Previous research has documented that people from working-class contexts have fewer skills linked to academic success than their middle-class counterparts (e.g., worse problem-solving skills). Challenging this idea, we propose that one reason why people from working-class contexts underperform is because U.S. measures of achievement tend to assess people individually. We theorize that working together on measures of achievement will create a cultural match with the interdependent selves common among people from working-class contexts, therefore improving their sense of fit and performance. We further theorize that effective group processes will serve as a mechanism that helps to explain when and why working together affords these benefits. Four studies utilizing diverse methods support our theorizing. Using archival data on college student grades, Study 1 finds that groups with higher proportions of students from working-class contexts perform better. Utilizing a nationally representative sample of collegiate student-athletes, Study 2 suggests that the benefits of working together for people from working-class contexts are moderated by whether groups engage in effective group processes. Studies 3 and 4 demonstrate that working together (vs. individually) causally improves the fit and performance of people from working-class contexts. Study 4 identifies effective group processes as a mediator: People from working-class (vs. middle-class) contexts more frequently engage in effective group processes, thus improving their performance. Our findings suggest that assessing achievement individually is not class-neutral. Instead, assessing achievement in a way that is congruent with interdependent models of self—as people work together— can help realize the full potential of people from working-class contexts.
tags: college success
Differences in structural resources and individual skills contribute to social-class disparities in both U.S. gateway institutions of higher education and professional workplaces. People from working-class contexts also experience cultural barriers that maintain these disparities. In this article, we focus on one critical cultural barrier—the cultural mismatch between (a) the independent cultural norms prevalent in middle-class contexts and U.S. institutions and (b) the interdependent norms common in working-class contexts. In particular, we explain how cultural mismatch can fuel social-class disparities in higher education and professional workplaces. First, we explain how different social-class contexts tend to reflect and foster different cultural models of self. Second, we outline how higher education and professional workplaces often prioritize independence as the cultural ideal. Finally, we describe two key sites of cultural mismatch—norms for understanding the self and interacting with others—and explain their consequences for working-class people’s access to and performance in gateway institutions.
In this commentary, we draw on two articles featured in this special volume to highlight the psychological and behavioral implications of the study of norms for underrepresented groups’ experience of fit and belonging in organizations. In particular, we discuss these implications with respect to our cultural mismatch theory of inequality. In the sections below, we first outline key tenets of cultural mismatch theory. Second, drawing on Gelfand & Harrington’s (this volume) discussion of the factors that increase the motivational force of norms, we argue that these same factors characterize underrepresented groups’ experiences of cultural mismatches, which should increase their reliance on norms. Third, drawing on Morris and Liu’s (this volume) distinction between peer and aspirational norms, we argue that consequences of the increased reliance on norms for experiences of cultural mismatch depend on whether underrepresented groups rely on peer versus aspirational norms.
A growing social psychological literature reveals that brief interventions can benefit disadvantaged students. We tested a key component of the theoretical assumption that interventions exert long-term effects because they initiate recursive processes. Focusing on how interventions alter students’ responses to specific situations over time, we conducted a follow-up lab study with students who participated in a difference-education intervention two years earlier. In the intervention, students learned how their social-class backgrounds matter in college (Stephens, Hamedani, & Destin, 2014). The follow-up study assessed participants’ behavioral and hormonal responses to stressful college situations. We found that all difference-education versus control participants more frequently discussed their backgrounds in a speech, indicating they retained the understanding of how their backgrounds matter. Moreover, first-generation participants (i.e., whose parents do not have four-year degrees) in the difference-education versus control condition showed greater physiological thriving (i.e., anabolic balance), suggesting they experienced their working-class backgrounds as a strength.