The value of values affirmation in education and beyond

The fields of social and cognitive psychology constantly provide examples of how small changes in the environment can impact cognition which may seem shocking in their simplicity. Cleaning one’s hands may lead to an increased feeling of moral cleanliness [1], a patch of gray may appear as much darker or lighter in brightness depending on the context [2], and visual influences on speech perception, as when the mouth of someone speaking mismatches the sound, can drastically change the sounds that we hear [3]. Perhaps, then, it should not be so surprising that a subtle change in psychological mindset, induced by a relatively short task, should be able to dramatically influence academic performance.

Several recent studies have reported just this. The performance of racial minorities in academic settings, as well as that of women in quantitative fields like math and science, are subject to stereotype threat, or, as Prof. Claude Steele has described it, “the experience of performing under the threat of possibly confirming a negative stereotype about your group.”

However, stereotype threat may be subjectively reduced or eliminated when individuals experience self-affirmation, perceiving their own worth and integrity. A values affirmation task, designed to engage individuals in describing a value that they feel is very important to them, has been shown to boost the performance of certain groups in both secondary and post-secondary education [4-6]. Here, I’ll review some of these studies as well as how values affirmation might be applied outside the classroom.

Values affirmation and race in the middle school classroom

The first researchers to use such an intervention focused on minority students in middle school [4]. In an initial study, approximately 60 minority and 60 non-minority students in a seventh-grade classroom participated. One course was selected in which to administer a values affirmation task to a group of students (and a control task to another) and in which to measure performance. Near the beginning of the fall term, the students were randomly assigned either to a control condition or to a values-affirmation condition. In both conditions, students were provided with a list of values (like having strong relationships with friends or playing a musical instrument). In the values-affirmation condition, students were asked to pick the value which was most important to them and then write about why that value was important. In the control condition, students selected a value that was least important to them and wrote about why it might be an important value for others. In a replication of this study, a similar number of minority and non-minority students were assigned to each condition, but they were asked to select 2-3 most important values (values-affirmation condition) or 2-3 least important values (control condition).

In each study, members of the minority group who had been assigned to the values-affirmation condition outperformed those who had been assigned to the control condition. Moreover, minority students at a range of initial levels of performance benefited from the intervention, and the intervention led to a boost in performance in other, non-targeted courses as well. Non-minority students, on the other hand, did not show any benefits due to the values-affirmation intervention.

The authors interpret these findings as evidence that affirming values can eliminate a psychological threat (such as the threat of bias in educational situations based on race). This might have a small impact on academic performance initially but small increases can scale up to larger effects when they begin to build.

Values affirmation and gender in the college classroom

In another classroom study, researchers looked into the pervasive discrepancy between males and females in science majors and professions by applying values affirmation in a college physics classroom [5]. As before, two groups (women and men) were randomly assigned to a control group or a values-affirmation group. At two different points in the semester, they chose either an attribute judged to be least important (control condition) or most important (values-affirmation condition) to them. They then wrote about why that value would be important (for other people or for themselves, respectively). On a separate occasion, these students also provided a measure indicating how much they endorsed the stereotype that men outperformed women in physics.

In this study, the outcome measure was performance on four exam scores. As predicted, the values-affirmation intervention reduced the difference between men and women’s scores on exams as well as on a standardized measure of knowledge of physics, the Force and Motion Conceptual Evaluation (FMCE), at the end of the semester. This effect was strongest for women who endorsed the stereotype that men outperformed women in physics. Furthermore, in the control group, endorsement of this stereotype predicted worse outcome on final exam grades. However, in the values-affirmation group, this relationship was not evident, suggesting that values affirmation may have buffered women against the negative impact of such a stereotype.

Interestingly, the values affirmation also affected men’s scores on the class exams, but slightly negatively. However, there was no effect of values affirmation on performance on the standardized FMCE for men. The hypothesis that the same intervention might have inverse (or at least, strikingly different) effects on men and women is an interesting one to pursue. It could be, of course, that men are not as affected by stereotypes, on average, so there is a ceiling effect: affirmations may not be able to change one’s mindset toward the positive if the mindset is firmly rooted in positive thinking to begin with. However, it might be that men and women have different strategies for dealing with adversity (or negative thoughts), such that purportedly positive thoughts attributed to the values affirmation task may indeed have an adverse effect on the performance of some groups. Future work into such individual differences is important, especially if values affirmation might negatively impact some groups.

Values affirmation beyond the classroom

Related to values affirmation, self-affirmation theory proposes that a basic human motivation is that of establishing and maintaining a sense of self-worth and integrity [8]. This theory leads to the notion that establishing self-worth may not only provide a buffer against the negative but increase performance on certain types of tasks. In particular, when individuals experience self-doubt, the worry involved in processing such negative information may deplete resources that otherwise could have been deployed on whatever the task at hand may be.

To investigate this hypothesis in a group of low-income individuals, researchers employed a verbal form of values affirmations at a soup kitchen. In the control group, individuals described their daily meal routine. In the affirmations group, individuals were asked to talk about a time when they felt successful and proud. The authors found higher performance in the affirmations group (compared to the control group) both on a task widely thought to measure fluid intelligence and a task designed to measure cognitive control and inhibition. This difference persisted in a second experiment which controlled for possible differences in mood, in which the control group watched a funny video (designed to induce a positive mood). However, this difference did not persist in a group of high-income individuals. Perhaps most interestingly, the authors also included a more real-world outcome measure. As in the first experiment, individuals either described an event where they felt successful and proud (affirmations condition) or described their daily meal routine (control). Then, upon leaving the soup kitchen, they passed a table with information on Earned Income Tax Credits and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, both of which were programs that many of the participants were eligible for (but likely were not taking part in). Individuals who were in the affirmations condition were more likely not only to stop at the table but also to take a flier, indicating that the reaches of the affirmations may have benefits in real-world decision-making abilities.

Implications for teachers and policy-makers?

As the authors of the soup kitchen intervention study put it, their study (among others) “…explored the remarkable potential of simple interventions to influence cognition and behavior” (p. 10 [7]). Remarkably, they found that engaging individuals in meaningful thought about the values they took pride in had a host of positive influences on general cognitive abilities. Even among individuals in college, likely of higher socioeconomic status and with a higher level education than the individuals tested at the soup kitchen, affirming highly-rated values led to stronger performance. Though the precise mechanisms of how values affirmation or other self-affirmation tasks affect cognition are underspecified, it seems clear that engaging in a more positive mindset may lead to great benefits. Hopefully, this work will lead to positive changes in both education and public policy, perhaps even leading to therapeutic interventions for at-risk individuals.

References

[1] Schnall, S., Benton, J., & Harvey, S. (2008). With a clean conscience: Cleanliness reduces the severity of moral judgments. Psychological Science19, 1219-1222.

[2] Adelson, E.H. (1993). Perceptual organization and the judgment of brightness. Science, 262, 2042-2044. Demo here: http://web.mit.edu/persci/gaz/gaz-teaching/flash/plaid-movie.swf

[3] McGurk, H. & MacDonald, J. (1976). Hearing lips and seeing voices. Nature, 264, 746-748.

[4] Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313, 1307-1310.

[5] Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L.E., Finkelstein, N.D., Pollock, S.J., Cohen, G. L., & Ito, T.A. (2010).  Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: A classroom study of values intervention. Science, 330, 1234-1237.

[6] Harackiewicz, J.M., Canning, E.A., Tibbetts, Y., Giffen, C.J., Blair, S.S., Rouse, D.I., & Hyde, J.S. (2013). Closing the social class achievement gap for first-generation students in undergraduate biology. Journal of Educational Psychology.

[7] Hall, C.C., Zhao, J., & Shafir, E. (2014). Self-affirmation among the poor: Cognitive and behavioral implications. Psychological Science, 25(2), 619-625.

[8] Steele, C.M. (1988). The psychology of self-affirmation: Sustaining the integrity of the self. In L. Berkowitz, Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 21, pp. 261-302). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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