Valerie Purdie-Vaughns on Stereotype Threat and the Brain

With Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, NY in the news for all the wrong reasons last week, a lecture titled, “Race Matters, but Not How You Think it Does: How Stereotypes Affect How We Live, Work, Play and Pray,” couldn’t have been more timely. The event, sponsored by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for Columbia University’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, drew the attention of not only a reporter and videographer from the New York Times, but also of Mr. Zuckerman, who was seated in the front row at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.Purdie-Vaughns-250

The lecture featured one of the institute’s rising young stars: Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, the director of the university’s Laboratory of Intergroup Relations and the Social Mind and an associate professor of psychology. A few minutes into her presentation, it was clear that it was lecturer, as much as the lecture’s relevance to recent civil unrest throughout the nation’s cities that drew the sizable audience.

Purdie-Vaughns never addressed Ferguson and Staten Island directly. Instead, she focused on what she called “big questions: achievement gap and how it relates to gender and race.” Her lab designs interventions and conducts research on groups with threatened identities—women in the sciences, LGBT individuals in American society, aging workers in technology firms, African-Americans in intellectual settings, and so on. According to an institute press release, their goal “is to bring new discoveries and insights on the brain and behavior to uncover ways to improve relations between majority and minority group members.”

Purdie-Vaughns told how she first got involved in studying achievement gap. Ten years ago, she and a few colleagues were asked by a principal in an inner city middle school to try to determine why 200 African American students, once they got to middle school, tended to “underperform,” compared to their white classmates. The team approached an intervention by creating a 15-minute writing exercise that asked students about their values. They then returned to the school repeatedly to repeat the exercise through middle school over the next two years. By the time the students were ready to leave middle school, the intervention exercise had reduced the achievement gap by 25 percent.

Their findings—replicated in two other schools—were published in the journal Science and received national attention, which motivated the team to continue to track the students through high school and expand the research into other schools and groups of people. Eight years later, African American middle school students who continued with the intervention exercise were attending college at 76 percent rate, compared to their white classmates at 80 percent. “Not only were we able to completely close the achievement gap, we were able to turn it around,” she boasted.

What was it about the exercise that transformed the educational outcomes?

“The argument that has been supported over the last 10 years of research in my lab is that these value affirmations may be very simple acts, but import into the self-system that I am adequate, that I am worthy, that I am a good, moral, effective person who is able to control important outcomes,” she said.

From that point on, said Purdie-Vaughns, four basic principles have been the focus of their research on stereotype threat, all of which are inter-related: the self and the psychology of threat, the neurobiology of threat, endothelial cell injury and dysfunction, and lasting change over time.

Neurobiology studies of the brain by other colleagues under conditions of stereotype threat (using fMRI) revealed that when there is no stereotype threat, various parts of the brain associated with learning—the left prefrontal cortex, the left coranol cortex, the angular gyrus—activate, she explained. Under conditions of threat, the ventral interior cingulate cortex (the area of the brain that is implicated in social rejection and depression) also activate, she said.

Fixed and overgeneralized beliefs that are the genesis of stereotype may help us to simplify our social world, but they are deeply problematic because we make generalizations about people and situations that might not be true, said Purdie-Vaughns. “They help us to respond rapidly to situations because our brains tell us that we have been in that situation before, or have seen a particular group before,” she said.

Her research shows that when African American students find themselves in institutions where stereotypes about their group as ‘not smart’ are at play, they subconsciously worry that they might confirm stereotypes in the minds of others, which saps cognitive functioning and undermines their performance. Stereotype threat, she added, increases biological markers for cardiovascular disease and compromises brain regions associated with learning and memory.

She didn’t need to tell the audience that it is a primary reason that people were marching in protest practically right outside the door.

–Bill Glovin

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