A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement

Two experiments examined how doubts about belonging, or belonging uncertainty, can arise under stereotype threat. Specifically, it was hypothesized that people who are stigmatized in a domain are less certain of the strength of their social bonds and more sensitive to information about social connections in that domain. In Experiment 1, Black and White undergraduates were asked to think of eight friends (stereotype threat for Blacks), two friends, or no friends who would fit well in a college computer science program. It was assumed that it would be more difficult for Black than for Whites to generate eight such friends, producing a greater threat to belonging in Blacks than Whites. After completing this task, students completed measures of their own perceived fit and potential in academics, the advice they would offer to another same-race student, and the accessibility of their racial stereotypes. Black students who generated eight friends reported a diminished sense of fit and lowered perceived potential, whereas White students were not affected by the manipulation. Moreover, Blacks in the eight-friends condition were less likely to advise a younger African-American to pursue computer science. Experiment 2 represented an intervention intended to encourage a sense of belonging by providing minority students with an alternate attribution to account for their typical lowered sense of belonging. Specifically, Black first-year students were encouraged to attribute feelings about not belonging in school to the struggles faced by all students during the transition to college rather than to their identity. Results indicated that the intervention reduced Blacks students' feelings of low belonging under conditions of adversity, increased Black students' estimates of their academic potential, and increased academic behaviors (e.g., time spent studying) and academic performance (i.e., GPA in the subsequent semester). The intervention did not impact White students. These findings provide support for the idea that operating under stereotypes can reduce one's sense of belonging and show that an intervention involving altering attributions for these thoughts and feelings can buffer Black students from their negative consequences.

Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 82-96.