Research Library

Search over three decades of research on mindsets, including Mindset Scholars Network briefs and working papers, and other publications from Network studies and initiatives.

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Differences in structural resources and individual skills contribute to social-class disparities in both U.S. gateway institutions of higher education and professional workplaces. People from working-class contexts also experience cultural barriers that maintain these disparities. In this article, we focus on one critical cultural barrier—the cultural mismatch between (a) the independent cultural norms prevalent in middle-class contexts and U.S. institutions and (b) the interdependent norms common in working-class contexts. In particular, we explain how cultural mismatch can fuel social-class disparities in higher education and professional workplaces. First, we explain how different social-class contexts tend to reflect and foster different cultural models of self. Second, we outline how higher education and professional workplaces often prioritize independence as the cultural ideal. Finally, we describe two key sites of cultural mismatch—norms for understanding the self and interacting with others—and explain their consequences for working-class people’s access to and performance in gateway institutions.

This article reviews the psychological barriers faced by low-SES students in higher education compared to high-SES students. It first reviews the psychological barriers faced by low-SES students in university contexts (in terms of emotional experiences, identity management, self-perception, and motivation). Second, the research team highlights the role that university contexts play in producing and reproducing these psychological barriers, as well as the performance gap observed between low- and high-SES students. Finally, they present three examples of psychological interventions that can potentially increase both the academic achievement and the quality of low-SES students’ experience and thus may be considered as methods for change.

Understanding the sources of the social class achievement gap in education is an important step toward ensuring that education serves its purpose as an engine of social mobility. This article provides a brief overview of the sources of the social class achievement gap as well as interventions aimed at closing this gap. The researchers outline three major sources of the social class achievement gap — individual skills, structural conditions, and people’s processes of meaning-making, or construals — and the interventions that target them. While all of these interventions can effect change, we propose that interventions will be most effective when tailored to fit the specific needs of students and the context in which they are delivered.

The economic decline of the Great Recession has increased the need for a university degree, which can enhance individuals’ prospects of obtaining employment in a competitive, globalized market. Research in the social sciences has consistently demonstrated that students with low socioeconomic status (SES) have fewer opportunities to succeed in university contexts compared to students with high SES. The present article reviews the psychological barriers faced by low-SES students in higher education compared to high-SES students. Accordingly, we first review the psychological barriers faced by low-SES students in university contexts (in terms of emotional experiences, identity management, self-perception, and motivation).

The researchers highlight the role that university contexts play in producing and reproducing these psychological barriers, as well as the performance gap observed between low- and high-SES students. They also present three examples of psychological interventions that can potentially increase both the academic achievement and the quality of low-SES students’ experience and thus may be considered as methods for change.

The research team theorizes that social group members’ numerical representation in an organization, compared with the majority group, influences concerns about their distinctiveness, and consequently, whether diversity approaches are effective. They combine laboratory and field methods to evaluate this theory in a professional setting, in which White women are moderately represented and Black individuals are represented in very small numbers. The team demonstrates that Black individuals report greater representation-based concerns than White women (Study 1). Next, they observe that tailoring diversity approaches to these concerns yields greater performance and persistence (Studies 2 and 3). The researchers then manipulated social groups’ perceived representation and find that highlighting differences (vs. equality) is more effective when groups’ representation is moderate, but less effective when groups’ representation is very low (Study 4). Finally, the team content-codes the diversity statements of 151 major U.S. law firms and find that firms that emphasize differences have lower attrition rates among White women, whereas firms that emphasize equality have lower attrition rates among racial minorities (Study 5).

In this commentary, we draw on two articles featured in this special volume to highlight the psychological and behavioral implications of the study of norms for underrepresented groups’ experience of fit and belonging in organizations. In particular, we discuss these implications with respect to our cultural mismatch theory of inequality. In the sections below, we first outline key tenets of cultural mismatch theory. Second, drawing on Gelfand & Harrington’s (this volume) discussion of the factors that increase the motivational force of norms, we argue that these same factors characterize underrepresented groups’ experiences of cultural mismatches, which should increase their reliance on norms. Third, drawing on Morris and Liu’s (this volume) distinction between peer and aspirational norms, we argue that consequences of the increased reliance on norms for experiences of cultural mismatch depend on whether underrepresented groups rely on peer versus aspirational norms.

The authors propose a cultural mismatch theory that identifies one source of the social class achievement gap between first-generation and continuing-generation college students. Four studies test the hypothesis that first-generation students underperform because interdependent norms from their mostly working-class backgrounds constitute a mismatch with middle-class independent norms prevalent in universities. First, surveys of university administrators revealed that American universities focus primarily on norms of independence. Second, a longitudinal survey revealed that universities' focus on independence does not match first-generation students' relatively interdependent motives for attending college and that this cultural mismatch is associated with lower grades. Finally, 2 experiments revealed that representing the university culture in terms of independence (i.e., paving one's own paths) rendered academic tasks difficult and, thereby, undermined first-generation students' performance. Conversely, representing the university culture in terms of interdependence (i.e., being part of a community) reduced this sense of difficulty and eliminated the performance gap without adverse consequences for continuing-generation students.

A growing social psychological literature reveals that brief interventions can benefit disadvantaged students. We tested a key component of the theoretical assumption that interventions exert long-term effects because they initiate recursive processes. Focusing on how interventions alter students’ responses to specific situations over time, we conducted a follow-up lab study with students who participated in a difference-education intervention two years earlier. In the intervention, students learned how their social-class backgrounds matter in college (Stephens, Hamedani, & Destin, 2014). The follow-up study assessed participants’ behavioral and hormonal responses to stressful college situations. We found that all difference-education versus control participants more frequently discussed their backgrounds in a speech, indicating they retained the understanding of how their backgrounds matter. Moreover, first-generation participants (i.e., whose parents do not have four-year degrees) in the difference-education versus control condition showed greater physiological thriving (i.e., anabolic balance), suggesting they experienced their working-class backgrounds as a strength.

An intervention designed to reduce the gap between first- and continuing-generation college students used senior students' real-life stories to illustrate how students' diverse backgrounds can shape what they experience in college. The intervention eliminated the social-class achievement gap by increasing first generation students' tendency to seek out college resources, improving their GPAs.

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