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Small interventions can cause big changes in performance

Sep 25 2012

A smile, sigh, or glare would never influence anything important, like a woman’s math scores or her decision to become an engineer, right? Wrong. According to new research by Stanford psychologist and Clayman Institute Fellow Gregory Walton, such cues can greatly impact women’s math performance and persistence in male-dominated fields like engineering. This is because they affect an individual’s sense of belonging, which Walton has shown to be critically important for groups who are marginalized.

Negative effects of feeling like an outsider

Through a series of experiments conducted with Christine Logel, Steve Spencer and others at the University of Waterloo, Walton and his collaborators found that affecting a woman’s sense of belonging in male-dominated settings significantly influences her math scores. In one such study, pairs of engineers composed of one woman and one man, discussed a news article about engineering. After the discussion, the engineers took a math test. Walton and his collaborators found that women who had interacted with men who exhibited higher levels of sexism performed worse than the women who interacted with non-sexist men.

But perhaps this had nothing to do with belonging. Perhaps women simply do not like to interact with sexist men. To investigate further, the researchers conducted another experiment in which they had women engineers discuss an article with an actor who they believed to be a fellow student. The actor was trained to behave either like a sexist man (by looking at the woman’s body more, sitting closer, and having a more open posture) or like a non-sexist man. After the discussion, the women took either a math or English test. Again, the women performed worse on the math test after interacting with a sexist man.

However, this was not because the women disliked the sexist men. The women reported actually liking them more than the non-sexist men. And the effect was domain specific: Their performance on the English test was actually better after interacting with the sexist actor. Walton concluded that interactions with a sexist man provided subtle cues to the women that they did not belong in engineering, that they were an outsider as opposed to a peer. This feeling depressed the women’s math performance.

Postive impact of inclusion

Conversely, Walton has found that increasing a woman’s sense of belonging improves her math scores. In a series of experiments conducted with Priyanka Carr and Lauren Aguilar at Stanford, mathematically-inclined students took math tests in which they received a supposedly accurate “tip” or suggestion. In some conditions, the students believed that the tip came from a fellow participant whom they had already met, while in other conditions, the students believed that they had received an anonymous tip from a tip bank. In actuality, all of the students received the same useless tip, which was created by the researchers.

The source of the tip made no difference to the men; they performed the same whether they believed that the tip came from a fellow participant or the anonymous tip bank. However, women’s math performance improved when they believed that they had received a tip from a fellow participant. This effect was significant. When the women participants received an anonymous tip, they had worse math scores than the men. But when they received a tip from a fellow participant, their scores were better than the men. Walton believes that women who received a tip from a fellow participant interpreted it as a cue of belonging, which increased their performance. 

In follow-up experiments, Walton and his collaborators determined that the gender of the writer of the tip was extremely important to women. Tips from women improved their math scores much less than tips from men. This is likely due to cues about belonging. Since math is a male-dominated field, a tip from a man gives greater assurance about acceptance.

From these experiments, it is clear that subtle cues are important. In all social areas, people are attuned to small cues as they convey respect, belonging and acceptance or disrespect and non-belonging. Walton argues that such cues may matter more in new and uncertain situations and to individuals within groups marginalized by stigma or negative stereotype. The uncertainty of belonging sensitizes people to the meaning of subtle social events, as they are actively seeking out evidence about whether they fit in. Positive cues may allay worries about belonging, while negative cues may reinforce stereotypical beliefs that they do not generally belong in the setting.

Walton contends that the interpretation of subtle cues can greatly impact feelings of belonging, but the same cue may have varying effects on different groups of people. For instance, say that a male student gives another student a glare. If the other student is a woman, she might interpret this as evidence that he does not like her, and that she does not generally belong in the engineering course. However, an otherwise similar man on the receiving end of the glare might just assume that his fellow student is a jerk, and make no association between this cue and his belonging to the group.

The power of positive words

Walton argues that by changing the way that numerically underrepresented groups interpret these subtle cues, they can have a greater sense of belonging in uncertain situations, thereby increasing their performance and persistence. To determine if this hypothesis was correct, Walton and his collaborators Christine Logel, Jennifer Peach, Steve Spencer, and Mark Zanna at the University of Waterloo performed a randomized intervention for women engineers randomly assigned to either an intervention condition or a control condition. In the intervention, Walton had men and women in their first year of a university engineering class read essays about other students’ university experiences. They then wrote their own essays, which they believed the next year’s incoming engineers would read to aid their transition. The students in the intervention condition were assigned to write one of two types of essays. In the social belonging intervention essay, students read and wrote about how everyone has belonging concerns from time to time but that, over time, students come to feel they belong. In the affirmation training intervention essay, the students read and wrote about how they managed stress by thinking about and doing things that reflect their personal values.

The results were astounding. A year after writing either form of the essay, women in male-dominated engineering majors had better grades in engineering compared to otherwise similar women who had not been randomly assigned to the intervention. They also had a more positive assessment of current experience in engineering and were more optimistic about their potential in engineering. 

The research of Walton and his collaborators suggests that social-psychological processes play an important role in gender inequality in Science Technology Engineering and Math, or STEM. In other words, social relationships and feelings of belonging matter. But the good news is that through the work of psychologists like Walton, we are learning how to intervene to counteract these processes and positively affect critical life outcomes. 


Dr. Gregory Walton is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University and a 2011-12 Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellow. He is committed to identifying psychological processes that contribute to social problems and to developing theory-based interventions to affect these processes.

Susan Fisk is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology and a member of the Clayman Student Writing Team.

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