Fear of failure at school can be crippling, especially for ethnic minority students. Research shows it's all too common for them to fear that their own poor performance will reinforce negative stereotypes. Unfortunately this anxiety only serves to undermine their achievement, thus perpetuating the cycle. Now Geoff Cohen and colleagues have shown a simple psychological intervention based on self-affirmation can help prevent this downward spiral, leading to academic benefits up to two years' later.
The intervention involved twelve-year-old students at an American school choosing one or more values, such as relationships with friends or family, music, art, politics, and so on, and then spending 10 minutes writing about why those values were important to them. Doing this has been shown in past research to reduce stress and to bolster people's ability to withstand the threat of failure.
Students in the intervention group did this three to five times over the course of a year. To test whether the intervention needs boosting, half of these students subsequently repeated the intervention two to four times over a second yearly period, whilst the other half did not.
For African American students, completing this intervention had a beneficial effect on their academic grades both early on in the study and at the end of the two-year period (a boost of approximately half a grade), compared with students who completed a neutral control intervention, which required them to write about their morning routine. Students completing the intervention were also less likely to be put into a remediation class for poorly performing students.
African American students who were lower performers at the study start showed greater benefit from the intervention, thus supporting the researchers' contention that the intervention works by putting the brakes on a negative cycle.
Moreover, the African American students who received the intervention in just the first year showed just as much benefit two years on as did those students who carried on receiving the intervention throughout the study. This shows that the effect of the intervention is long-lasting and does not need to be boosted over time. European American students, in the majority at the school, did not benefit from the intervention, regardless of their initial academic performance.
"The findings demonstrate how initial psychological processes, triggered by an apparently subtle intervention, can have psychological and pragmatic effects that perpetuate themselves over extended time spans," the researchers said.
Geoffrey Cohen, Julio Garcia, Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, Nancy Apfel, & Patricia Brzustoski (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1170769