Meghan Meyer, PhD (c) – Brain Blogger http://brainblogger.com Health and Science Blog Covering Brain Topics Wed, 30 May 2018 15:00:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.6 A Thin Line Between Love And Hate… In Your Brain http://brainblogger.com/2011/07/23/a-thin-line-between-love-and-hate-in-your-brain/ http://brainblogger.com/2011/07/23/a-thin-line-between-love-and-hate-in-your-brain/#comments Sat, 23 Jul 2011 12:00:07 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=6830 We are all familiar with the fuzzy feelings that accompany falling in love. You and your partner become emotionally connected, supported, and complete. Although human love is a complicated and long journey, scientists consistently find that the release of a specific neuropetide—oxytocin—may kick start these feelings right away in courtship. In fact, for the past few decades researchers have referred to oxytocin as the “love hormone,” and credit its release as the glue that ties humans to their loved ones.

Oxytocin’s cupid effect is not specific to romantic love, but rather various forms of pro-sociality. Pregnancy and labor are times when a woman naturally experiences surges of oxytocin, which may facilitate mother-infant bonding. In males, administering oxytocin has been shown to increase trust, understanding, and even enhance empathy in males with social deficits. Nonetheless, oxytocin is best known for keeping us monogamous, or “pair bonded” as the scientists say.

But is oxytocin really the saccharine drizzled on social life? Recent findings suggest not. While oxytocin may enhance positive emotions and pro-sociality with the people we care about, it may also contribute to negative views and behaviors towards people to whom we are not close. Research in social psychology finds that humans simultaneously show favoritism for the people in their social circle (“ingroup”) and derogation of people in social groups that are different from their own (“outgroup”). Although not conclusive, recent findings suggest that administering oxytocin to males not only enhances their in-group favoritism, but in some cases, also increases defensiveness towards outgroup members.

Given the atrocities that can result from ethnocentricity, the suggestion that oxytocin could increase an ingroup bias calls into question whether oxytocin is really the brain’s warm and fuzzy cuddle chemical. When it comes to oxytocin, does a rose by any other name really smell as sweet?

References

Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans Nature, 435 (7042), 673-676 DOI: 10.1038/nature03701

Bartz, J., Zaki, J., Bolger, N., Hollander, E., Ludwig, N., Kolevzon, A., & Ochsner, K. (2010). Oxytocin Selectively Improves Empathic Accuracy Psychological Science, 21 (10), 1426-1428 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610383439

De Dreu, C., Greer, L., Handgraaf, M., Shalvi, S., Van Kleef, G., Baas, M., Ten Velden, F., Van Dijk, E., & Feith, S. (2010). The Neuropeptide Oxytocin Regulates Parochial Altruism in Intergroup Conflict Among Humans Science, 328 (5984), 1408-1411 DOI: 10.1126/science.1189047

De Dreu, C., Greer, L., Van Kleef, G., Shalvi, S., & Handgraaf, M. (2011). Oxytocin promotes human ethnocentrism Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (4), 1262-1266 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015316108

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“I Feel Your Pain” – The Neural Basis of Empathy http://brainblogger.com/2010/02/09/i-feel-your-pain-the-neural-basis-of-empathy/ http://brainblogger.com/2010/02/09/i-feel-your-pain-the-neural-basis-of-empathy/#comments Tue, 09 Feb 2010 12:00:16 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=3854 Last month, a terrible earthquake raised havoc in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. While the Haitians in Port-au-Prince are miles away from us, witnessing media images of their physical and emotional suffering moves us tremendously, and motivates many of us to respond to their distress with monetary and other donations. In a sense, this is an amazing human feat—that we are able to feel for other people’s far away tragedies. How is it that we are so moved? This is a question about human empathy, and it has boggled the minds of great thinkers for centuries. Indeed, German philosopher Rudolf Lotze coined the term empathy (einfuhlung) to literally mean “in” (em) and “feeling” (pathos), or “to feel into.”

Since Lotze’s time, empathy has become an area of contemporary psychological and neuroscientific research. In psychology, empathy refers to the ability to understand another person’s mental and emotional experience. While a great deal of psychology research created a conceptual understanding of empathy, it was in the early 1990s that researchers first gained insight into the biological mechanisms that may underpin empathy. Researchers at the University of Parma, Italy, discovered that when macaque monkeys observe another individual’s (monkey or human) actions, the neurons that normally fire when the monkey him/herself performs the same action also fires in response to watching another person. The finding of these neurons, known as ‘mirror neurons,’ suggests that these monkeys use the same neural mechanism to represent their own and others’ actions, creating a neurophysiological link between one’s own experience and that of another individual. Humans also seem to have mirror neurons in brain areas analogous to those observed in the macaques. Several studies confirm that when humans observe another person’s intentional action and/or emotional expressions, they activate brain areas that are also engaged when the person would perform the action or experience the emotion him/herself.

It is worth mentioning that the relative role of mirror neurons in human empathy is currently of heated debate among researchers in neuroscience and psychology. The mirror neuron theory suggests that because of the immediate overlap in neural activation in response to our own and other individual’s actions, we are able to imagine another individual’s subjective experience. Yet, much of the time we are either inaccurate about or apathetic towards another individual’s experience. Mirror neurons do not explain why humans empathize with others more or less easily, nor whether we are more or less accurate in imagining their internal mental experience.

Although there is much more to learn about how humans experience empathy, the discovery of mirror neurons are a major contribution to our understanding. For now, the next time you pass someone on the street and feel sad because they look sad, you may have a better understanding as to why this happens. As the old saying goes, “I feel your pain.”

References

Rizzolatti, G., & Craighero, L. (2004). The Mirror-Neuron System. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27 (1), 169-192 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230

Rizzolatti, G. (1996). Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions Cognitive Brain Research, 3 (2), 131-141 DOI: 10.1016/0926-6410(95)00038-0

Decety, J., & Meyer, M. (2008). From emotion resonance to empathic understanding: A social developmental neuroscience account Development and Psychopathology, 20 (04) DOI: 10.1017/S0954579408000503

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White Bears – The Paradox of Mental Suppression http://brainblogger.com/2009/12/09/white-bears-the-paradox-of-mental-suppression/ http://brainblogger.com/2009/12/09/white-bears-the-paradox-of-mental-suppression/#comments Thu, 10 Dec 2009 03:41:07 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=3414 Whatever you do, don’t think of a white bear. Go on, close your eyes, relax, but don’t think of a white bear… So, what happened? Most likely, you were overwhelmed by thoughts of a white bear. This mini-experiment highlights the fascinating paradox of thought suppression. That is, once we explicitly try not to think of something, we find that we think about it all the time. Indeed, in its worse forms, the failure of thought suppression mars the minds of those suffering from various psychological disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and even depression.

In a classic psychology book, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts, Professor Daniel Wegner reviews research on the uniquely human ability to control our thoughts, as well as why our attempts to do so often fail. Drawing from one of Tolstoy’s short stories in which he describes a peer’s challenge to stand in a corner and not think of a white bear, Wegner used a white-bear task in a Harvard psychology laboratory to test the effectiveness of intentional thought suppression. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. In both conditions, participants were instructed to verbalize their stream of consciousness for five minutes. In one condition, participants were told that during their articulation, they could think about a white bear. In the other condition, participants were told that they were not allowed to think of a white bear during articulation. All participants were to press a button if they thought of a white bear, and their verbalizations were recorded, and the number of white bear acknowledgments were counted. While participants in the suppression condition mentioned the white bear less than people in the express condition, all participants pressed the button at about equal rates, indicating that the goal to suppress the thought was hardly effective.

Perhaps most interesting though, was what happened when subjects in the suppression condition subsequently performed another stream of consciousness session, however this time were told that they were allowed to think of a white bear. Now, these participants who originally attempted to suppress the white bear thought spent an overwhelming amount of time discussing white bears and pressing the button, significantly more so than the group that was allowed to think of a white bear without any previous suppression. It appeared that suppression of a thought led to its subsequent overindulgence.

This rebound effect has interesting implications for various situations in which we try to control our thoughts and behaviors via suppression. For example, imagine a dieter who swears off sweats, constantly reminding herself, “don’t eat that.” Based on Wegner’s study, it seems that if she later allows herself a small cheat, like maybe some candy on Halloween, she may spiral into an over-indulgence in pro-sweet thoughts and behaviors, thwarting her original goal to lose weight. Or, perhaps for an individual with OCD, reminding oneself not to think about an obtrusive thought may backfire. According to Wegner, a better tactic may be to engage in focused distraction, as opposed to obsessing over what one should not do. Indeed, Edgar Allen’s short story, The Telltale Heart, highlights this principle rather nicely: Don’t drive yourself mad with ruminations regarding what you seek to avoid addressing; doing so may simply lead to its manifestation.

References

Wegner, D. M. (1994). White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control. The Guilford Press: NY, New York.

Wegner, D., Schneider, D., Carter, S., & White, T. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53 (1), 5-13 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.53.1.5

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How Culture Shapes Our Mind and Brain http://brainblogger.com/2009/10/10/how-culture-shapes-our-mind-and-brain/ http://brainblogger.com/2009/10/10/how-culture-shapes-our-mind-and-brain/#comments Sat, 10 Oct 2009 14:07:50 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=3337 Most people would agree that culture can have a large effect on our daily lives — influencing what we may wear, say, or find humorous. But many people may be surprised to learn that culture may even effect how our brain responds to different stimuli. Indeed, until recently, most psychology and neuroscience researchers took for granted that their findings translated across individuals in various cultures. In the past decade, however, research has begun to unravel how cultural belief systems shape our thoughts and behaviors.

One of the strongest divides in thinking across cultures is the different perspectives about ‘the individual’ in East-Asian and Western-European/American cultures. Western-Europeans and Americans emphasize individuals as unique entities from others, while East-Asian cultures emphasize the individual in relation to other people and their environmental context. These viewpoints can be traced to the cultures’ unique philosophies concerning the individual. After all, Descartes noted “I think therefore I am,” which he used to prove that if one wonders whether or not they exist, they therefore must exist because they are capable of this and other such internal thoughts. Confucian philosophy, on the other hand, emphasizes that a person cannot fully exist alone, and that a person only reaches the highest form of existence once he/she mentally severs the divide between themselves, others and the environment.

Though these distinctions seem esoteric, they do in fact permeate contemporary psychology. For example, a classic finding in western psychology is that people are better at remembering adjectives related to themselves than adjectives related to a family member or strangers. When this study was replicated in China, however, Chinese participants remembered adjectives related to themselves and a family member equally well.

Based on the above and other similar findings in psychological research conducted across cultures, cognitive neuroscientists questioned whether the brain would respond differently to information about oneself, a family member, and strangers across individualistic and collectivist cultures. Past studies in American samples found that the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) shows stronger activation to viewing adjectives that describe the individual compared to adjectives describing a family member and strangers, highlighting the vmPFC’s role in representing the individual.  In a Chinese sample, however, the vmPFC is strongly active when participants view adjectives about themselves and a family member, though not for strangers.

Taken together, these divergent findings fit with each cultures’ conceptualization of the individual — independent in Western-European/American cultures, and intertwined with others in your environment in East-Asian cultures. Of course, this research should not be used to over-generalize differences in thinking across cultures. Indeed, there is also a great deal of research highlighting the commonalities in cognition across cultures. That said, acknowledging the subtle differences may help people in contemporary society — which is increasingly culturally diverse — appreciate the nuances in thought and behavior among the people we come across in our day to day lives.

References

Klein, S.B., Loftus, J. & Burton, H.A., (1989). Two self-reference effects: the importance of distinguishing between self-descriptiveness judgments and autobiographical retrieval in self-referent encoding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 853-865.

Qi, J., & Zhu, Y. (2002). Self-reference effect of Chinese college students. Psychological Science (in Chinese), 25, 275-278.

ZHU, Y., ZHANG, L., FAN, J., & HAN, S. (2007). Neural basis of cultural influence on self-representation NeuroImage, 34 (3), 1310-1316 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.08.047

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The Neural Basis of the Self http://brainblogger.com/2009/09/19/the-neural-basis-of-the-self/ http://brainblogger.com/2009/09/19/the-neural-basis-of-the-self/#comments Sat, 19 Sep 2009 12:00:48 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=3084 Perhaps the most personal and most quintessentially human aspect of our existence is the experience of our ‘self.’ What contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett has described as the unitary narration of our experience, the ‘author’ of our life. Artists, writers, philosophers and psychologists dedicate much of their attention to describing and discerning the kernels of the self. And now, cognitive neuroscientists have entered the debate. With the recent advent of brain imaging technologies, researchers now have a tool to take a stab at this fundamental, though esoteric, question.

Based on brain imaging studies, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) seems to play a pivotal role in the self. For example, the MPFC is more active when participants make judgments about themselves, compared to other semantic judgments (i.e. I am a good friend vs. you need water to live). Similarly, MPFC is recruited when subjects retrieve memories about themselves compared to a fictional character. Interestingly, the MPFC is also recruited when participants passively rest while undergoing an fMRI scan. Until recently, most fMRI scans required that participants perform cognitive tasks during scanning, and researchers mapped statistically significant brain activation to cognitive components of the task. However, a recent trend in brain imaging is to identify the neural circuitry active during humans’ resting state, or when they are not performing tasks and instead are free to think about whatever they want. During such scans, a few brain areas are active, including the MPFC. It has been hypothesized that the MPFC activation represents the ongoing self-related processing during a conscious state, orchestrating the ‘authorship’ of our daily experiences.

However, such interpretations are controversial. Most notably, skeptics argue that 2identifying the neuroanatomy during rest does not reveal anything about the cognitive content that corresponds with it. Although previous studies identify the MPFC as crucial in self judgments and reflection, this is not enough evidence to suggest that during our day-to-day experience, it is the hub unifying and personalizing our conscious experience.

Skepticism aside, the findings reflect the reality that cognitive neuroscience is beginning to address questions previously believed to be unanswerable. In his recent book, “Proust was a Neuroscientist,” Jonah Lehrer elegantly draws connections between the philosophies of great artists that now, hundreds of years later, garner empirical support from the neurosciences. Virginia Woolf, one of the profiled artists, attempted to translate the contents of her resting state into written narration. Today, scientists are trying to identify the brain mechanisms underlying this narrative content. As Lehrer argues, it may be that in this pursuit, science could learn from art, and hopefully create studies that better isolate the content of the self and it’s related brain architecture.

References

Gusnard, D. (2001). Medial prefrontal cortex and self-referential mental activity: Relation to a default mode of brain function Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98 (7), 4259-4264 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.071043098

Kelley, W.M., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C.L., Caglar, S., Inati, S. & Heatherton, T. F. (2002). Finding the self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14(5), 785-794.

Pfeifer, J., Lieberman, M., & Dapretto, M. (2007). ?I Know You Are But What Am I?!?: Neural Bases of Self- and Social Knowledge Retrieval in Children and Adults Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19 (8), 1323-1337 DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2007.19.8.1323

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Laughter’s the Best Remedy http://brainblogger.com/2009/09/10/laughters-the-best-remedy/ http://brainblogger.com/2009/09/10/laughters-the-best-remedy/#comments Thu, 10 Sep 2009 12:00:23 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=3239 Groucho Marx once said, “A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast.” Indeed, research suggests that humor can minimize our perceptions of physical pain. Various theoretical explanations have been offered to explain the analgesic effects of humor, and humor’s potential role in pain therapy appears promising.

Studies exploring the role of humor in pain perception involve showing participants funny videos prior to the “cold presser task,” in which participants submerge their hand into very cold water for as long as possible. Researchers measure the time it takes before the participants declare that the task is painful, indicating “pain threshold,” and the subsequent time that they can bear the pain, known as “pain tolerance.” One study found that when participants view a humorous video, compared to neutral and negative videos in similar length and interest level, they show increased levels of pain tolerance and duration. Intrigued as to which components of appreciating humor drive this effect, another set of researchers explored whether measuring participants’ cheerful mood invoked by humor, their extent of facial expressions of humor appreciation, or their focus on the humorous content of a short clip of “Mr. Bean” differentially effected pain perception. Interestingly, all three conditions yielded increased pain tolerance to the cold presser task.

The biological mechanisms that underlie humor’s effect on pain remain undetermined. However, some suggest that humor and/or laughter release endorphins, which are known to lend analgesic effects. However, this view remains purely speculative, as there is no causal scientific evidence to support the claim. Alternatively, two brain imaging studies offer other insights. That is, when participants view humorous cartoons, compared to non-humorous cartoons, certain brain regions are significantly more active. Among them is the anterior cingulate cortex, which has been shown to activate in response to the affective aspects of pain (i.e. the ‘feeling’ of pain). On the one hand, that the same area is active in response to both kinds of stimuli seems counter intuitive, but it may be that pain states and appreciation of humor rely on the anterior cingulate to detect ‘discrepancy’ in stimuli, and guide the emotional response to the discrepancy. In the case of pain, the discrepancy (i.e. I feel what I should not) is negatively appraised, while the discrepancy perceived in humor (i.e. this is not what I expected in this situation) is appraised positively. This interpretation is supported by the fact that viewing humorous compared to non-humorous cartoons also activates the human ‘reward system,’ brain areas that also light up when we eat chocolate.

While the biology of humor as an anodyne requires further research, medical practitioners, such as Dr. “Patch” Adams, have long noted its soothing effects on patients. As Freud once said,

Humor is a means of obtaining pleasure in spite of the distressing effects that interface with it.

References

Weisenberg M, Raz T, & Hener T (1998). The influence of film-induced mood on pain perception. Pain, 76 (3), 365-75 PMID: 9718255

Zweyer, K., Velker, B., & Ruch, W. (2004). Do cheerfulness, exhilaration, and humor production moderate pain tolerance? A FACS study Humor – International Journal of Humor Research, 17 (1-2), 85-119 DOI: 10.1515/humr.2004.009

Watson, K., Matthews, B., & Allman, J. (2006). Brain Activation during Sight Gags and Language-Dependent Humor Cerebral Cortex, 17 (2), 314-324 DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhj149

Mobbs D, Greicius MD, Abdel-Azim E, Menon V, & Reiss AL (2003). Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers. Neuron, 40 (5), 1041-8 PMID: 14659102

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Social and Physical Pain Share Neural Architecture http://brainblogger.com/2009/08/10/social-and-physical-pain-share-neural-architecture/ http://brainblogger.com/2009/08/10/social-and-physical-pain-share-neural-architecture/#comments Mon, 10 Aug 2009 13:00:16 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=2992 The old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” may be more defensive than accurate. Indeed, most languages rely on words that represent pain — hurt feelings, heartache, broken hearts — to communicate feelings of social distress. Recent findings in neuroscience suggest that sayings such as these may reflect more than poetic metaphor, and instead indicate an overlap in neural systems used to represent physical and social pain in humans.

In a seminal paper published in Science, Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams created feelings of social exclusion in participants using a task known as “Cyberball.” Cyberball is a virtual ball-tossing game, in which participants believe that they are playing catch with other players. However, there is an interesting caveat. Although participants believe they are playing in a live game, the game is in fact a predetermined simulation, in which after several tosses amongst all players, the virtual players systematically stop throwing the ball to the participant. The researchers found that when participants played Cyberball during a fMRI brain imaging scan, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), an area known to code for the negative sensations related to physical pain, activated when participants stopped being tossed the ball, as did the ventrolaterateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), an area known to regulate the distress associated with physical pain.

But how sweeping is it to say that social and physical pain share the same neuroanatomy? It is important to stress that the networks are not entirely overlapping. Physical pain researchers have already identified what they call, “the pain matrix,” or, the neuroanatomy that underpins the experience of physical pain. In addition to the dACC, this matrix includes the thalamus, insula, the cerebellum, frontal cortex and primary and secondary somatosensory cortices. Nevertheless, pain researchers suggest that there are two physiological aspects of pain — the actual somatosensory experience and the perceived unpleasantness of that experience. Importantly, a great deal of research has identified the dACC to play a role in the felt unpleasantness of physical pain, whereas the somatosensory cortex and insula are associated with the sensory discrimination of pain.

Why might the human brain rely on one region, the dACC, to compute the felt unpleasantness associated with both physical injury and social distress? One explanation relies on the observation that humans, and other mammals, rely on social bonds for survival. The unpleasantness associated with physical injury acts like an alarm notifying the animal of ensuing threat to survival. Through the course of evolution, the same alarm system may have been hijacked to also notify the mammal of threat to their social bond, and hence survival. Indeed, young mammals’ distress vocalizations in response to separation from their caregivers rely on functioning cingulate gyrus, and destroying the ACC in macaques lends reduced affiliating social behavior.

All in all, it seems that feeling “hurt” can apply to both physical and social injury, and the feelings similarly rely on activation of the dACC. Although words may never break your bones, words and other forms of social rejection, could surely hurt you.

References

Eisenberger, N. (2003). Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion Science, 302 (5643), 290-292 DOI: 10.1126/science.1089134

Hariri, A., Bookheimer, S., & Mazziotta, J. (2000). Modulating emotional responses: effects of a neocortical network on the limbic system. NeuroReport, 17(11), 43-48.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. Oxford University Press.

MacLean, P.D. (1993). Perspectives on cingulate cortex in the limbic system. In Neurobiology of Cingulate Cortex and Limbic Thalamus: A Comprehensive Handbook (Vogt, B.A. and Gabriel, M., eds), pp. 1-15, Birkhauser.

Hadland, K. (2003). The effect of cingulate lesions on social behaviour and emotion Neuropsychologia, 41 (8), 919-931 DOI: 10.1016/S0028-3932(02)00325-1

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The Psychology of Minority Students http://brainblogger.com/2009/07/25/the-psychology-of-minority-students/ http://brainblogger.com/2009/07/25/the-psychology-of-minority-students/#comments Sat, 25 Jul 2009 13:00:59 +0000 http://brainblogger.com/?p=3087 A major public policy concern is the well known fact that many minority students under-achieve scholastically. The roots of the discrepancy in performance of some minorities and their white counterparts has been attributed to many causes, such as socioeconomic disparities and poor school systems in minority communities. Many of the explanations, however, focus on the students’ environment, and less attention is paid to the psychology of being a minority student in America. Recent provocative research in social psychology, however, suggests that a large portion of academic performance differences may reflect minority students’ representations of stereotypes  surrounding their racial and ethnic identities.

Any social stereotype, such as ‘nerd,’ ‘liberal,’ or ‘black male’ connote specific mental images of prototypical behavior fitting the stereotype. Researchers suggest that when a member of a stereotyped group thinks of a stereotype related to their group, thinking of the stereotype will likely affect their behavior. “Stereotype threat” is a term used to represent the predicament in which a person must perform in a domain for which there is a negative stereotype of a social group to which they belong.

Intrigued by the discrepancy in academic performance between African American and white students, Prof. Claude Steele has researched test performance among students of these populations in a laboratory setting. In an initial experiment, Steele had African American and white Stanford University undergraduates complete a standardized test. Although the African American and white participants were pre-selected to be matched on intellectual ability, the African American students performed significantly worse than their white counterparts on the test. Next, Steele brought in another group of intellectually matched African-American and white Stanford undergraduates to the lab. This time, the participants completed the same test, but were instructed that the study was interested in how people reason, and they were not told that the content of the test came from a standardized achievement test. In this condition, the participants performed comparably. Finally, a third group of African-American and white Stanford undergraduates were instructed, just as the first group, that the test was  a standardized achievement test. This time, however, participants subsequently answered a ‘word completion’ task, in which the were given only a few letters and asked to create a word. The African-American participants produced significantly more race-related words than the white students, suggesting that racial stereotypes were indeed primed in them, which may have been what was driving the observed differences.

Subsequent research has confirmed these early findings that stereotype threats surrounding academic performance may influence minorities’ standardized testing. For example, when minority group membership is made salient (i.e. filling out a questionnaire about racial or ethnic identity) subsequent performance on academic achievement tests is significantly lowered compared to when group identity is not  primed. Interestingly, the direction of these results are not the same for all minorities. That is, when Asian American students are primed of their minority identity, their performance on academic tasks improves. Researchers suggest that this is because there is a positive stereotype regarding Asian American academic achievement.

This body of research not only sheds interesting insights on the psychology of minority students,  but also suggests that standardized testing procedures may slate minority students to perform in certain ways. Prior to completing any major standardized academic test, such as the SAT or GRE, students complete a demographics questionnaire. It is likely that answering questions about racial, ethnic, or even socioeconomic or gender identity may negatively influence students’ performance on test questions. And yet, given the highly replicable and robust findings in the stereotype threat literature, these procedures persist.

References

Croizet, J., & Claire, T. (1998). Extending the Concept of Stereotype Threat to Social Class: The Intellectual Underperformance of Students from Low Socioeconomic Backgrounds Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24 (6), 588-594 DOI: 10.1177/0146167298246003

Shih, M., Pittinsky, T., Ambady, N. Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science: Research Report, 10(1), 80-83.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African-Americans. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1998). Stereotype threat and the test performance of academically successful African Americans. In C. Jencks & M. Phillips (Eds.), Black-White test score gap. Brookings Institution Press.

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