"In the past, psychological studies have generally found that people do worse when they are in the minority," says Michael Inzlicht, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Scarborough and the study's lead author. "But when speaking about stereotypes and individual response with adults from minority communities, I've been approached by many people who recognized what I was saying but felt they thrived under those circumstances. This study is the first to examine that kind of personal resilience to stereotypes and prejudice."
In one experiment, Inzlicht and his colleagues at New York University and Columbia University selected 26 female undergraduate students with exceptional mathematical ability and assessed for the degree to which they could moderate their behaviour under different social circumstances. The students were divided into groups of three and before taking a difficult math test, believing that they would compare and discuss their tests scores with the other participants when finished. Half the groups were composed entirely of women; in the remaining groups, the women were outnumbered two-to-one by male students collaborating with the researchers.
"Generally, the women who were able to monitor their behavior were more resilient to the pressure created by competing with and being outnumbered by men," says Inzlicht. "We were surprised, however, that those with this characteristic performed significantly worse in the same-sex environment, while their peers with lower self-monitoring ability did significantly better."
In a second experiment, 41 black female students with high SAT scores were assigned to three types of groups -- one composed entirely of other black students, one in which they were with one white student and one other black student and a third group in which black students were outnumbered two-to-one by white students. All of the students were tested for their self-moderating behaviour ability before taking the verbal portion of the GRE test, believing that they would share their GRE test scores when finished.
"Again, we found the results from this experiment were more nuanced than expected," says Inzlicht. "Students who aren't able to adapt to their circumstances did better when their race was more fully represented within the groups of three, while the more resilient, high self-monitors did better when outnumbered."
The study's findings demonstrate that while same-sex or race-based segregation has positive results for some students, it shortchanges others.
"It may be that there's a critical period in which students should be segregated among their peers to build their resilience," Inzlicht says. "Teaching students to regulate their behaviour through mindfulness and role-modelling exercises as they become aware of how stereotypes affect themselves and others is another possibility educators may wish to consider. In the meantime, we need to try and collect more data about race so we can determine which students aren't doing well and under which circumstances, and develop strategies to help them do better."
The study was funded by a Spencer Foundation/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded to Michael Inzlicht; additional funding was provided through a SPSSI Grants-in-Aid Award to Inzlicht and an NSF CAREER Award to Joshua Aronson at New York University.
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