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Situational disengagement and persistence in the face of adversity

This experiment investigated the possibility that short-term disengagement arising from stereotype threat, at least in some contexts, might allow increased motivation and persistence. If individuals under stereotype threat distance themselves from a task to reduce the implications of task performance for self-evaluation, motivation might not be undermined. This study tested for this temporary defensive response by having White and Black students complete a difficult anagram task that was described as "not a diagnostic test [but] an activity we use as a warmup for problem solving exercises" (no threat), or as "diagnostic of academic ability, much like other similar tests such as the GRE, the MCAT, or the LSAT" (stereotype threat for Black students). After an experimenter graded their anagram performance in front of the them, the students were asked to estimate how many anagram or verbal analogy problems they would like to attempt in an upcoming exercise. Overall performance on the anagram task was poor, and there we no differences based on race or condition. However, Black students in the stereotype threat condition were more likely to express an interest in anagrams in the second task compared with the other three conditions. In addition, these individuals were most likely to disengage from the task by indicating that they did not care what the test implied about their ability. Mediational analyses suggested that disengagement accounted for the relation between race, stereotype threat, and persistence. These findings suggest that disengagement can maintain persistence and motivation for individuals under stereotype threat following failure when a test is viewed as diagnostic and where future performance might serve to discredit stereotypes or to compensate for failure. Of course, short-term disengagement might preserve motivation even though long-term disengagement tends to produce more negative consequences.

Nussbaum, A. D., & Steele, C. M. (2007). Situational disengagement and persistence in the face of adversity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 127-134.
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