Understanding the Impact of Stereotype Threat on Decision Making

Stereotype threat is a concern or worry that your actions and behaviors will be judged in light of a negative stereotype about you or a social group with which you identify. Our research will extend beyond the domain of performance to explore the impact of stereotype threat on preferences and decision-making. We hypothesize that individuals under stereotype threat will be more risk and loss averse than unthreatened individuals when making risky decisions. As a result, individuals may also choose to avoid risky academic interactions where they feel some part of their identity may be under threat. For example, while attending office hours can have important benefits, it might be construed as more risky by members of negatively stereotyped groups under threat than groups not under threat. Avoiding such academic interactions can have negative long run impacts on academic success. In a set of parallel studies, our research will also explore the extent to which stereotype threat increases present-bias and procrastination. Importantly, our research will also test whether psychologically-based interventions mitigate these effects. This project is funded through 2021 through the Russell Sage Foundation’s Grant in Behavioral Economics.


A Faculty-Student Mentoring Program to Increase Sense of Belonging

The transition to college is an extraordinarily challenging life event. It involves leaving your childhood home, making new social connections, and entering an entirely new phase of independent life, all while tackling a college academic load. Unsurprisingly, freshmen often feel a sense of isolation and question their sense of belongingness in college, and in turn, this can affect the attributions students make when they experience the inevitable stressors and challenges of the college transition. For example, a student may think she is struggling because she's not good enough for college when the reason is, quite simply, that college is hard for everyone!

To address the difficulties of the college transition in an effort to mitigate inequities in academic outcomes, we created a Faculty-Student Mentoring Program, where first-year students were paired with a faculty mentor. The faculty mentors went through training designed specifically to assist them in teaching students "how to college"; normalizing and contextualizing the common experiences of difficulty and struggle with transitioning to college; and in encouraging and reinforcing a growth mindset in their students. The program was launched in the summer of 2018 and data collection is ongoing.

Uncovering the Barriers Preventing College Students from Seeking Help from Peers

While undergraduates can often benefit from each other’s help, researchers have found people are often uncomfortable asking for such help and thus fail to do so. This problem is especially apparent for marginalized groups, such as low-income students, women in STEM, and racial minorities. These students are more likely to benefit from peer help, yet are less likely to seek it out.

To address this problem, we are developing an online help-seeking and -giving game that targets psychological barriers to asking peers for informational help. We manipulate different elements of the game (e.g., the sequencing and level of “intermixing” of lighter, less sensitive and heavier, more serious questions) and allow players to add their own help-seeking questions to be played out in the game. Our goal is to not only gain deeper insights into the barriers preventing undergraduates from asking for help, but also identify a low-cost and scalable method of making people more comfortable with asking for and providing help. We plan to ultimately roll out the game across the university level and test whether playing it will improve various outcomes, including students’ academic performance, sense of belonging at the university, and utilization of available resources for academic and social support.

Creating a Micro-Validations Categorization System

Micro-validations refer to actions or environments that affirm and validate a person’s identity and who they are, especially an aspect of their identity that may be marginalized in society. Examples include using gender inclusive pronouns, having diverse posters up in classrooms, and using non-verbal expressions that communicate inclusion. There is currently no categorization system for micro-validations, and research on micro-validations is still in its infancy. This project seeks to develop an understanding of the broad range of actions, objects, and experiences that constitute micro-validations that are experienced by students in college. Using interviews with students on campus about their experience with micro-validations and examples that they have faced, we aim to contribute to a more systematic vocabulary and language for understanding, studying, and promoting micro-validations. Data collection will begin in the fall of 2019.

Culturally-Informed Communication in Recruitment of Underrepresented Students

Research in cultural psychology has found that people from different backgrounds tend to emphasize different values and perspectives. For example, in the US, racial minorities and those from low-income backgrounds tend to place relatively more emphasis on interdependent values – focusing on their identity as it relates to their social group or community. This is an important consideration for creating a college environment that reflects the values and motivations of all of its students. However, universities consistently emphasize independent values and de-emphasize interdependent values, creating a “cultural mismatch” for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Importantly, these messages are communicated from the very beginning of a student’s interactions with the university – even in the recruitment materials they receive.

We partnered with the Office of Admissions to create different sets of recruitment materials which emphasized different values (e.g., “We hope you’ll consider joining the Carnegie Mellon University community” vs. “We hope you’ll consider Carnegie Mellon University as one of your college choices”). We will evaluate whether materials that emphasize interdependent values lead to more motivation, interest, and higher enrollment rates at CMU for students from underrepresented backgrounds.