and intelligence agencies couldn’t do the same within their own country. Bin Laden resided in an elaborate compound only 80 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, and just 800 yards from a major military academy. Was Pakistan truly unaware of bin Laden’s whereabouts, or were they complicit in maintaining his cover?

The nature of this question poses an international Prisoner’s Dilemma. Emerging from game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma demonstrates why two parties might not cooperate even if it is in both of their best interests to do so. Generally, such situations require that each party choose between cooperating and defecting with the interests of an adversary. In the present scenario, Pakistan can choose to cooperate with the fight against terrorism or not. Salman Rushdie from Newsweek points out that “Pakistan is alarmed by the rising Indian influence in Afghanistan, and fears that an Afghanistan cleansed of the Taliban would be an Indian client state, thus sandwiching Pakistan between two hostile countries.” However, Pakistan also receives billions of military and intelligence boosting dollars from the United States. Thus, it may be in Pakistan’s interests to ignore certain terrorist activities (defect) while simultaneously appearing bound to U.S. interests (cooperate).

Defecting can grant the most valued outcome in a Prisoner’s Dilemma because it does not require compromise with the adversary’s demands, but this outcome is realized only if the other party chooses to cooperate at the same time. For instance, Pakistan could ignore (or support) terrorist activities while still accepting U.S. funds. If both parties choose to defect, the least valued outcome will result. In this scenario, Pakistan loses U.S. funding and the U.S. loses an ally in the fight against terrorism. Mutual cooperation grants each party a moderately valued but mutually beneficial outcome. Given that the United States has cooperated with Pakistan by providing monetary assistance, it is hoped that they will cooperate as well by assisting in the fight against terrorism.

Given this international Prisoner’s Dilemma, the U.S. must now make judgments about whether Pakistan has cooperated or defected. Many have argued that Pakistan has long been defecting, and that their apparent lack of knowledge about Bin Laden’s whereabouts reveals that this defection continues. Others argue that despite select intelligence failures, Pakistan remains an important ally to the U.S. in a region laden by terrorist threats. Whether the U.S. perceives Pakistan as having cooperated or defected will likely influence their decision about whether they should cooperate or defect themselves. What do you think? Should the U.S. continue to consider Pakistan an ally, or do recent events require a change in perspective?

Read more:

Pakistan: A Terrorist State (Newsweek)

Evans, A.M., & Krueger, J.I. (2009). The psychology (and economics) of trust. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 1003-1017.

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Obama, Osama, and the Cult of Conspiracy

By: Christopher C. Duke, PhD

In the 1950s, a group of psychologists led by Leon Festinger sought to better understand what happens when people are faced with conflicting thoughts and information. To study this, they infiltrated a doomsday cult that believed the world would soon be ending on an exact date and that the cult members would be rescued by an alien spaceship. The psychologists wondered what would happen when the cult members’ belief that the world would end conflicted with the evidence that the world was still here, spinning peacefully around the sun. Would the cult members concede that maybe they were wrong about the whole end-of-the-world-with-aliens thing? The night they expected the world to end, the cult spent the night praying together. When morning came and nothing happened, most of the cult members’ beliefs were strengthened rather than shaken. Instead of believing the world was never in danger, they believed they had prayed so hard they saved the world from destruction through their faith. Why?

In Festinger’s (1956) book When Prophecy Fails about his experience infiltrating the cult, he postulated that when people have conflicting thoughts (called cognitive dissonance), this is uncomfortable, and they seek to resolve the conflict by adjusting one thought, or by ignoring the thoughts. If they have already committed themselves to one thought by investing their time, public statements, and money to it, they are unlikely to abandon it when conflicting evidence arises. Cult members had given up jobs, families, and wealth to follow their beliefs about aliens and the end of the world, making it painful and very difficult to go back on these views. The nature of cognitive dissonance is still debated by researchers, but it is certainly true that once people have committed themselves to certain beliefs, evidence to the contrary may not convince them otherwise. According to Festinger, when people have not made commitments that are difficult to undo, or when they do not have friends who also share the refuted beliefs, they are more likely to be persuaded by evidence.

We can observe this kind of process happening with the conspiracy theorists who believe Barack Obama was born outside the United States. In April of 2011, two large-scale polls revealed that only 1/3 of self-identified Republicans said they believe Obama was born in America. The “birthers” have claimed the president is foreign-born and that they need evidence to be convinced otherwise. At first, the Obama released his official birth certificate (the “short-form” certificate), but the birthers believed this was somehow fraudulent. When announcements of Obama’s birth were found in Hawaiian newspapers from 1961, birthers claimed these were faked in the 1960s as an elaborate ploy. When Obama released the long-form birth certificate this month, conspiracy theorists were quick to decry it as a forgery, though with divergent explanations. For those who have not made strong commitments about the President’s birth, the new long-form certificate may be more persuasive. For those who have irrevocably committed themselves to the belief that the president was not born in America, no amount of evidence will convince them. Each piece of new evidence, no matter how genuine, will be viewed as further “proof” of the conspiracy.

Of course, like in most situations, the conspiracy theories about Obama are not a clean demonstration of one particular theory or effect. The conspiracy theories lift up the curtain on an entire circus of intertwined social psychological phenomena. Although Obama’s role as President suggests he is the leader of the American people, many Americans perceive his leadership as illegitimate in part because Obama does not conform to their perceptions of what the national ingroup “should” be, perhaps because of his ideological beliefs, political party, intellectual grounding, and/or race. Likewise, many liberals perceived President Bush to be an illegitimate leader for similar reasons. With both Obama and Bush, the official leader of the country seemed fundamentally different from what the ingroup “should” be to some segments of the nation, leading to perceived illegitimacy.

In support of this, the beliefs about why Obama is supposedly ineligible for the presidency are ever-shifting and mutating. Prominent birthers have claimed Obama is actually Kenyan, British, Indonesian, or some other nationality, providing a multitude of often mutually exclusive claims. These nationalities are very different from each other in geography and culture. This represents a kind of large-scale outgroup homogeneity bias. For opponents of Obama that see him as “Other” (that is, fundamentally opposed to their perceived ingroup) the nature of that Otherness is almost inconsequential. This can lead to nonsensical claims that Obama is surely Kenyan or Indonesian; atheist or radical Muslim; fascist or communist – anything but a member of the ingroup. As people commit and invest more and more in these claims, it will be increasingly harder for conspiracy theorists to walk back from these beliefs, no matter how absurd the beliefs appear to be. For those who have only flirted with conspiracy theories, it will be much easier to accept the birth certificate as valid.

With the recent death of Osama bin Laden, expect to see the same trend in conspiracy theorists. The “true believers,” who may believe bin Laden was already long dead or is still alive, will claim to need evidence, but any evidence given will be unlikely to dissuade them from beliefs into which they have psychologically invested themselves. Interestingly, for those who do believe Obama killed bin Laden and were only marginally committed to birtherism, bin Laden’s death may dissuade them of their birther beliefs, as bin Laden’s death will bolster Obama’s perceived legitimacy as their national leader.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hehman, E., Gaertner, S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2010). Evaluations of presidential performance: Race, prejudice, and perceptions of Americanism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 430-435.

Inspire magazine: Senseless extremist propaganda or effective recruitment tool?

Inspire Magazine, Spring Edition

By Kevin R. Betts

As millions of Americans tune in to news coverage about the death of Osama Bin Laden this week, a much smaller but equally ambitious group of Westerners are carefully reading and perhaps adopting the views put forth by contributors to the Spring issue of Inspire magazine. Contributors to this controversial and provocative English online magazine hope to inspire Western youth to take violent action against fellow Westerners in defense of Islam. In the most recent issue, contributors celebrate killings of Western service men and women, provide guidance on how to operate a Kalashnikov rifle, and discuss how current protests in the Middle East may be beneficial for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Before we write this magazine off as senseless extremist propaganda, let’s take a moment to seriously consider whether Inspire might actually be effective in at least partially meeting its intended goals.

Like other magazines, Inspire exerts both informational and normative influence over its readers. The information the magazine provides is of considerable value to its readers because it is unique and difficult to find through other means. Without explicit training, most Westerners wouldn’t know how to operate a Kalashnikov rifle. Likewise, few if any Western news contributors express the view that current protests in the Middle East may be beneficial to groups such as al Qaeda. Inspire provides English speaking readers with unique and valuable information that is not available to them through traditional venues. The normative influence that Inspire exerts over its readers is more subtle. The prevailing view among Westerners seems to be that violence enacted in defense of Islam is deplorable. Inspire suggests that this violence is not only legitimate, but desirable. Knowing that they have the support of others, readers that accept this divergent perspective may begin to engage in new behaviors that are consistent with it. These behaviors may range from mere support for extremist goals endorsed by the magazine to actual violence against Westerners. Inspire seems to effectively provide information that interested readers consider valuable, and presents this information in a light that makes it appear normative.

So Inspire may be at least partially effective in meeting its goals. English speaking Westerners—perhaps even some of your friends and neighbors—will read this magazine and make judgments about it. Some of these judgments will be in favor of the views expressed by contributors to the magazine. What do you think? Will Inspire inspire many Westerners to support and/or engage in violent defense of Islam? Or will its message fall on deaf ears along with other senseless extremist propaganda?

Read more:

Bin Laden is dead, Obama says (New York Times)

Chilling tips in al-qaeda magazine (Al Jazeera)

Smith, J.R., & Louis, W.R. (2009). Group norms and the attitude-behavior relationship. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 19-35.

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Confirmation Bias, Satire, and Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

By: Christopher C. Duke, PhD

Even if you are not a psychologist, you have probably heard of confirmation bias. Whether you have heard of it or not, you have most certainly seen it and engaged in it. Confirmation bias is the very human tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing world views rather than challenges them. Likewise, we tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting our views (Balcetis & Dunning, 2006). We all know people who have strong political views on particular topics. Are they likely to read and watch material that supports their views, or opposes their views? What about ourselves? We tend to think of ourselves as rational and logical judges of the world around us, but this is often not the case. Confirmation bias is well illustrated in the following quote (courtesy of You Are Not So Smart) from Terry Pratchett’s The Truth.

“Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.”

Confirmation bias is a long established phenomenon in social psychology, but more recent research applies confirmation bias to satire. Satire is interesting in that it supports one type of argument through making the opposing argument, allowing a huge potential for confirmation bias to influence our interpretation. As a result, satire is often misunderstood, such as in the case of Archie Bunker from All in the Family. Bunker was written as an ignorant and racist character, intended by creator Norman Lear to satirize bigotry and be disliked by the audience. Surprisingly to Lear, a segment of the audience saw Bunker not as satire, but as a role model (Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974).

More recent research has turned its eye to how people interpret The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert, in his own words, plays a parody of certain types of conservative pundits. Prior evidence suggests that some of the people intended to be Colbert’s satirical targets actually believe Colbert supports them, such as when Colbert was invited to host the 2006 White House Press Correspondents Dinner, or when presidential candidate Mike Huckabee thanked Colbert for his endorsement. In the study by LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam (2009) participants provided a range of survey data, including their political orientation and beliefs about The Colbert Report. More liberal participants believed Colbert was liberal and that the show was satirical. More conservative participants believed Colbert was conservative and genuinely believed his “satirical” arguments. Essentially, viewers of liberal and conservative orientations tended to perceive Colbert as supporting whatever views they personally held. Some might interpret these findings as unfavorable towards conservatives. However, everyone can be prone to these types of biases, and believing you are immune may make you more vulnerable. Without a doubt, political orientation is no inoculation against cognitive and social biases.

Here is one tip for overcoming confirmation bias within yourself: When most people do “reality testing” they seek information that confirms their existing views are correct. Instead, try to do the opposite. Try to find evidence that argues against your existing views. It may be uncomfortable, but it can be more likely to lead to information that is accurate rather than just comforting.

Balcetis, E., & Dunning, D. (2006). See what you want to see: Motivational influences on visual perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 612-625.

LaMarre, H. L., Landreville, K. D., & Beam, M. A. (2009). The Irony of satire: Political ideology and the motivation to see what you want to see in The Colbert Report.  International Journal of Press/Politics, 14, 212-231.

Vidmar, N., & Rokeach, M. (1974). Archie Bunker’s bigotry: A Study in selective perception and exposure. Journal of Communication 24, 36–47.

On Being Phony at Being Phony: The Impostor Phenomenon

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

Do you ever feel like you are, in some way, a fraud? Despite your successes in life – your good grades, your professional accomplishments, the high praise you receive from others – have you felt like you will eventually be unmasked as an impostor? This feeling is surprisingly common, and has been termed the Impostor Phenomenon (or Syndrome). It’s not a “real” disorder (you won’t find it in the DSM), but it is a very real phenomenon that affects many genuinely successful people.

First described by Clance and Imes (1978), these feelings are especially prevalent among graduate students, who feel they have been let in by accident, and they will eventually be unmasked as intellectual frauds. This is a concertn that is particularly relevant to the readers of this blog. However, the Impostor Phenomenon often lingers with highly successful professionals. A partial explanation could be that the more we progress in an area, the more we become aware of the limitations of our knowledge and abilities. This is not a new idea; Bertrand Russell said “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” But that may not be the whole story; many researchers have suggested the Impostor Phenomenon disproportionately affects women, raising the question of whether internalized negative self-stereotypes may be working to sabotage perceived self-efficacy and the internalization of success.

There is still a lot we don’t know about the Impostor Phenomenon – its frequency, distribution among demographic groups, ultimate causes, and how to reduce its negative effects. Much more empirical research is needed. But we can say for sure that if you feel like your successes have somehow been an accident and that it is only a matter of time before you are unmasked, you are by no means alone, and you share this feeling with many of the bright and talented. If you do feel this way, try talking with your friends and advisors about it. You may be surprised to learn just how common it is to feel like an impostor.

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15, 241-247.

Laursen, Lucas (2008). No, you’re not an impostor. Science Careers.

Reshaping reality by reshaping social perceptions: the power of talk in promoting equality

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

If you have taken an introductory social psychology class, you have probably heard of stereotype threat. This is a phenomenon where making people aware of a stereotype that could refer to the self increases the chance that the stereotype will come true. For example, on math tests where the students’ gender is made salient, women tend to perform worse than men. When the researchers emphasized to participants that gender scores on the test tended to be equal, their scores became equal. The same difference has been found on tests between black and white students; when the students’ race was emphasized, black students’ scores were lower than white students, but when equality was emphasized, the scores were the same.

While there are still competing explanations for why stereotype threat occurs, it is a very well documented phenomenon that can help to explain demographic achievement gaps. Fortunately, there are ways to counter the negative effects of stereotype threat and reduce demographic inequalities. One of the earliest ways discovered is to emphasize the expected positive outcomes on a task for under-achieving groups. While this does work, it is not always practical in real-world situations. An ideal solution would be a brief intervention with long-lasting effects that could work across many different situations. Smith and Postmes (2011) found that allowing small groups to discuss and challenge the validity of the stereotype can also reduce stereotype threat, though the duration of this promising positive effect was not fully known. This suggests groups can use discussion to reinterpret negative group stereotypes in a way that can empower the group and overcome negative effects.

A new study in Science advances our knowledge of the positive potential stereotype threat interventions (Walton & Cohen, 2011). The researchers theorized that stereotype threat occurs in part when people construe feelings of social adversity as an indictment of their social belonging. If social adversity can be portrayed by students themselves as universal to all students but temporary, then the negative effects of stereotype threat might be reduced. In the experiment, black and white first-year college students were subtly encouraged to generate such messages in the hopes that it would have long-lasting positive effects throughout their university career. This is indeed what happened, and the effects were powerful and long-lasting: compared to a control group, black students who received the intervention as freshmen achieved higher grades. Not only were their academic scores better, but they reported better health and they visited the doctor less, too. These effects were mediated by the students’ subjective construal of adversity; this means that feelings of social belonging are likely to be a key part of the process in reducing stereotype threat. Interestingly, students did not attribute these positive effects to the brief intervention they experienced three years earlier. Considering the brevity of the intervention, and the durability of its effects, this appears to be a very powerful tool in reducing demographic achievement gaps. More research is needed to better understand the processes behind and effects of the intervention, but it speaks to the power of social expectations to cripple our accomplishments, and yet also of our power to take steps to consciously reshape the social landscape in a way that leads to real and lasting change for the better. People often lament that we talk too much about problems instead of taking action; in some cases, talking may be one of the best actions we can take.

Smith, L. G. E., & Postmes, T. (2011). Shaping stereotypical behaviour through the discussion of social stereotypes. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 50-74.

Walton, G. M., & Cogen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1447-1451.