Last week, we saw the destructive effects of a psychological phenomenon not many people would have heard of known as "stereotype threat". This week, we look at some ways of mitigating the effects of stereotype threat. How can we stop children and students from stereotyped groups from underperforming in exams because of their knowledge of their own backgrounds? David Sherman and Geoffrey Cohen summarise the results of recent research showing that a technique called "self-affirmation" can be used to stop not only stereotype threat, but a host of other irrational behaviours, and gives us a new, different, and somewhat more optimistic view of people's irrationalities.
Based on self-affirmation theory, people's irrationalities more often than not don't stem from a "lazy controller" as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (see episode 11), but rather from a need to protect one's ego. For example, people will ignore evidence against what they currently believe not because of some in-built, immovable bias, but because the evidence is threatening to their sense of self. All that it takes for them to approach the new evidence rationally is to remind them that their sense of self is strong and multi-faceted enough that changing this one opinion won't lead to an identity crisis.
So, were the self-esteem and self-help pioneers right in suggesting that we look at ourselves in the mirror and say how much we love ourselves? It turns out that the "self-affirmation" that Sherman and Cohen refer to is very different - indeed, almost diametrically opposed - to that which has been advocated by numerous self-help gurus. Self-affirmation works when it is *subconscious* and in a *different* field to the one in which one's ego is threatened; the gurus, meanwhile, suggest that we actively face difficulties in learning, for example, by saying "I am intelligent" to ourselves. In short, make sure you understand self-affirmation theory by looking at the evidence first, rather than jumping in with whatever sounds like it might work.
An absolute gem that seems not to be much talked about, self-affirmation theory gives us both practical approaches to dealing with problems, and a fresh and surprising theoretical viewpoint on various issues in cognitive science. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.
Enjoy the episode.