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A 2-year follow-up of a randomized field experiment previously reported in Science is presented. 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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DOI: 10.1126/science.1170769
, 400 (2009); 324Science
et al.Geoffrey L. Cohen,
Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap
Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation:
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17 October 2008; accepted 5 March 2009
10.1126/science.1167350
Recursive Processes in
Self-Affirmation: Intervening to
Close the Minority Achievement Gap
Geoffrey L. Cohen,
1
*Julio Garcia,
1
Valerie Purdie-Vaughns,
2
Nancy Apfel,
3
Patricia Brzustoski
3
A 2-year follow-up of a randomized field experiment previously reported in Science is presented. A
subtle intervention to lessen minority studentspsychological 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 studentsself-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.
Whether and how psychological inter-
ventions produce lasting positive con-
sequences are critical questions for
scientists and policy-makers. This report presents
evidence of how interventions, even brief or sub-
tle, can produce lasting benefit when targeted at
important psychological processes. It does so by
focusing on the long-term impact of a psycho-
logical intervention designed to reduce the racial
achievement gap through the lessening of aca-
demic underperformance.
The achievement gap between academically
at-risk minority students and European American
students has long concerned the educational com-
munity (1). In a society where economic success
depends heavily on scholastic accomplishment,
even partial remediation of this gap would be
consequential. This is especially true for low-
achieving students, given the societal, institutional,
and personal costs of academic failure.
Research shows the importance of psycho-
logical factors in intellectual achievement (24).
Situations where one could be judged or treated
in light of a negative stereotype can be stressful
and thus undermine performance (57). For
African Americans in school, the concern that
they or another African American could be seen
as confirming a negative stereotype about their
groups intelligence can give rise to stress and
depress performance (58).
Findings of two randomized field experiments
addressing this psychological threat in the class-
room were reported in Science (8). These tested a
values-affirmation intervention. Beginning early
in seventh grade, students reflected on an im-
portant personal value, such as relationships with
friends and family or musical interests, in a series
of structured writing assignments. Such self-
affirmations reduce psychological threat and stress
(911) and can thus improve performance. The
intervention should benefit students from groups
subjected to threat pervasive enough to undermine
their average performancein this case, negative-
ly stereotyped minority students. As predicted, rel-
ativeboth toa control groupand to historical norms,
one or two administrations of the intervention im-
proved the fall-term grades of African Americans
and lowered the psychological availability of the ste-
reotype. European Americans were unaffected (8).
A 2-year follow-up is now reported. We as-
sess whether the affirmation buffers minority
students from the effects of psychological threat
over the long term, leading to academic benefits
beyond the short-term ones of a single academic
term previously found. Generally, psychological
processes and their consequences are examined
for relatively brief periods, often in experimental
studies lasting 30 min or an hour. By contrast,
because the present study spans 2 years, its find-
ings speak to how an apparently brief psycho-
logical intervention triggers processes that affect
performance and psychological outcomes over
considerable periods of time. Given the multitude
of factors that could mute the effects of such pro-
cesses in the classroom, the findings address the
longevity and real-world significance of these pro-
cesses. This is particularly important given that the
effects of interventions and psychological manip-
ulations often decay and may even reverse over
time for reasons that are little understood (12,13).
Because chronic evaluation is a key aspect of
school and work environments, performance in
these settings can be self-reinforcing. A recursive
cycle, where psychological threat lowers perform-
ance, increasing threat and lowering performance
further, in a repeating process, can magnify early
performance differencesamongstudents (14). Early
outcomes set the starting point and initial trajectory
of a recursive cycle and so can have dispro-
portional influence. For instance, the low self-
confidence of students who experience early failure,
even by chance, is surprisingly difficult to undo
(15). A well-timed intervention could provide ap-
preciable long-term performance benefits through
early interruption of a recursive cycle.
Results encompass the original two student
cohorts and a third cohort run after the original
two experiments. The cohorts were observed for
a period running from the first term of seventh
grade to the end of eighth grade, typically cover-
ing ages 12 to 14. Although the period involves
the last 2 years of middle school, for clarity these
will henceforth be referred to as Year 1 and 2,
respectively. Individual students were randomly
assigned to the affirmation condition or the con-
trol condition. The former completed affirmation
exercises, the latter neutral exercises. The treat-
ment consisted of variations on the original affir-
mation exercise in which students wrote about
the personal importance of a self-defining value
(16). The control exercises consisted of variations
on the original control exercise in which students
wrote about an unimportant value or a similarly
1
Department of Psychology, University of Colorado, Muenzinger
Psychology Building, Boulder, CO 803090345, USA.
2
Depart-
ment of Psychology, Columbia University, 405 Schermerhorn
Hall, New York, NY 10027, USA.
3
Departmentof Psychology, Yale
University, 2 Hillhouse Avenue, New Haven, CT 06520, USA.
*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:
cohen.geoff@gmail.com
17 APRIL 2009 VOL 324 SCIENCE www.sciencemag.org400
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on November 29, 2009 www.sciencemag.orgDownloaded from
neutral topic like their morning routine. The ex-
perimental manipulation, given three to five times
in the seventh grade, occurred at roughly equal
intervals throughout the year.
With the exception of a treatment dosage ma-
nipulation introduced at the beginning of Year 2, all
originalcondition assignmentswere preserved (16).
At the start of Year 2, 50% of the affirmed students
were randomly assigned to a booster condition.
These students received between two and four addi-
tional affirmations in Year 2. All remaining partici-
pants completed control exercises. This would
determine whether long-term intervention effects,
if present, rested on the treatments continued ad-
ministration or were triggered by its early effects.
The key outcome was grade point average
(GPA) in core academic courses (science, social
studies, math, and English), as the intervention
was administered in different courses over 2 years
and its effect was found across core courses in the
original studies (8). To increase statistical power,
we combined data from the three cohorts,
because the interventions effect, if found, was
expected to be small and was found to be con-
sistent across cohorts (16).
Complete GPA data for 2 years were ob-
tained for 93% of the original participants (N=
385). Attrition did not vary by experimental con-
dition either overall or within racial group (16).
Degrees of freedom are greater for earlier out-
comes because of attrition. Multiple regression
tested treatment effects (16). A positive effect of
affirmation on average 2-year GPA emerged for
African Americans but not for European Amer-
icans. As with short-term grades, a group ×
experimental condition interaction emerged for
the new long-term data [B= 0.33, t(321) = 3.59,
P< 0.001] (table S1). African Americans earned
a higher 2-year GPA in the affirmation condition
than in the control condition [B= 0.24, t(144) =
3.45, P= 0.001]. No treatment effect was found for
European Americans [B=0.07, t(170) = 1.19,
P= 0.236]. The treatment effect for African
Americans emerged for GPA in both outcome
years. The group ×treatment interaction and
treatment effect for African Americans was sig-
nificant for each year [Year 1: interaction B=
0.25, t(344) = 2.73, P= 0.007, treatment B=
0.18, t(162) = 2.69, P= 0.008; Year 2: interaction
B= 0.39, t(321) = 3.25, P= 0.001, treatment B=
0.27, t(144) = 3.03, P= 0.003].
If the intervention interrupts a recursive process,
its effects should be larger forinitially low-achieving
African Americans, because low performance should
trigger worsening performance. Affirmation should
make their prior performance less predictive of sub-
sequent achievement. A three-way interaction be-
tween racial group, condition, and a continuous
measure of pre-intervention performance on aver-
age 2-year GPA shows this [B=0.32, t(319) =
2.59, P= 0.010] (16). A two-way interaction be-
tween condition and pre-intervention performance
emerged for African Americans [B=0.21, t(144) =
2.49, P= 0.014], not European Americans [B=
0.10, t(170) = 1.10, P= 0.274]. Regardless of
previous performance level, European Americans
were unaffected by the intervention. However,
the affirmation effect was significant for low-
performing African Americans, those at the 25th
percentile of pre-intervention performance for
their racial group [B= 0.41, t(144) = 4.41, P<
0.001]. Although the affirmation effect was present
in the first term for high-performing African Ameri-
cans, those at the 75th percentile of pre-intervention
performance for their group [Fig. 1; B= 0.19,
t(160) = 2.30, P= 0.019], it decayed and did not
reach significance on 2-year GPA for them [B=
0.15, t(144) = 1.67, P= 0.096]. At mean or mod-
erate pre-intervention performance, treatment ef-
fects were virtually identical to those in the overall
analysis (16).
Affirmed African Americans should be more
likely to maintain their performance over time if
the intervention interrupted a recursive process of
worsening performance. Indeed, the downward
trend in performance commonly found in middle
school (17) was less steep for these students than
for African Americans in the control condition,
not just for one term but across 2 years. Although
all children performed progressively worse with
time (Fig. 1), the linear decline in annual GPA
was smaller among affirmed than nonaffirmed
African Americans [F(1,146) = 7.36, P= 0.007]
(16). The decline among European Americans
did not vary by condition [F(1,172) = 1.37, P=
0.24; group ×condition ×measure interaction,
F(1,323) = 7.41, P= 0.007]. Figure 2 illustrates
how the performance trajectory of low-achieving
African Americans angles upward after the in-
tervention, keeping the gap between them and
European Americans from widening with time.
Although the initial treatment had long-term
performance effects, the dosage manipulation did
not moderate the treatment effect on Year 2 GPA
for either racial group or for any pre-intervention
performance subgroup [| ts | < 1.3, Ps> 0.20].
This further supports the presence of a recursive
process, as the interventions early effects suffice to
explain its long-term effects (16). All students, in-
cluding African Americans, tended to perform rela-
tively worse in Year 2 if they had performed poorly
in Year 1, even controlling for pre-intervention
performance (16). That the treatment effect on
Year 2 GPA was significantly mediated by Year 1
GPA suggests that this natural performance cycle
could have carried forward the interventions early
impact (SOM Text).
The interventions impact on studentspsy-
chological environment is indicated by data sug-
gesting that it buffered African Americans against
the impact of early poor performance on their
long-term perceptions of adequacy. A survey as-
sessed studentsself-perceived ability to fit in and
succeed in schooltheir adaptive adequacy in the
academic environment (16). These data indicate
Fig. 1. Mean GPA in
core courses, as a func-
tion of student group
(African American versus
European American), ex-
perimental condition, and
pre-intervention level of
performance of African
Americans (an average of
the prior years GPA and
pre-intervention seventh-
grade performance). Data
fromparticipants withcom-
plete data are presented.
Error bars represent stan-
dard errors. African Amer-
icans were categorized
into low and high per-
formers based on a me-
dian split within their
racial group, reflecting
their relative standing
within their group. Year
1, Term 1 represents the
first term after the initia-
tion of the intervention.
(Left) Raw means and er-
ror terms. (Right) Means
and error terms adjusted
for baseline covariates
and studentsassigned
teacher team. The scale
reflects the grade metric,
ranging from 0 (= F) to
4.33 (= A+).
3.25
2.75
2.25
1.75
1.25
European Americans - Control
European Americans - Affirmation
High Performing African Americans - Affirmation
High Performing African Americans - Control
Low Performing African Americans - Affirmation
Low Performing African Americans - Control
Grade Point Average
Raw means and error terms
Covariate-adjusted means and
error terms
www.sciencemag.org SCIENCE VOL 324 17 APRIL 2009 401
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that the intervention uncoupled African Ameri-
canslong-term perceptions of adequacy from
early poor performance. African Americans who
had performed poorly early in the school year,
and then received the affirmation, maintained
a sense of their ability to fit and succeed in
school over time. They had similar levels of self-
perceived adequacy at the beginning and end of
the year [paired | t| < 0.2]. For them, as for
European Americans, early poor performance
bore little relationship to their perceptions of
adequacy at years end, controlling for baseline
perceptions [Bs< 0.04, | ts| < 1]. By contrast, for
African Americans in the control condition, per-
forming poorly before the manipulation predicted
more negative perceptions of adequacy later [B=
0.23, t(155) = 3.79, P< 0.001]. They had lower
self-perceived adequacy at the end of the year
than they had had at the beginning [paired t(40) =
2.45, P= 0.019]. Low-performing African Amer-
icans thus ended the year with a lower sense of
personal adequacy in the control condition than
in the affirmation condition [B= 0.31, t(155) =
3.30, P= 0.001], with the latter not differing from
European Americans [| t| < 1]. A mid-year as-
sessment, which due to pragmatic constraints
involved a shorter scale and only the first two
cohorts, yielded the same results. Without interven-
tion, early poor performance for minority students
appeared to deliver a lasting blow to their sense
of adequacy (18).
Although end-of-year adequacy correlated with
higher GPA [R= 0.23, P< 0.001], statistical
evidence that it mediated the treatment effect on
GPA was not found (16). This suggests that the
intervention might have discrete effects on a host
of education-relevant psychological and behav-
ioral outcomes. Here the intervention weakened
the relationship not only between past and future
performance, but also between past performance
and later psychological state.
We also explored the effect of the intervention
on studentsassignment by their school to two
major performance trackswhether students were
placed in remediation (assigned to a remedial
program or held back in their grade), and whether
they received advanced placement in math (16). Of
the 13 students in thesample placed in remediation
after the intervention, 11 were in the control con-
dition (6%, versus 1% in the affirmation condi-
tion). Because counts for European Americans
receiving the intervention were zero, we tested
main effects of affirmation and racial group sepa-
rately (16) (fig. S1). Logistic regression yielded
a condition effect, with fewer affirmation-treated
students placed in remediation [Dc
2
(1) = 14.06,
P< 0.001]. Additionally, fewer European Amer-
icans (2%) were placed in remediation than Afri-
can Americans (6%) [c
2
(1) = 4.03, P= 0.045].
However, fewer affirmed African Americans were
so classified than nonaffirmed African Americans
[3% versus 9%; Dc
2
(1) = 9.31, P= 0.002]. This
condition effect was confined to previously low-
performing African Americans [5% versus 18%]
(16). Condition effects were virtually identical in a
rare events logistic regression (19).
Evidence of a positive treatment effect regard-
ing assignment to advanced placement in math was
found for African Americans (SOM Text) (16).
A values-affirmation intervention closed the
achievement gap not only over one school term,
but throughout African Americanstenure in mid-
dle school. It also decreased the number of African
Americans identified as at-risk and enrolled in
remediation. Moreover, the intervention benefited
those most in need and often least affected by tra-
ditional interventionlow-achieving students (20).
In chronically evaluative settings such as school,
performance issues from self-reinforcing or recur-
sive processes. A feedback loop, with psychological
threat and poor performance reinforcing one an-
other, can create worsening performance over
time. Studentspoor performance may also cause
them to be seen as less able by their teachers and
less worthy of attention and mentoring, increas-
ing the likelihood of lower performance (21). The
ability of the intervention to interact with recur-
sive processes lies at the heart of how its effects
persisted for 2 years. Because initial psycholog-
ical states and early performance establish the
starting point and initial trajectory of a recursive
cycle, they can have disproportionate influence
on long-term outcomes. When such recursive cy-
cles are interrupted early, baseline outcomes and the
long-term performance trajectories following from
them can be changed. That a new starting point and
trajectory for the recursive cycle was introduced
by the affirmation is suggested by its weakening of
the relationship between early poor performance
and later performance and felt adequacy.
The following findings provide evidence for
the interventions interruption of a recursive
cycle. First, early poor performance was less pre-
dictive of later performance and psychological
state for affirmed African Americans than for
nonaffirmed ones, suggesting that the interven-
tion reset the starting point of a recursive cycle.
Second, the affirmation not only benefited GPA,
but also lifted the angle of the performance tra-
jectory and thus lessened the degree of down-
ward trend in performance characteristic of a
recursive cycle. Third, the affirmations benefits
were most evident among low-achieving African
Americans. These are the children most under-
mined by the standard recursive cycle with its
worsening of performance and magnifying of ini-
tial differences in performance. Fourth, the affir-
mation prevented the achievement gap from
widening with time. Fifth, treatment boosters
were not needed to sustain its impact into Year 2.
This indicates that processes triggered by the
intervention in Year 1 suffice to explain its ef-
fect in Year 2. That the interventions first-year
Fig. 2. Mean GPA in core
courses for each term over
2 years, as a function of
student group (African
American versus European
American), experimen-
tal condition, and pre-
intervention level of
performance of African
Americans (an average
of the prior years GPA
and pre-intervention
seventh-grade perform-
ance). Data from par-
ticipants with complete
data are presented. Af-
rican Americans were cat-
egorized into low and
high performers based
on a median split within
their racial group, reflect-
ing their relative stand-
ing within their group.
Because European Amer-
icans in the two conditions
did not differ significantly,
their data were combined.
(Left)Raw means. (Right)
Means adjusted for base-
line covariates and students
assigned teacher team.
3.5
3
2.5
2
1.5
1
European Americans - Affirmation & Control
High Performing African Americans - Affirmation
High Performing African Americans - Control
Low Performing African Americans - Affirmation
Low Performing African Americans - Control
Grade Point Average
Raw means Covariate-adjusted means
17 APRIL 2009 VOL 324 SCIENCE www.sciencemag.org402
REPORTS
on November 29, 2009 www.sciencemag.orgDownloaded from
impact mediated much of this effect further sup-
ports this notion.
Finally, studentspsychological state sheds
light on how affirmation processes interact with
the recursive cycle. African Americans, a stereo-
typed group, displayed greater psychological vul-
nerability to early failure. For them, early failure
may have confirmed that the stereotype was in
play as a stable global indicator of their ability to
thrive in school. By shoring up self-integrity at this
time, the affirmation helped maintain their sense of
adequacy and interrupted the cycle in which early
poor performance influenced later performance and
psychological state. Studentsperformance and
psychological trajectory can be strongly influenced
by timely actions, even when apparently small,
that alter or reset the trajectorys starting point.
Other factors, such as teachersexpectancies
of their students, could contribute to the longevity
of the treatments effect (21). For instance, that
fewer affirmed children were assigned to reme-
diation suggests that the interventions effects
were not only noted by the academic system, but
acted upon by it.
The findings demonstrate how initial psycho-
logical processes, triggered by an apparently subtle
intervention, can have psychological and pragmatic
effects that perpetuate themselves over extended
time spans, in the present case 2 years (6,13).
They demonstrate the role of such processes in
long-term intellectual achievement and also sug-
gest a practical strategy for addressing the achieve-
ment gap. Effective psychological interventions
depend on the presence of positive and sufficient
structural, material, and human resources. Together
with such resources and other educational pro-
grams, psychological interventions can help indi-
viduals perform to their potential and produce
lasting positive changes in equity and opportunity.
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22. We thank the student participants and their parents, the
teachers, staff, and administrators of the school district for their
involvement in the project. We also thank E. Zigler, D. Green,
C. Steele, E. Pronin, D. Sherman, G. Walton, J. Correll,
C. Judd, J. Cook, E. Paluck, S. Taborsky-Barba, S. Tomassetti,
and S. Wert for their help and feedback. This research was
supported primarily by grants from the William T. Grant
Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation. Additional
support was provided by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation
and the Institute for Social andPolicy Studiesof Yale University.
Supporting Online Material
www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/324/5925/400/DC1
SOM Text
Fig. S1
Table S1
References
12 January 2009; accepted 26 February 2009
10.1126/science.1170769
Mirror Neurons Differentially Encode
the Peripersonal and Extrapersonal
Space of Monkeys
Vittorio Caggiano,
1
Leonardo Fogassi,
2,3
Giacomo Rizzolatti,
3
Peter Thier,
1
Antonino Casile
1
*
Actions performed by others may have different relevance for the observer, and thus lead to different
behavioral responses, depending on the regions of space in which they are executed. We found that in
rhesus monkeys, the premotor cortex neurons activated by both the execution and the observation
of motor acts (mirror neurons) are differentially modulated by the location in space of the observed
motor acts relative to the monkey, with about half of them preferring either the monkeys peripersonal
or extrapersonal space. A portion of these spatially selective mirror neurons encode space according
to a metric representation, whereas other neurons encode space in operational terms, changing their
properties according to the possibility that the monkey will interact with the object. These results
suggest that a set of mirrorneurons encodes the observed motor acts not only for action understanding,
but also to analyze such acts in terms of features that are relevant to generating appropriate behaviors.
Mirror neurons are a set of neurons, first
described in the monkey premotor area
F5, that respond both when the monkey
performs an active goal-directed motor act and
when he observes the same motor act performed
by others (1,2). The most accepted interpretation
of the function of mirror neurons is that they are
involved in action understanding. Here, we in-
vestigated whether mirror neurons, besides play-
ing a role in this function, also encode aspects of
the observed actions that are relevant to subse-
quent interacting behaviors. A way to test this
hypothesis is to examine the effect of relative
distance between observer and actor on mirror
neuron responses. Although completely irrele-
vant for understandingwhat the actor is doing,
a precise knowledge of the distance at which the
observed action is performed is crucial for se-
lecting the most appropriate behavioral reaction.
To investigate quantitatively the possible
degree of spatial modulation of the visual re-
sponses of mirror neurons, we first isolated hand
movementrelated neurons in area F5 of two
rhesus monkeys by measuring the neurons
discharge while each monkey was executing
hand goal-directed motor acts. The visual proper-
ties of these neurons were then assessed by hav-
ing the experimenter perform the same motor acts
in the monkeys peripersonal and extrapersonal
(37) space, respectively (Fig. 1, A and B). The
position of the experimenters body was the same
in all conditions, and actions were performed in
the middle sagittal plane of the monkeys body.
The selectivity for one of the two regions of space
was then assessed by means of quantitative
statistical analysis of the response patterns of 105
mirror neurons recorded from two monkeys (8).
Figure 2A shows the visual responses of three
mirror neurons to motor acts executed in the peri-
or extrapersonal space of the monkey. All three
neurons responded during active movements of
the monkey. However, their visual responses
exhibited different types of tuning depending on
whether the observed actions were executed in the
monkeys peri- or extrapersonal space. Of all F5
mirror neurons tested, 26% (n= 27) exhibited a
1
Department of Cognitive Neurology, Hertie Institute for
Clinical Brain Research, University of Tübingen, 72076
bingen, Germany.
2
Dipartimento di Psicologia, Univer-
sità di Parma, 43100 Parma, Italy.
3
Dipartimento di
Neuroscienze e Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, Università
di Parma, 43100 Parma, Italy.
*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:
antonino.casile@uni-tuebingen.de
www.sciencemag.org SCIENCE VOL 324 17 APRIL 2009 403
REPORTS
on November 29, 2009 www.sciencemag.orgDownloaded from
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