Monday, April 20, 2009

The power of positive thinking.

Following up on experiments I mentioned in a previous post in 2006, Cohen et al. provide an example of how recursive positive feedback cycles can generate a self-perpetuating pattern of behavior. They performed a multiyear field experiment in which three cohorts of 7th-grade students were given seemingly gentle interventions--a brief writing assignment on personal values--several times throughout their 7th- and 8th-grade school years. Poorly performing African American students who had been assigned to write about self-affirmation displayed significantly smaller declines in their grades than those who had written about someone else's values; the intervention had no effect on the grade trends of highly performing African American or European American students. The intervention appeared to help to prevent the poorly performing group from falling into a cycle of negativity. Their abstract:
A subtle intervention to lessen minority students' psychological threat related to being negatively stereotyped in school was tested in an experiment conducted three times with three independent cohorts (N = 133, 149, and 134). The intervention, a series of brief but structured writing assignments focusing students on a self-affirming value, reduced the racial achievement gap. Over 2 years, the grade point average (GPA) of African Americans was, on average, raised by 0.24 grade points. Low-achieving African Americans were particularly benefited. Their GPA improved, on average, 0.41 points, and their rate of remediation or grade repetition was less (5% versus 18%). Additionally, treated students' self-perceptions showed long-term benefits. Findings suggest that because initial psychological states and performance determine later outcomes by providing a baseline and initial trajectory for a recursive process, apparently small but early alterations in trajectory can have long-term effects. Implications for psychological theory and educational practice are discussed.

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