What’s the Best Way to Discriminate?

The dream of every 8-year-old boy is to build a kick-ass treehouse, install a reliable tin-can phone line, and then watch the neighborhood girls brood as it’s all topped off with a finely calligraphed “no girls allowed” sign. (At least that’s what 80’s television taught me.) A new study forthcoming in Social Psychological and Personality Science poses an interesting question about that scenario. Would the excluded girls react differently if the sign said “For Boys Only”?

The researchers reasoned that while negative differentiation (“This isn’t for girls”) would communicate inferiority and set boundaries, positive differentiation (“This is for boys”) might allow for more constructive coping, lower feelings of threat, and increase efforts to disprove prejudicial beliefs. They designed an experiment in which women were excluded from a poker game, but for different reasons (“it’s for men,” “it’s not for women,” or due to an unrelated reason.)  They discovered that positive differentiation can in fact be less harmful.

Based on current insights on responses to discrimination, we predicted and found that those who are exposed to negative differentiation will tend to object to those who rejected them, while positive differentiation is more likely to induce efforts to disprove the validity of the rejection. Female participants facing negative differentiation objected against the discriminatory nature of their rejection and showed cardiovascular reactivity more indicative of threat (and less of challenge) than participants in the positive differentiation condition. In addition, positive differentiation caused participants to disprove the validity of these group-based expectations by claiming the possession of relatively more masculine (and less feminine) traits.

Assuming that the findings can be generalized to other types of discrimination (a real assumption, but not one that’s farfetched), the study has a lot of implications for academic motivation. For example, imagine a 10th or 11th grader who tells their college guidance counselor they want to go to Harvard. Telling the student “Harvard is not for you” will have a different effect than saying “Harvard students generally have very high SAT scores.” The positive differentiation could drive the student to show they belong in the high-SAT group, or induce them to take on the identity of a high achiever. It’s a small distinction, but one that can be the difference between a student feeling threatened and a student feeling motivated to disprove the reason for their exclusion.

These types of situations arise throughout school, whether it’s telling a student that they’re not in an honors class, or explaining why they didn’t get their desired role in an extracurricular activity. I’m not quite sure what goes on in our variety of teacher training programs, but I feel fairly confident saying there’s not enough time being spent on the motivational framing of feedback.
Cihangir, S., Scheepers, D., Barreto, M., & Ellemers, N. (2012). Responding to Gender-Based Rejection: Objecting Against Negative and Disproving Positive Intergroup Differentiation Social Psychological and Personality Science DOI: 10.1177/1948550612448195

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