The Situationist

The Implicit Value of Explicit Values

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 23, 2007


In September of 2006, Karen Rouse wrote a Denver Post article summarizing the fascinating research of social psychologist Geoffrey Cohen. We excerpt portions of her article below.

* * *

A white male may feel comfortable in the boardroom. But put him on the basketball court with a team of black players, and his own awareness of the stereotype – that white men can’t jump – could be enough to hurt his game.

And so it is, researchers say, with African-American students who are aware of the negative stereotype that they are less intelligent than their white peers; the psychological threat of that stereotype could be enough to undermine their academic performance.

But new research by a University of Colorado professor suggests that a simple exercise in self-affirmation could not only result in higher grades for African-American students but also close the black-white achievement gap.

The research, led by CU-Boulder professor Geoffrey Cohen and Yale research scientist Julio Garcia and published this month in the journal Science, studied black and white seventh- graders at a Northeast middle school.

Black students who were asked to write about their most important values at the first of the school year earned much higher grades at the end of the three-month term than students who were asked to write about values least important to them.

Past research has already demonstrated that people experience stress in situations where they know they can be stereotyped, Cohen said.

“We all belong to social groups that are stereotyped,” Cohen said. “For whites, it’s relevant to sports but not academically. But for African- Americans and Latino Americans, it threatens their academic ability.”

The exercise of writing about important values has been shown to reduce stress, Cohen said. For the students, it was “affirming your sense of self- integrity. ‘This is who I am. This is what makes me, me.”‘

Image from Hutchinson Article — Pasadena WeeklyThe students were divided into two groups, with even numbers of black and white students in each group, and given an identical list of values, such as “politics,” “relationships with family,” “religion” and “being good at art.”

One group was told to pick values important to them and write for 15 minutes about why they were important. The second group was told to pick values least important to them and to explain why they might be important to someone else. The experiment was conducted twice – in 2003 and 2004 – at the same school.

The exercise was done at the beginning of the school year, when stress was thought to be highest. At the end of a roughly three-month academic term, researchers Cohen and Garcia found there was no difference between how the two groups of white students performed.

However, black students in the first group, which wrote about personal affirmations, had higher grades than the black students in the group with the more neutral assignment.

In addition, the achievement gap in grade-point averages between blacks and whites narrowed by roughly 40 percent, Cohen said.

The research is significant because the results hinged on “unleashing what is already there in the environment,” Cohen said.

The conditions for the students performing well already existed but were being held back by the stereotype threat.

* * *
Cohen said that while 15 minutes seems short, the exercise “is bringing to the fore something that is very important to these kids: a long-held personal value.”

Cohen also said the exercise may not have the same effect in another setting, such as an all-black urban school or with all poor white students. “This is not a silver bullet” to fix the achievement gap, he said. “There needs to be a lot more research.”

* * *

To access the Science article, click here. For some Situationist posts discussing stereotype threat and its effects, see “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers,'” “Gender Imbalanced Situation of Math, Science, and Engineering,” “Race Attributions and Georgetown University Basketball,” Sex Differences in Math and Science,” “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situaiton in Economics,” and “Your Group is Bad at Math.”

4 Responses to “The Implicit Value of Explicit Values”

  1. Maybe I’m too cynical, but doesn’t it seem that a note of skepticism is in order, at least until it’s widely replicated? It just seems too good to be true that a 15-minute writing exercise could have more of an effect than pretty much any other educational intervention that has ever been tried.


  2. Charity said

    “We all belong to social groups that are stereotyped,” Cohen said. “For whites, it’s relevant to sports but not academically.”

    Except, of course, that half of those whites are white women, for whom the stereotype absolutely is relevant academically. It’s not like there’s any shortage of good research about stereotype threat in women, including white women. So what in God’s name is wrong with Cohen such that he fails to recognize the existence and experience of white women?

  3. Thanks for both of your comments.


    It really does seem too good to be true, but it may nonetheless be true. It’s worth noting that the research design, and the results, are consistent with the theories and evidence that have built up around stereotype threat. In any event, we doubt that the authors of the study believe that their study points to a single, complete solution to many of the problems with our education system. Geoffrey Cohen himself is quoted at the end of the article emphasizing that “this is not a silver bullet,” and “[t]here needs to be a lot more research.”


    Cohen probably knows as well as anyone the research regarding the effects of stereotype threat on women. We think it’s worth underscoring that Cohen is being quoted by a journalist offering an extremely brief account of Cohen’s more elaborate research, conclusions, and beliefs. In other words, we think you should consider the situation of the Cohen quotation and not attribute, as you seem to, some dispositional failing on Cohen’s part.

  4. […] in discussing the results here and here, Cohen is careful to note that such interventions are not intended as a cure-all, but are […]

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