race, belonging, & responses to adversity (Walton et al, forthcoming)

Findings from a paper by Walton and Cohen (link), forthcoming in Science, have very intriguing implications for how differences in racial groups’ past life experiences affect how they interpret present adversity, with consequences for motivation and success:

“We all experience small slights and criticisms in coming to a new school” said Greg Walton, an assistant professor of psychology whose findings are slated for publication in the March 18 edition of Science. “Being a member of a minority group can make those events have a larger meaning,” Walton said. “When your group is in the minority, being rejected by a classmate or having a teacher say something negative to you could seem like proof that you don’t belong, and maybe evidence that your group doesn’t belong either. That feeling could lead you to work less hard and ultimately do less well.”

The paper presents results from a social experiment in which,

Those in the treatment group read surveys and essays written by upperclassmen of different races and ethnicities describing the difficulties they had fitting in during their first year at school. The subjects in the control group read about experiences unrelated to a sense of belonging…The test subjects in the treatment group were then asked to write essays about why they thought the older college students’ experiences changed. The researchers asked them to illustrate their essays with stories of their own lives, and then rewrite their essays into speeches that would be videotaped and could be shown to future students. The point was to have the test subjects internalize and personalize the idea that adjustments are tough for everyone.


The researchers tracked their test subjects during their sophomore, junior and senior years. While they found the social-belonging exercise had virtually no impact on white students, it had a significant impact on black students….[G]rade point averages of black students who participated in the exercise went up by almost a third of a grade between their sophomore and senior years. And 22 percent of those students landed in the top 25 percent of their graduating class, while only about 5 percent of black students who didn’t participate in the exercise did that well. At the same time, half of the black test subjects who didn’t take part in the exercise were in the bottom 25 percent of their class. Only 33 percent of black students who went through the exercise did that poorly….[T]he black students who were in the treatment group reported a greater sense of belonging…They also said they were happier and were less likely to spontaneously think about negative racial stereotypes. And they seemed healthier: 28 percent said they visited a doctor recently, as compared to 60 percent in the control group.

Of course we need to be careful in drawing conclusions about the “effects” of race, for reasons that have been discussed at length by proponents of the “manipulability” theory of causation (link, a theory that I find persuasive). In brief, race was not subject to experimental manipulation here. Our willingness to believe this interpretation of the results is based on plausible theoretical claims, but do not cleanly arrive as a result of the experimental design. Nonetheless, the results are quite suggestive of how one’s experience as a member of a stigmatized group can affect how you interpret adversity.

HT: Kim Yi Dionne (blog), The Situationist (link).


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