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Seeing the Destination AND the Path: Using Identity-Based Motivation to Understand and Reduce Racial Disparities in Academic Achievement

Authors:

Abstract

African American, Latino, and Native Americans aspire to do well in school but often fall short of this goal. We use identity-based motivation theory (Oyserman, 2007, 2015) as an organizing framework to understand how macro-level social stratification factors including racial-ethnic group membership and socioeconomic position (e.g. parental education, income) and the stigma they carry, matter. Macro-level social stratification differentially exposes students to contexts in which choice and control are limited and stigma is evoked, shaping identity-based motivation in three ways. Stratification influences which behaviors likely feel congruent with important identities, undermines belief that one’s actions and effort matter, and skews chronic interpretation of one’s experienced difficulties with schoolwork from interpreting experienced difficulty as implying importance (e.g., “it’s for me”) toward implying “impossibility.” Because minority students have high aspirations, policies should invest in de-stigmatizing, scalable, universal, identity-based motivation-bolstering institutions and interventions.
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 1
Seeing the destination AND the path: Using identity-based motivation to understand and
reduce racial disparities in academic achievement
Daphna Oyserman
University of Southern California
Neil A. Lewis, Jr.
University of Michigan
Max Planck Institute for Human Development
IN PRESS SOCIAL ISSUES AND POLICY REVIEW
Running Head: SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH
Main Text Word Count: 12,176
Author Note:
Daphna Oyserman, Department of Psychology, Education, and Communication, and Dornsife
Center for the Mind and Society, University of Southern California.
Neil A. Lewis, Jr., Department of Psychology, Institute for Social Research, Research Center for
Group Dynamics, University of Michigan; The International Max Planck Research School LIFE,
Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Daphna Oyserman. Contact:
oyserman@usc.edu.
Keywords: Racial-Ethnic Disparities, Education, Identity-based motivation, Social Structure,
Social Psychology
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 2
Abstract
African American, Latino, and Native Americans aspire to do well in school but often fall short
of this goal. We use identity-based motivation theory (Oyserman, 2007, 2015) as an organizing
framework to understand how macro-level social stratification factors including racial-ethnic
group membership and socioeconomic position (e.g. parental education, income) and the stigma
they carry, matter. Macro-level social stratification differentially exposes students to contexts in
which choice and control are limited and stigma is evoked, shaping identity-based motivation in
three ways. Stratification influences which behaviors likely feel congruent with important
identities, undermines belief that one’s actions and effort matter, and skews chronic
interpretation of one’s experienced difficulties with schoolwork from interpreting experienced
difficulty as implying importance (e.g., “it’s for me”) toward implying “impossibility.” Because
minority students have high aspirations, policies should invest in de-stigmatizing, scalable,
universal, identity-based motivation-bolstering institutions and interventions.
Word count = 140
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 3
Seeing the destination AND the path: Using identity-based motivation to understand racial
disparities in achievement and what we can do about them
“… And no one in my family has [gone] to college yet. I want to be the one that set that record
for going to college. I don't want to go on the same path as my father and my mom went”
(Entering African American high school freshman, currently below grade level proficiency in
both math and reading, Armstrong Priorities Freshman Academy)
Like the student interviewed in our opening quote, virtually all American high school
students—regardless of whether or not they are racial-ethnic minorities1, aspire to attend college
(e.g., Fortin et al., 2015; Mortimer et al., 2014; O’Hara, Gibbons, Weng, Gerrard, & Simons,
2012; Rose & Baird, 2013; Staff, Johnson, Patrick, & Schulenberg, 2014; Vuolo et al., 2014).
Furthermore, African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Whites are equally likely to declare high-
paying STEM majors once in college (Chen & Weko, 2009; Griffith, 2010). Latino, African
American and White high school students are also equally likely to feel they belong in school
(Johnson, Crosnoe, & Elder, 2001)2. In the cases in which there are group differences in
aspirations, the evidence suggests that controlling for other factors, African American youth have
higher educational aspirations than their White peers (for a review, Oyserman, Johnson, &
James, 2011). Those high aspirations can pay off: from 1995 to 2015 the percentage of African
Americans with four year degrees rose from 15% to 21% and the percentage of Latinos who
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1!We use the term minority to refer to underrepresented minorities – Latinos, African Americans,
and Native Americans, whose attainments are contrasted with White or with White and Asian
Americans. We do this even though the studies we found focus on the differences between
African-American and Latino youth and White or White and Asian youth and for the most part
do not explicitly mention Native American youth. Even so, we expect that the issues we raise for
Latino and African-American youth are also relevant for Native American youth and for Pacific
Islanders and others within the larger Asian category.
2!While Hispanic is the term used by the U.S. Census as separate from White or other race, most
studies follow people’s self identification of Hispanic or Latino as a group different from White
or African American. We use the term Latino throughout in this way rather than shifting between
Hispanic and Latino or other terms.
!
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 4
have four year degrees rose from 9% to 16% (Kolodner, 2016; NCES, 2106). When those with
two year associate degrees are included, then the percentage increases to about 35% (Journal of
Blacks in Higher Education, 2016) This increase in degree attainment is especially good news
since by 2020 most children will be racial-ethnic minority children (Colby & Ortman, 2015;
Frey, 2015; Tavernise, 2012) whose lives, as we will discuss, will be better off with better-
educated parents.
At the same time, the news is not all good. Under-represented minorities are less likely to
experience educational settings as supportive of their success (Cabrera et al., 1999; Hu & St.
John, 2001) and their degree attainment and performance on standardized tests of attainment and
proficiency lags behind that of other students (American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2001,
National Science Foundation, 2009; Davis-Kean & Jager, 2014; Fryer & Levitt, 2006; Haskin &
Rouse, 2005; Loeb & Bassok, 2008). Differences in high school graduation are particularly stark
for minority students attending majority minority schools (The Leadership Conference, 2008).
Racial-ethnic gaps, especially those in math and science proficiency, are projected to take three
to four generations to close (Beck & Muschkin, 2012; Hedges & Nowell, 1999).
Neither lack of aspirations nor lack of engagement with school is likely the problem.
While all students experience a gap between their aspirations and attainment, the gap is much
larger for African American and Latino students than for White and Asian3 students. For
instance, prior to entering high school under-represented minorities aspire to at least as much
education as other students (Oyserman et al., 2011), yet they are less likely to graduate high
school (Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004) or college (Jackson, 2010). And once in
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
3!By!Asian!we!refer!to!Asian!Americans!as!a!general!category,!recognizing!that!this!broad!category!includes!
heterogeneity!with!regard!to!place!of!origin,!ethnicity,!educational!outcomes!and!stigma,!with!Pacific!
Islanders!for!example,!experiencing!lower!educational!attainment!than!many!others!within!this!category!
(Whitehouse!Facts!and!Figures,!2016).!
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 5
college, African American and Latino students are as likely to declare a STEM major as their
Asian and White peers but only half as likely to actually graduate with a STEM major (Chang,
Sharkness, Hurtado, & Newman, 2014; Chen & Weko, 2009; Griffith, 2010). Just as the problem
does not seem to be about aspirations, there is some evidence that the problem is also not lack of
engagement – depending on the study, African American high school students report higher
engagement with school than White or Asian students (Shernoff & Schmidt, 2008), or just as
high engagement (Johnson, Crosnoe, & Elder, 2001). They report that they are paying attention
(Shernoff & Schmidt, 2008), coming to class, doing their homework (Johnson et al., 2001) and
are just as likely to report feeling that they fit in and belong in high school (Johnson et al., 2001).
However, race-ethnicity matters in more complex ways; for example, engagement is associated
with better grades for White and Asian students, but this is not the case for African American
students (Shernoff & Schmidt, 2008).
In the current paper we use identity-based motivation theory (Oyserman, 2007, 2015) to
understand how aspirations, attachment and engagement with school might not be as helpful for
minority as majority students. The identity-based motivation theory takes the approach that
identities are central to understanding motivation because people prefer to act and make meaning
through the lens of their identities. At the same time, the identity-to-behavior link is not always
easy to discern because which specific identities come to mind and what these identities seem to
imply for action and meaning-making are dynamically constructed by features of the situation.
As described next, features of situations that matter are both the large structural features such as
poverty and segregation and the seemingly smaller incidental features of immediate context.
While the term “identity” is often used interchangeably with social demographic category
information, we use “identity” to mean self-definition, not categorization by others. Thus, while
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 6
membership in a social category, for example, being African American, is often assumed to be
the same as having an identity as an African American, we do not follow this convention.
Instead, we propose that people can be schematic or aschematic for social category memberships
including race-ethnicity, age, gender, body mass, and social class (see Oyserman, Kemmelmeier,
Fryberg, Brosh, & Hart-Johnson, 2003). Consider racial-ethnic identity, having a racial-ethnic
identity schema may imply highlighting dual membership in both the in-group and larger
society, highlighting the barriers to be overcome to be included in larger society, or highlighting
only in-group membership (Oyserman, et al., 2003),
Being aschematic does not mean that people are unaware of these features of themselves,
but rather, that they do not see these features as meaningful ways to make sense of themselves.
People who are schematic for race-ethnicity include racial-ethnic category membership as an
important component of their sense of self. People who are race-ethnicity aschematic know
which racial-ethnic category others associate with them as a social fact about themselves but do
not include racial-ethnic category membership as an important component of their sense of self.
While this ‘color blindness’ may seem to be an individual choice, for race-ethnicity it seems to
increase vulnerability to racial-ethnic stigma and stereotyping (Oyserman et al., 2003; Oyserman,
2008).
Therefore, we use the term “identity” in a more specific way. Identities are not social
category labels that others confer, instead, they are the traits and characteristics, social
relationships, roles, and group memberships people use to define who they are or might become,
the combination of which defines their sense of self (Oyserman, Elmore, & Smith, 2012). For
example, African American racial identity consists of multiple components including sense of
connection, awareness of racism, and embedded achievement (Oyserman, Gant, & Ager, 1995).
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 7
Sense of connection refers to feeling connected to other African Americans; awareness of racism
refers to rejecting or accepting stereotypes about African Americans (Hughes, Kiecolt, Keith, &
Demo, 2015; Hurd, Sellers, Cogburn, Butler-Barnes, & Zimmerman, 2013; Yip & Cross, 2004).
Embedded achievement refers to believing that group membership comes with valuation of and
attainment in academics (Altschul, Oyserman, & Bybee, 2006; Oyserman, Brickman, Rhodes,
2007; Oyserman, Harrison & Bybee, 2001).
Racial-ethnic identity can be content coded from responses to an open-ended question;
examples of such responses (taken from Oyserman, Gant, & Ager , 1995) are: “Being African
American means that there are no easy way outs, one should be ready for each obstacle.” “To be
Black is wonderful. I am a member of my community.” “To be an African American means to
me being strong, intelligent, and very proud of where I came from. Many African Americans
have been successful and I plan to be the same way.” As can be seen, the first response focuses
on the idea of overcoming difficulties – often understood as an awareness of racism. This is
clearly useful but, like the second, positive connection response, is not explicit about how these
aspects of racial-ethnic identity link to academics. In contrast, the last response includes both a
sense of positive connection and also link to academics.
As illustrated in Figure 1, our process model predicts that while macro-level and
immediate social contexts may influence academic outcomes (e.g., time on homework, grade
point average) directly (line 1), it is likely that much of their effect is indirect. Specifically, the
model predicts that features of macro-level and immediate social context cue identity-based
motivational processes (line 2), which influence academic outcomes, either directly (line 3) or by
moderating the effect of context (line 4). That is, social contexts affect academic outcomes by
influencing how students make sense of their current and future possible identities, whether they
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 8
see relevant strategies (e.g., studying, asking questions in class) as congruent with who they are,
and how they interpret experienced difficulties with schoolwork (Oyserman, 2009; 2013). This
identity-based motivation in turn, influences academic outcomes directly (line 3) and by
disrupting (moderating) the effect of stigma, a feature of context (line 4). Our paper synthesizes
the factors represented by these lines. First, we outline individual and societal benefits of
education. Then we turn to the association of educational outcomes with geographic location and
place in social hierarchy. Our goal in this section is to document that geographic location and
low place in social hierarchy limits choices and control and that being low in social hierarchy is
culturally stigmatized. Third, we articulate identity-based motivation theory. Our goal in this
section is to explain the consequences of limited choice and control and stigma on identity-based
motivation and detail how identity-based motivation affects academic outcomes. Finally, we
consider how our process model can be used to develop policy and interventions to improve
outcomes and reduce aspiration-attainment gaps.
---------------------------
Insert Figure 1 Here
---------------------------
Individual and Societal Benefits of Education
“Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world”
(Nelson Mandela, 2003)
Mandela (2003) argued for education as a means to attain control, autonomy, and justice.
He was right; higher education is associated with an array of good outcomes for individuals and
for the societies in which educated people live. A better-educated population is associated with
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 9
more democracy (Glaeser, Ponzetto & Shleifer, 2006) and increased civic participation (Dee,
2003), higher economic growth (Gylfason, 2001), and a better functioning economy (AAAS,
2001; Bassok, 2010; Reardon & Robinson, 2008). At the individual level low education
undercuts earnings – high school dropouts average $130,000 less lifetime earnings than high
school graduates (Building A Grad Nation, 2012; Levin, Belfield, Muenning, & Rouse, 2007).
Among full-time earners aged 25 and older, the median weekly wage of bachelor degree holders
is almost double that of high school degree holders (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). Increasing
wage inequality since the 1970s has magnified the positive consequences of education on wages
(Acemoglu & Pischke, 2001). In addition to wages, college education is also associated with
higher chance of marriage (DiPrete & Buchmann, 2006), lower divorce rates and more stable
childhood environments for children, an effect that is stronger when both parents have college
education (DiPrete & Buchmann, 2006; Gylfason, 2001). Benefits of college education are
magnified for women, whether they are African American or White (DiPrete & Buchmann,
2006). Less educated workers are more likely to work in jobs with shifting schedules and hours,
and less likely to know if their jobs will continue or be dropped, reducing their ability to control
their earnings, plan their time, budget and generally to experience choice and control (Fenwick &
Tausig, 2001; Mills & Blossfeld, 2006).
Geography, Place in Social Hierarchy and Educational Outcomes
Neither minorities (Frey, 2015) nor college graduates (Diamond, 2016) are equally
spread across the United States (Frey, 2015). African Americans and Latinos tend to live in
contexts that combine low density of college graduates and highly segregated academically low
performing schools (Orfield & Lee, 2005). People with college educations cluster in places with
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 10
better quality of life and they improve the quality of life in the places to which they move; when
people with college educations move from a geographic area, the quality of life in this area
declines for all those who are left behind (Diamond, 2016). Living in a more segregated area
with more income inequality is a risk factor, increasing odds of high school dropout and reducing
odds of college completion (Kearney, 2015). Minorities are overrepresented in these risky
contexts --in almost all major cities low-income African American and Latino students attend
highly segregated schools in which 90% or more of students are racial-ethnic minorities and low-
income (Boschma & Brownstein, 2016; Hannah-Jones, 2014).
Geography and Place in Social Hierarchy
High school and college graduation rates differ by state of residence within the United
States (e.g., Building A Grad Nation, 2012; Diamond, 2016; Nadworny, 2015; National Center
for Educational Statistics, 2015; Winters, 2015). Majority minority school systems such as that in
the District of Columbia, which has more than two thirds African American enrolled, have
particularly poor high school graduation rates. For example only about 60% of their students
graduate. Turning to college enrollment , the geographic pattern is complex, but the proportion
of college graduates is generally lower in the Southern than in the Northern United States
(Kennan, 2015). Having graduated college in a state increases the odds of staying in that state
and states that produce more college graduates attract college graduates from other places
(Groen, 2004; Winters, 2015). Taken together, there is a strong positive relationship between a
state’s production of college graduates and the proportion of college graduates living in the state
(Winter, 2015).
Living in a place with more college graduates matters; college graduates increase the
quality of education in elementary and secondary schools in the places they live, an effect that is
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 11
larger than would be predicted by their higher wages alone (Diamond, 2016; Winter, 2015). This
produces a cycle in which places that attract educated workers become contexts in which
elementary and secondary education improves (Diamond, 2016). The converse is also true: as
educated workers leave, quality of education declines (Diamond, 2016). For the individual
student, school quality matters because on average, students seem to assimilate to the standards
of their classroom, so that as average class performance improves, individual students benefit
(for a review, Antecol et al., 2016). Classroom standards provide a benchmark for how much
work is needed, in higher performing schools the norm for engagement is higher, whether
assessed by attendance or time on homework (Johnson et al., 2001).
Of course another benchmark would be whether one is actually proficient in a content
domain, separate from whether one is doing more or less work and attaining better or worse
scores than one’s peers. It is this broader standard that is tested in standardized tests.
Unfortunately, judging whether one knows or has learned the material is especially problematic
for students who are not yet proficient; these students often overestimate how much they know
and how well they have done on tests and as a result they may be “unskilled and unaware”
(Kruger & Dunning, 1999). A large body of work suggests that low performing students are
often unaware of their lack of skill (Feld, Sauermann, & De Grip, 2015), confusing the grades
they want to attain with the ones they likely will attain given their current efforts (Serra &
DeMarree, 2016). As a result, they spend too little time on difficult problems (Ehrlinger,
Mitchum, & Dweck, 2016). It is not that students attending schools with higher level academic
performance are assumed to have a better ability to judge whether they have learned the material,
rather that they are more engaged, do more homework because the standard for what is enough
shifts (Johnson et al., 2001) and this improves their outcomes.
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 12
Analyses of nationally representative samples of high school students do not show a race
difference in student’s sense of fitting in and belonging at school (Johnson et al., 2001)4.
However, students generally report higher sense of fitting in and belonging in schools in which
their racial-ethnic group dominates (Johnson et al., 2001). Moreover, experiencing fitting in and
belonging socially may not be the same as understanding how school works as an academic
process (Johnson et al., 2001). That is, as noted above, in highly segregated economically
disadvantaged minority-dominant schools, students may be both ‘unskilled and unaware’ of it
and have only their immediate peers rather than input a college-educated context as a marker of
their own standing. Hence students may lack a larger compass within which to situate their
progress.
That is what Antecol and colleagues (2016) found in their large scale study of low-
income minority students who were randomized into classrooms in minority dominant schools.
Specifically, in these schools, high performing students were negatively affected by higher
classroom average attainment and low performing students were positively affected by lower
classroom average attainment. Though measures of identity were not obtained, these results
imply that students were contrasting themselves with their peers and using their relative position
to infer how to include academics in their identity. Whether students conclude that academic
work is a “me” or a “not me” thing to do influences their subsequent performance – students who
were low performing at baseline do better after positive (downward) contrast with their peers.
Students who were high performing at baseline do worse after negative (upward) contrast with
their peers. Students who were midrange performers at baseline, having no contrast, simply infer
their sense of whether academics is a “me” thing to do from their classroom performance.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
4!As!!Johnson!et!al.!note,!this!finding!differs!from!findings!using!smaller!samples.!However,!the!Johnson!et!al!
data!come!from!a!representative!sample!of!high!school!students!and!hence!include!students!in!an!array!of!
high!school!types!(high!and!low!academically!performing,!majority!minority,!majority!White!and!so!on).
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 13
Antecol and colleagues (2016) ruled out the alternative possibility which was that teachers were
simply better able to advance a low performing class than a high performing one because
contrast effects were not found for students in the midrange of ability.
Effects of one’s standing in one’s immediate classroom should matter more in contexts in
which alternative sources of information are missing as would be the case in high poverty,
minority concentrated neighborhoods in which most people did not attain their educational
aspirations. Indeed, while having academically successful friends is predictive of better academic
outcomes for both White and African American high school students, for White students,
academically successful friends are most protective if students and their friends are both
attending low performing schools (Crosnoe, Cavanaugh, & Elder, 2003). The reverse is the case
for African American students; for them, academically successful friends is a significantly less
protective factor in the context of a low performing school (Crosnoe et al., 2003).
Families and Place in Social Hierarchy
Minority children are more likely to be from low-income families whose members
attained low levels of education, which place them at the bottom of the social hierarchy (Basch,
2011; Cameron & Heckman, 2001; Duncan & Magnunson, 2005; Hallinan, 2001; Hedges &
Nowell, 1999). The two are related; for example, in California, race-based education gaps
account for the race-based wage gaps between workers who are African American or Latino and
those who are Asian or White (Public Policy Institute of California, 2003). Parental poverty and
low education carries over to risk for children, increasing the odds of children entering school
with deficits in their verbal skills and doubling the odds of their eventual high school dropout
(Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 2000). In contrast to children from families at the bottom of the social
hierarchy, those from families at top of the social hierarchy have better educational outcomes.
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 14
Thus, higher family income and education is associated with better test performance and higher
likelihood of completing high school, entering and completing college (Entwisle, Alexander, &
Olson, 2005; Huang, Guo, Kim, & Sherraden, 2010; Kim & Sherraden, 2011; Loke & Sacco,
2011). While the associations between child educational outcomes and family education,
poverty, income and employment are clear, the underlying process by which these factors
influence child outcomes remains unclear (Duncan, Yueng, Brooks-Gunn, & Smith, 1998;
Violato, Petrou, Gray, & Redshaw, 2011). That is, without considering intermediate processes,
such as the ones we have begun to describe, it is not clear how place in social hierarchy
translates to academic outcomes.
Place in Social Hierarchy, Sense of Control and Social Stigma
How is it that minority racial-ethnic group membership, educational and income markers
of low place in social hierarchy are so intertwined? Though historical socio-structural causes are
often overlooked, history is a place to start. Prejudice-based discriminatory policies (mortgage
red-lining, segregation, pay gaps) substantially and continually limited minority families’ social
and economic capital (Cameron & Heckman, 2001; Farley, 1977; Kuebler & Rugh, 2013; Loury,
1977; Marshall & Jiobu, 1975; Williams & Collins, 2001). While these policies and practices are
no longer legal, as a society, we still bear the mark of these practices.
Effects of those historical policies continue to impact educational outcomes today since,
as outlined above, children from families with less education and fewer assets are more at risk
educationally. By limiting choice and control, these discriminatory policies not only consigned
minorities to the bottom of America’s social hierarchy, but being at the bottom itself cued a
negatively marked (stigmatized) identity as being deficient – having low ability or low will
(Oyserman & Fisher, in press; Oyserman, Smith & Elmore, 2014). Stigmas, which are negatively
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 15
marked actual or imagined attributes about people (Goffman, 1963; Link & Phelan, 2001; Major
& O’Brien, 2005), form the basis of discriminatory treatment and stereotypes -- culturally shared
descriptions of the character and characteristics of people with these attributes (Oyserman &
Fisher, in press; Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977; Steele, 2010). Poverty, welfare receipt, lack
of education, living in a bad neighborhood, and being discriminated against are all potential
stigmas, especially if perceived as one’s own fault -- stemming from one’s own actions and
deficits rather than the result of social structure (Blumkin, Margalioth, Sadka, 2013; for a review,
Pescosolido & Martin, 2015).
Stigmatization by others and internalized by the targets of this socio-economic
disadvantage based stigma is particularly likely given that American culture highlights the power
of individuals to steer their own course (Oyserman, 2017). If low place in social hierarchy is
stigmatizing and reduces sense of choice and control, then the effects of low place in social
hierarchy could vary by whether families carry other stigmatized identities – for example
minority racial-ethnic status. Evidence for an effect of racial-ethnic status separate from
economic effects is mixed, though clearly economic effects often intermingle with race-ethnicity
effects (Blum et al., 2000; Gormley & Phillips, 2005; Leob et al., 2007). For example, in a
longitudinal kindergarten to eighth grade analysis using the National Center for Education
Statistics’ (NCES) Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative sample,
Quinn and Cooc (2015) found that taking family income, education, and occupational prestige
into account substantially reduced the gap in the science attainment of Latino and African
American students, compared to White students. Other studies suggest that once socio-economic
resource differences are accounted for statistically, race-ethnicity gaps disappear, so that after
adding these controls, racial-ethnic minority and white students are equally likely to be enrolled
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 16
in a 2- or 4-year college at age 22 (Entwisle et al., 2005). Some analyses even suggest that racial-
ethnic minority youth would be slightly more likely to enroll in four year colleges than White
youth if they came from families with the same demographics (e.g., parental level of education,
family income, number of siblings, location of residence, Cameron & Heckman, 2001). These
results imply that what appear to be race-ethnicity gaps may, in fact, be stigma driven.
As demographics shift, the consumers of public services, such as public education, are
becoming majority minority – serving more minority than White students (Maxwell, 2014).
Indeed, most public school students today are racial-ethnic minorities and more than half qualify
for free or reduced lunch (Bidwell, 2015; Boschma & Brownstein, 2016). If minorities are
stigmatized as not worthy, and the legacy of discriminatory social policies continues, we expect
that this shift will undermine support for public expenditures on education. Indeed, the combined
stigma of low place in social hierarchy and of the association of minority status with low place in
social hierarchy may explain why services provided based on low place in social hierarchy, so-
called “means tested” services (e.g., services provided based on recipients’ low income), are
often stigmatizing themselves (Wilson, 2012). ‘Honest’ poverty – poverty that is no fault of
one’s own, that occurs in spite of working or being willing to work, and in the context of taking
responsibility for one’s dependents, is not granted to the stigmatized poor (Levine-Clark, 2015).
Over time, these programs often suffer from low funding and public support since it is not clear
if the stigmatized are ‘deserving’ of public support (Delvin & Wolff, 2015; Gilens, 1999;
Quadagno, 1994).
An example of this is Head Start, the largest preschool program in the United States is
means tested. That is, eligibility is linked to the Federal Poverty Line so that only those meeting
standards of poverty and need are eligible (Miller et al., 2016; U.S. DHHS, 2010a, 2010b). As
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 17
would be expected if the program is stigmatized, Head Start teachers earn less (about half of
what public school teachers do) and the program is often criticized as unsuccessful despite
successes, including increased likelihood of high school completion by early twenties (Deming,
2009; Garces, Thomas, & Currie, 2002), and other social benefits including reducing long-term
crime rates (Garces et al., 2002).
Until now we have documented that aspiration-attainment gaps are associated with place
in social hierarchy, whether place is defined by geographic location or family circumstance. The
evidence suggests that the negative predictive power of neighborhood poverty and attending a
low academically performing school are stronger for students coming from low-income and
minority families than for students coming from high-income, White families (also called
cumulative disadvantage, Pals & Kaplan, 2006; Sampson, Morenoff & Gannon-Rowley, 2002).
Identity-based Motivation Theory: Seeing the Destination and Navigating the Path
As we demonstrate in this section, identity-based motivation theory provides an
explanation for the gap between desired and attained outcomes, an explication of how social
structural factors and stigma increase this gap, and a set of mechanisms through which children
in high-risk contexts can succeed. Identity-based motivation theory is a social psychological
theory of motivation and goal pursuit that explains when and in which situations people’s
identities motivate them to take action toward their goals (Oyserman, 2007, 2009a, 2013, 2015).
It predicts that although people experience themselves as having stable identities across
situations, in fact, which identities come to mind and what they imply for action and meaning-
making change as a function of features of immediate situations (Oyserman, 2009a, 2009b).
These elements of identity-based motivation, termed dynamic construction, action-readiness, and
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 18
procedural-readiness in the theory, are assumed to be associative knowledge networks so that
activating one element activates the others (Oyserman, Bybee, & Terry, 2006; Oyserman, 2007).
Returning to our process model, the empirical evidence we have presented thus far
suggests that the effect of social context on academic outcomes is not simply direct (line 1), but
occurs via effects on other factors (line 2). We term these factors, identity-based motivation. The
idea that place in social hierarchy has psychological consequences on how the self is conceived
has been considered from a number of angles (e.g., Gecas & Schwalbe, 1983). One important
formulation is that middle class professional work provides a sense of autonomy and a sense of
controlling one’s own fate in a way denied to the unemployed or those employed in ‘at will’
contracts (e.g., Gecas & Schwalbe, 1983) and this is stressing (Lachman & Weaver, 1998;
Oyserman, Smith, & Elmore, 2014). One way to test the prediction that minorities and others
low in the social hierarchy have to either reframe their goals or suffer loss of self-regard is to
examine whether racial-ethnic groups differ in self-esteem depending on social position (Hafdahl
& Gray-Little, 2002; Twenge & Crocker, 2002). Recall that in the general sense, goals are the
same – in that aspirations for college are uniformly high. Empirical support for this prediction of
loss of self-regard, operationalized as self-esteem, is not clear for a number of reasons. First,
meta-analyses find that African Americans report higher self-esteem than Whites, who report
higher self-esteem than other American groups (Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans).
Second, among African Americans, high self-esteem is associated with high sense of in-group
connection with other African Americans and low self-esteem is associated with holding African
Americans in low regard (Hughes, Kiecolt, Keith, & Demo, 2015; Richardson, Macon,
Mustafaa, Bogan, Cole-Lewis, & Chavous, 2015). Moreover, the relationship between self-
esteem and academic attainment is neither strong nor linear (Hope et al., 2013). These results
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 19
imply that stigma of low place in social hierarchy does not directly carry over to less positive
self-regard for African Americans. Moreover, positive self-regard may not be a useful focus for
operationalizing how low place in social hierarchy matters for identity for other reasons as well:
first, responses to self-esteem measures likely vary by cultural frame (Cai, Brown, Deng &
Oakes, 2007) and second, the positive consequences of having high self-esteem are unclear
(Baumeister et al., 2003).
While self-esteem may not be the path linking low place in social hierarchy to academic
outcomes, the self can be implicated in the process by which low place in social hierarchy
influences academic outcomes in other ways. One way is via the effect of low place in social
hierarchy on sense of control. Though the relationship between academic outcomes and low
sense of control is not yet well studied, the relationship between low place social hierarchy and
low sense of control has been documented for health outcomes (for a review, Oyserman et al.,
2014). Moreover, experimentally manipulating subjective sense of social class causally shifts
sense of control (Krause, Piff, & Keltner, 2009). The implication is that high vs. low place in
social hierarchy matters not simply because families can purchase more or fewer educational
resources but also because place provides a greater vs. weaker sense of choice and control over
one’s fate. If that is the case, then high position should lead students to see success at schoolwork
as identity-congruent, to see strategies for doing well as effective for people like them, and to
interpret their experienced difficulties with schoolwork as implying the need to engage in more
effort. In contrast, a low place in social hierarchy should undermine students’ perceptions that
their choices and efforts matter, reducing the likelihood that school-focused possible identities
come to mind or feel relevant in the moment (Oyserman, 2013, 2015).
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 20
Indeed, experimentally manipulating the extent to which students experience (Smith,
James, Varnum, & Oyserman, 2014) or are reminded (Bi & Oyserman, 2015) of their lack of
choice and control reduces the salience of their school-focused possible identities and increases
their belief in fate, especially if they have no reason to belief that they have or could have
internal resources to overcome these challenges (Bi & Oyserman, 2015). This is illustrated in
the following two sets of studies. In one set of experiments, Smith and colleagues (2014) had
students fill out open-ended possible identities questionnaires before or after they were reminded
of the high level of economic uncertainty for people like themselves who planned to be college
graduates in a few short years. Students were then either reminded that they have or could have
the skills and abilities to attain their goals or led to question whether they did. Students were
more likely to report academically focused possible identities, linked with strategies, more likely
to choose to work on a resume builder program rather than play video games if they felt
confident about their skills and abilities but the world was uncertain.
In the second study set, Bi and Oyserman (2015) used a different manipulation in their
work with high poverty middle school students in rural China. About 4 in 10 of these children
are left behind by their impoverished parents who leave to find work but cannot take their
children with them, leaving them at school during the week; during the weekends they are with
relatives or alone. Given the high likelihood that one could be left behind, Bi and Oyserman had
the children wrote about their possible identities and belief in fate either before or after being
asked whether they were “left behind” children. As predicted, students scored higher on fatalism
(e.g. “I rarely try to change things, things are as they are because they are not destined to
change”) and generated fewer possible identities linked to strategies, if they were first asked if
they had been “left behind” yet. In this rural low-income population, having possible identities
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 21
linked to strategies mattered, predicting test scores among both left behind and non-left behind
students a year later.
As we outline in this section, we predict that this dual force of (a) experiencing limits on
choice and control and (b) stigma about having less choice and control affects educational
outcomes by changing identity-based motivation (line 3) and by the interaction of accessible
stigma-based stereotypes and identity-based motivation (line 4). That is, educational outcomes
can be improved by increasing the likelihood that : (1) aspirations to do well in school come to
mind and feel congruent with important social identities, (2) school-focused strategies will come
to mind, and (3) experienced difficulty with schoolwork will be interpreted as implying task
importance (line 3). Once instantiated, stigmas and linked stereotypes provide an accessible
interpretation of what experienced difficulties with schoolwork might imply – that the odds of
succeeding are low, that strategies such as studying or staying after school will not work, and
that achieving school success is not possible ‘for me’ (line 4, e.g., Oyserman, 2015). For this
undermining effect to occur, stigma and linked stereotypes do not need to change educational
aspirations (e.g., Lewis & Sekaquaptewa, 2016; Steele, 2010), they just need to make sustained
effort to attain one’s aspirations less likely.
Three lines of empirical evidence provide support for our predictions. First, research on
the link between difficulty and schoolwork documents that for high performing college students,
schoolwork is implicitly associated with importance (Critcher & Ferguson, 2016). Second,
research on the link between power and cognition documents that less power and control is
associated with reasoning in terms of situation and proximal details rather than in terms of values
and abstract goals (Fiske, Dupree, Nicolas, & Swencionis, 2016; Magee & Smith, 2013). Poverty
functions like cognitive load, undermining focus on the big picture (Shah, Mullainathan, &
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 22
Shafir, 2012). Sense of control mediates the relationship between subjective socioeconomic
status and this situated reasoning style (Kraus et al., 2009). Third, being lower in objective
socioeconomic status (e.g., having less than a high school education), is associated with less
endorsement of the idea that experiencing difficulty can signal importance of the goal one is
focused on attaining (Aelenei, Lewis, & Oyserman, 2016). This effect is particularly pronounced
for minorities, implying that for minorities attaining college education is a particularly important
route to experiencing difficulty as importance, whereas for whites there may be other paths given
their less stigmatized place in social hierarchy (Aelenei et al., 2016).
The evidence cited above in our review of the literature on educational disparities implies
that disparities in educational outcomes are not due to gaps in aspiration between groups, but
instead are due to the ways in which social structural forces shape educational attainment. Social
structural factors are relatively impossible to change without large-scale, long term and
financially intensive intervention directed at changing opportunity structures (e.g., Vera &
Reese, 2000; Walsh, Galassi, Murphy, & Park-Taylor, 2002). At the same time, as we outline in
this section on identity-based motivation, social structural factors influence the aspiration-
achievement gap, in part, through their influence on children's perceptions of what is possible for
them and people like them in the future (Destin & Oyserman, 2009, 2010; Oyserman, Bybee, &
Terry, 2006; Oyserman, Terry & Bybee, 2002). Accordingly, interventions that focus on this
macro-micro interface and emphasize the meaning students make of their possibilities can help
students overcome the constraints imposed by social structural variables.
Identity-based motivation theory assumes that the self-concept is multifaceted, including
many diverse and not well integrated identity-components whose content is dynamically
constructed in context. People interpret situations in ways that are congruent with their currently
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 23
active identities, prefer identity-congruent actions to identity-incongruent ones, and interpret any
difficulties they encounter in light of identity-congruence. When actions feel identity-congruent,
experienced difficulty engaging in relevant behaviors simply highlights that the behavior is
important and meaningful. Conversely, when action feels identity-incongruent, the same
difficulty suggests that engaging in these behaviors is pointless and “not for people like me.” As
we will demonstrate, these perceptions have important downstream effects on engagement in
school-focused judgments (e.g., planning to study), behaviors (including engagement with
classroom activities and time spent on homework), and outcomes (including standardized test
scores and grades in school).
William James (1890) first articulated a version of these postulates by arguing that the
self includes content, motivation, and action tendencies, that social contexts matter for who one
is in the moment, and that the self is malleable. In that sense, the identity-based motivation
approach is rooted in the earliest psychological formulation of self-concept. The novel approach
that the identity-based motivation model brings to our understanding of how social contexts
influence behavior is two-fold. First, it focuses on predicting when and how aspects of the self-
concept matter by operationalizing the three core postulates (dynamic construction, action-
readiness, and procedural readiness) in a manner amenable to experimental manipulation.
Second, it focuses on experimental methodology to test the efficacy of these postulates to predict
behavioral outcomes in the moment and to form the basis for interventions influencing behaviors
over time.
To illustrate what dynamic construction, action-readiness and procedural-readiness mean
and how they operate in tandem, we start with an example and then turn to the empirical
evidence. Our concrete example is of a particular identity – racial identity as an African-
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 24
American, a particular action – doing schoolwork in class or at home, and a particular mental
procedure, interpreting experienced ease or difficulty while engaged with schoolwork. People
may or may not chronically think about their racial identity, but they are certainly more likely to
think about it in some contexts than in others and when they do, what comes to mind is likely to
matter for whether or not schoolwork feels like a “me” or “us” thing to do. Consider an African-
American middle school student in a classroom. Once racial identity is on his mind, what does
that identity imply for his behavior? On one hand, there is no fixed way to “be African
American,” no correct way in which being African American connects to schoolwork, and no
fixed way in which to interpret difficulty while doing schoolwork. “Being African American
might mean buckling down and doing your schoolwork in order to get the scholarship to go to
college or it might mean chatting instead of focusing in class or cutting class to hang out with
friends. Which way of “being African Americangets dynamically constructed is a function of
chronic and momentary cues, which, once activated carry action- and procedural-readiness --a
propensity to act and make sense of experiences in ways that fit what “being African American
means in the moment.
Depending on what being African American or “Black” means in that particular moment,
the appropriate behavior might be to do schoolwork or not. If, in context, the “Black thing to do
is to skip schoolwork, then the experienced difficulty associated with doing schoolwork implies
that one should go ahead and skip it, because skipping in that context would be to engage in
identity-congruent behavior. If on the other hand, the “Black thing to do” in context is to do
schoolwork, then the same experienced difficulty associated with doing schoolwork highlights
that one is doing the right thing, since doing schoolwork in that context is the identity-congruent
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 25
behavior. Experienced difficulty while acting in the identity congruent way implies that success
(doing schoolwork) is important.
In the next three subsections we summarize empirical evidence for each of the three
components of identity-based motivation and what each implies for racial-ethnic disparities in
education. We end with considerations of how policy makers can use identity-based motivation
to reduce educational disparities.
The Dynamic Construction of Identity
“A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel handed to the child, finished and
complete. A self is always becoming.”
(Madeleine L’Engle, 1984)
Low-income and minority children are more likely to live in high-unemployment and
high-poverty neighborhoods and to go to schools in those contexts (Bureau of Labor Statistics,
2009). These neighborhoods have a number of characteristics that undermine the potential for
students to develop education promoting identities. First, they tend to be segregated, and that
segregation is associated with both limited exposure to adults who are college graduates
(Adelman & Gocker, 2007; Krivo, Peterson, Rizzo, & Reynolds, 1998) and with lower
endorsement of the three aspects of racial-ethnic identity that are predictive of academic
attainment: connectedness – feeling a positive sense of connection to one’s racial-ethnic in-
group, awareness of racism – grappling with how out-group members view the in-group, and
embedded achievement – the belief that achievement is a goal that is valued by the in-group
(Oyserman, Gant, & Ager, 1995; Oyserman & Yoon, 2009). Second, these contexts are likely to
be media saturated, providing vivid models of education-independent adult identities such as
those in sports and entertainment (Roberts, 2000). Given the lack of easily accessible models of
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 26
people “like me” who have succeeded in school, youths’ commitments to education may remain
abstract and hence rarely cued as part of identity, and thus may seldom be linked to everyday
behaviors (Roderick, 2003; Oyserman, Johnson & James, 2011).
Yet, as noted in our introduction, minority students do aspire to college and do feel that
they are engaged and fit and belong in school as much as other students do. This implies that the
problem is not whether a “me as college student” or “me as college graduate” possible self
exists. Instead, the problem is whether that possible future identity comes to mind frequently and
whether, when it does, it is linked to strategies (action-readiness) and to productive interpretation
of experienced difficulty (procedural-readiness). Hence the question should not be framed as
whether minority students incorporate academics into their racial-ethnic identities (Fryer, 2006;
Ogbu, 2004) or whether they have academically focused possible identities. Instead the question
is whether in context, these identities are likely to come to mind and if they are linked to
strategies and productive interpretation of experienced difficulty when they do come to mind. To
matter, possible identities need to both come to mind and be experienced as relevant to current
possibilities for action (e.g., Landau, Oyserman, Keefer, & Smith, 2014).
Consider the following experiment with low-income middle school students, which
focused on linking gender identity with academic success (Elmore & Oyserman, 2012). Students
were randomly assigned to interpret one of four graphs that showed accurate Census information
from their state. They saw either a graph about earnings or about high school graduation rates.
For half of students, graphs broke down the information by gender. Thus, boys and girls either
saw that men succeed (they earn more money) or that women succeed (they graduate high school
more often). The other half of students got the information without gender comparisons. After
viewing the graphs, students were asked open-ended questions about the coming year, given a
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 27
novel math task, and then asked about their farther future aspirations. The motivational
consequence of seeing the graph depended on whether or not the graph implied that people like
‘me’ succeed. Thus, as detailed next, boys performed worse than girls except in the ‘men
succeed’ condition. In the ‘men succeed’ condition, boys generated more academic possible
identities and strategies to attain them for the coming year and more career-oriented possible
identities for the farther future, and they were more engaged with their current schoolwork, as
exhibited by better performance on the novel math task (Elmore & Oyserman, 2012). This
experiment demonstrates that what a current identity – in this case gender, implies for action
depends on the context in which that identity is constructed. Boys could think of doing well in
school as congruent with, part of, being male; however, they typically don’t think this without a
nudge toward identity congruence, as Elmore and Oyserman (2012) demonstrated. With regard
to race-ethnicity, the same should be the case (Oyserman, Brickman, Rhodes, 2007; Oyserman,
Bybee, Terry, 2003); hence interventions cannot assume that the reason race-ethnicity linked
educational disparities exist is because racial-ethnic minority students do not have a “successful
student” possible identity or that one cannot be easily elicited given the right context. As we
have shown, whether racial-ethnic identity and school-focused possible identities are positively
correlated or not related at all depends on situational cues (e.g. Oyserman et al., 2006).
Action Readiness
“To be an African American means to me being strong, intelligent, and very proud of where I
came from. Many African Americans have been successful and I plan to be the same way.”
(African American Middle School Student, Oyserman, Gant, & Ager, 1995)
The student quoted above was asked what it means to be African American by a college
student sitting with him in the middle school library. This was part of an experiment in which a
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 28
group of eighth graders in the school responded to the same open-ended question. Half were
randomly assigned to answer this question before they were given a novel math task to try and
half were randomly assigned to answer this question after doing the math task. What they said
about being an African American was only associated with how they did on the math task if they
were asked the question before doing the math task. What they said did not matter for their
performance if they were asked the question after doing the math task. This is consistent with the
prediction that identities only matter if they are on one’s mind at the moment of action. Whether
thinking about being African American improved or hindered performance depended on what
students actually said – students like the one we quoted who expressed a sense of connection to
the African American community coupled with a sense that doing well academically is what
‘we’ do, did better on the math task. This was not the case for students who did not express the
combination of connection and this notion of embedded achievement, even if they did mention
awareness of racism. The math task was novel so students did not know if they would be good at
it, they were more inclined to give it a shot and keep going if they had just finished saying
something that implied that part of being African American is engaging with schoolwork
(Oyserman, Gant, & Ager, 1995).
Within the identity-based framework, this is termed ‘action readiness,’ readiness to act in
ways that appear congruent with the way one is thinking about some identity in the moment. The
implication is that students will pay attention to educational information, adhere to the advice of
their instructors, and hence reap the benefits of their time in the classroom only if school related
activities feel congruent with important aspects of their identity, including racial-ethnic, gender
and class-based identities (Oyserman & Destin, 2010). Conversely, if engaging with school does
not feel congruent with important aspects of identity, students will not reap the benefits school
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 29
contexts have to offer. Stated differently, if a student feels that education-promoting behaviors
are congruent with things “people like me” do, then they are more likely to do those things
(Oyserman, Bybee, & Terry, 2006). In the same way, if education-undermining behaviors feel
congruent with things “people like me” do they are more likely to do those behaviors (Smith &
Oyserman, 2015). This idea is what identity-based motivation theory describes as action
readiness (Oyserman, 2015a, 2015b).
Racial-ethnic identity serves as a lens through which students interpret and make
meaning of their experiences. It allows them to make sense of themselves as group members,
gives meaning to current and historical barriers faced by members of their racial-ethnic in-group,
and allows them to organize self-relevant knowledge about their personal effort and its meaning
to themselves and other in-group members (Oyserman, Brickman, & Rhodes, 2007; Oyserman &
Harrison, 1998). In order to effectively reduce racial-ethnic disparities in education then,
educators and policy makers must consider the links between students’ racial-ethnic identities
and school-relevant behaviors. Without a clear understanding of these associations, and the fact
that these associations change across contexts, interventions aimed at reducing disparities are
unlikely to succeed.
It is important to note that the messages students receive about their racial identity in
their chronic social contexts (neighborhood, home) can also influence the extent to which school
focused behaviors feel identity-congruent, and hence worth acting on (Oyserman & Destin,
2010). In low-income, racial-ethnic minority dominated contexts, racial-ethnic identities may
include information about academics that undermine children’s belief in the identity congruence
of school-focused effort. Studies using a variety of methods converge in suggesting that students’
perceptions of racial-ethnic groups contain predictions about academic behaviors. Kao’s (2000)
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 30
ethnographic research suggests that high school students across ethnicities perceive Latinos as
more likely to become manual laborers, Asians to do well in school, and African Americans to
do poorly in school. Hudley and Graham (2001) showed a similar pattern of results in a scenario-
based experimental paradigm. Latino and African American students presented with a scenario
about a target student who is failing in school were more likely to predict that the target was
Latino or African-American than White. These results were replicated when low-income
children were asked to infer the performance of a target student. When asked to predict academic
performance of a target student, low-income students infer worse performance from low (vs.
middle) social class peers (Regner, Huguet, & Monteil, 2002; Weigner, 2000). Taken as a whole,
these results imply that racial-ethnic and low-income identity have implications for whether or
not students believe their actions might matter for school outcomes.
Procedural Readiness
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience,
but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
(Martin Luther King, Jr. last speech before his death)
The third component of identity-based motivation is procedural readiness, or readiness to
make sense of experiences through the lens of identity. How the lens of identity influences this
readiness to make sense of experience has been studied by considering two identity lenses. The
first lens is which kind of identity is on one’s mind, with particular focus on whether the salient
identity is a social identity (such as race-ethnicity, gender, or social class) or a personal identity
(such as a possible identity as an ‘A’ student in middle school). The second lens is whether
salient identity is experienced as certain or uncertain using a variety of operationalizations of
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 31
certainty. As detailed next, an emerging literature shows the importance of each of these two
identity lenses on procedural readiness elucidating how experience is interpreted and acted on.
Is a social identity or a personal identity salient? As highlighted in social identity and
stereotype threat theories (e.g. Sedikides & Brewer, 2015), when a social identity such as race-
ethnicity is made salient, people may be more likely to think of themselves in terms of their
relationships and group memberships. They also may be more likely to interpret their
experiences using a collectivistic relational lens. That is, contexts that cue social identities such
as racial-ethnic, gender, or social class, may also inadvertently cue the mental procedures related
to collectivistic mindsets. This matters because accessible collectivistic (vs. individualistic) lens
influences how information is processed and recalled (for a review, Oyserman, in press, 2017).
That is, a collectivistic lens increases use of holistic, connecting mental procedures (e.g., seeing
how elements connect) while an individualistic lens increases use of analytic, separating mental
procedures (e.g., focusing on a main point).
As linked to academic attainment, it is not so much about which procedure is used but
whether accessible procedure matches the task at hand that matters (for a review, Oyserman &
Destin, 2010). If the task is better solved using an analytic procedure, cuing a connecting
procedure undermines performance. For example, in one experiment, Latino, African American,
and White students were given moderately difficult GRE problems to solve after they had
completely an ostensibly unrelated language task in which they were asked to read a paragraph
and circle the pronouns (Oyserman, Sorensen, Reber, & Chen, 2009). In this task, students were
given a list of possible pronouns and unbeknownst to them were randomized into two groups,
one group received a paragraph containing first person singular pronouns (I, me, my) and the
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 32
other group received a paragraph containing first person plural pronouns (we, our, us). Prior
research showed that while the latter cued a connecting-relating, collectivistic mindset, the
former cued a separating-pulling apart individualistic mindset. Because the GRE problems
require ignoring stray details and focusing on core rules, those in the individualistic mindset
condition scored significantly better at GRE problems (Oyserman, Sorensen, Reber, & Chen,
2009).
Does salient identity feel certain or uncertain? In the prior section, we focused on the
consequences of contextual cues that trigger accessibility of personal vs. social identities, which
affect whether an individualistic or collectivistic mindset is likely to be used to make sense of
experience. In this section we consider other consequences of these cues. These are the
experienced certainty with which one entertains a possible identity, the centrality of this identity
for one’s sense of self, and the effect of experienced certainty or centrality on meaning-making.
To concretize what we mean, consider the following example of a student, who like many others,
wants to do well in school. At any particular moment, a ‘good student’ identity may or may not
feel central to who one is – it may feel more central when singled out to receive praise in front of
one’s cousins and less central while playing video games. At the same time, a ‘good student’
possible future identity may feel highly likely or rather uncertain to be attained. Just as the
individualistic and collectivistic mindsets that are triggered by contextual cues to focus on
personal or social identities influence how people make sense of their experience, so do
experienced identity certainty and centrality. The procedural readiness cued in the case of
experienced identity certainty and centrality is readiness to interpret experienced ease and
difficulty. In contexts that cue certainty and centrality of academic identities, low-income and
minority students are likely to interpreted experienced difficulty working on schoolwork as a
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 33
signal that the schoolwork is important. In contrast, in contexts that undermine certainty and
centrality of academic identities, low-income and minority students are likely to interpret
experienced difficulty working on schoolwork as a signal that the schoolwork is impossible for
them.
This prediction of identity-based motivation theory has been supported empirically. In
one study, students were more likely to endorse the idea that experienced difficulty implies
importance after being guided to consider their possible identities as a good fit for their likely
college experience (Oyserman, Destin, & Novin, 2015). Fit could occur in one of two ways.
First, fit could occur if students were guided to consider college as a context in which success
was likely and to consider their own positive possible identities. Second, fit could occur if
students were guided to consider college as a context in which failure was likely and to consider
their own feared possible identities.
What does experienced difficulty mean? Once a social or personal identity is salient
and a student has a sense of how certain or central that identity is for their sense of self, this
provides them with a lens through which to interpret experiences in school particularly
experienced difficulty. How students interpret experienced difficulty has important
consequences. Interpretation of experienced difficulty as a signal of school importance rather
than as impossibility matters for persistent engagement and performance on school tasks
(Elmore, Oyserman, Smith, & Novin, 2016; Oyserman, Novin, Smith, Elmore, & Nurra, 2016,
2016; Smith & Oyserman, 2015). Both interpretations of experienced difficulty are available in
our shared cultural schema which is why sayings such as “no pain, no gain” and “it’s just not
worth my time” both seem intuitive and obvious. Empirical evidence supports this intuition –
people do think in both ways (Fisher & Oyserman, 2016). That is, people understand that
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 34
difficulty could mean importance (e.g., the difficulty experienced when dieting and exercising,
serve as reminders of their importance for long term health), or impossibility (e.g., regardless of
how much we exercise, the authors of this paper will never be Olympians, if we are thinking of
exercise as a way to attain this possible identity, we might as well give up). Only one
interpretation can be active in a given moment (Fisher & Oyserman, 2016), but which gets
activated can be influenced by both momentary and chronic contextual cues. For example, in
some studies, just reading four statements that either focused participants’ attention on the idea
that important things are often difficult or focused their attention on the idea that impossible
things are often difficult was needed to activate an interpretation and influence outcomes (e.g.
Aelenei, Lewis, & Oyserman, 2016; Oyserman, Destin, & Novin, 2015). In a number of studies,
when an interpretation of experienced difficulty as importance is cued, students were more likely
to focus on academics when asked about their possible identities (Oyserman, Novin, et al.,
2016), more likely to say that academics are central to their sense of self generally (Smith &
Oyserman, 2015), and more likely to feel certain that they can attain these possible selves
(Aelenei, Lewis, & Oyserman, 2016). Importantly, more chronic cues such as low academic
attainment, can also influence these interpretations (Aelenei et al., 2016).
When something feels difficult to do, that experience can mean that the odds of
succeeding are low. If the odds of success are low, one should be less motivated to persist; after
all, the task is basically impossible to do, so one should switch to something else rather than
wasting one’s time. Indeed, that is what expectancy value theories predict (Feather, 1992;
Wigfield, Tonks, & Eccles, 2004) and at least to some extent, document (Wigfield & Eccles,
2000). But as highlighted in the opening quote by Martin Luther King, experienced difficulty can
also imply that something is important and thus worth the effort, and according to identity-based
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 35
motivation theory, that interpretation of experienced difficulty is more likely in contexts in which
relevant identities feel central to one’s sense of self and are experienced as relatively certain to
be attained. In effect, this implies that experienced difficulty as importance is separable from the
idea that experienced difficulty implies that the odds are low odds of success – the odds
essentially matter less if something is important (e.g. Higgins, 1998). Indeed, empirical evidence
documents that interpretation of difficulty as importance and interpretation of difficulty as
impossibility are not the same as self-efficacy, locus of control, and other measures of
motivation, including the idea that ability can change (“growth” mindset) and belief in one’s own
persistence (“grit” or mental toughness, Fisher & Oyserman, 2016). Students led to consider that
experienced difficulty might mean importance were more efficient learners-- scoring better on a
performance task, more sensitive to which study strategy worked for them, and less likely to be
overconfident about their performance (Yan & Oyserman, 2016).
Implications for Policy
Our review highlights three core conclusions about disparities in education that have
important implications for policy. First, the problem of education disparities is not lack of
aspirations but the gap between aspiration and attainment, a gap that is exacerbated by low place
in social hierarchy that differentially exposes students to education undermining contexts.
Second, low place in social hierarchy stigmatizes the institutions meant to serve minority
students and decreases chances that identity-based motivation processes will be triggered in ways
that promote educational attainment. Third, intervention is needed to cue the three elements of
identity-based motivation (dynamic construction of identity, action-readiness, and procedural
readiness) so that they can moderate the otherwise negative effect of stigma and linked
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 36
stereotypes on low-income and minority students’ interpretation of their experiences in school.
Implications of each of these conclusions are detailed next.
Aspirations are not the problem; policies should address aspiration-attainment gaps
instead.
First, as noted earlier, there is a large body of evidence documenting that minority
students do aspire to college and do declare difficult STEM majors at the same level as Whites
and Asians (e.g., Chen & Weko, 2009; Fortin et al., 2015; Mortimer et al., 2014; O’Hara,
Gibbons, Weng, Gerrard, & Simons, 2012; Rose & Baird, 2013; Staff, Johnson, Patrick, &
Schulenberg, 2014; Vuolo et al., 2014). Hence educational disparities are not due to failures of
aspiration among minority students (for review of additional literature on this issue, Oyserman,
Johnson, & James, 2011). If aspirations are not the problem, then policies designed to increase
student aspirations or college bound possible identities are unlikely to be helpful – they would be
attempting to solve a problem that does not exist. Instead, policy efforts to reduce disparities
should focus on reducing the size of the gap between aspirations and attainment for minority
students by advancing interventions that bolster identity based motivational processes.
Identity-based motivation theory highlights three ways in which this gap is likely to be
larger for low-income and minority students even though they want to do well in school. First, if
few others in their everyday contexts went to college, low-income and minority students may
believe that college is in the distal future and fail to notice that now is the time to get going.
Failure to notice that now is the time to get going can happen either because their college-bound
possible identities do not come to mind or because these possible identities do not seem relevant
in their school contexts. Second, stigma and stereotyping in intergroup settings and isolation
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 37
from standards set in higher performing schools for students in majority minority settings both
undermine action-readiness even if college bound possible identities come to mind. Being
unaware that one needs to work more or uncertain whether more effort will pay off undermines
attainment. Third, salient identities can undermine school performance via the mental procedures
that they cue in two different ways. If social identities such as racial-ethnic, social class, or
gender identities are salient, they may evoke a collectivistic mindset, cuing heuristic, connecting
and relating mental procedures that may mismatch with analytic (discovering a main point or
underlying rule) procedures that schoolwork may often require. Moreover, if contexts undermine
the experienced centrality or certainty of academic possible identities, students are less likely to
interpret experienced difficulty as implying task importance, which reduces time on task and task
performance.
The “School to Jobs” intervention was designed to address these issues in low-income
and majority minority schools (Oyserman, Terry, & Bybee, 2002; Oyserman, Bybee, & Terry,
2006). Participation in School-to-Jobs significantly improved the school attendance and grade
point averages of low-income and minority students compared to school as usual control group
students. The School-to-Jobs intervention involves activities meant to trigger each of the
elements of identity-based motivation: certainty about current and possible identities, practice
linking these identities to strategies for action, and practice interpreting difficulty as importance.
A randomized controlled trial of the intervention took place in the beginning of the eighth grade
and then students were followed through eighth and ninth grade. The eighth grade students in the
control condition went to school as usual and experienced the usual certainties about their
identities and the usual difficulties with schoolwork without structured interpretation (Oyserman,
Bybee, & Terry, 2006). Eighth grade students in the intervention condition participated in 12 bi-
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 38
weekly in-class group activities. The intervention was completed before the end of the first
quarter of the marking period. At baseline, intervention and control group did not differ on any
of the obtained measures (school grades, attendance, homework time, in-class behavior including
teacher report of engagement and possible identities) and no difference was expected given
randomization to group.
However, after receiving the intervention, the intervention group differed from the
control group. The first post intervention data were collected at the end of the second semester of
eighth grade. Data collection continued through the end of the following school year – ninth
grade. These post-intervention points showed that students in the intervention group had better
grades, spent more time on their homework, had better attendance and standardized test scores
compared to control group students. Effects did not differ by race or gender; and though the
sample was predominantly African American, Latino students equally benefitted. Effects were
mediated by change in school-focused possible identities and strategies to attain them. The
intervention took place in Detroit and was implemented by Detroit residents with undergraduate
degrees who received only a week of training. This implies that successful delivery of the
program is not dependent on highly skilled staff (staff received only a week of training, and had
only undergraduate degrees and were not certified teachers).
To be policy relevant, intervention must be scalable. To test scalability, Chicago Public
School eighth grade teachers are currently being trained to deliver School-to-Jobs in their
classrooms (Oyserman & Sorensen Institute for Educational Studies Grant #R305A140281).
Teachers receive two or three days of professional development training and the intervention
manual. Their classrooms are videotaped and videotapes are coded for fidelity of
implementation, by separately coding for adherence to the activities in the manual, quality of
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 39
delivery, and quality of receipt. Initial evidence shows that teachers can implement with fidelity,
and that when they do, they change identity-based motivation, which changes in-class behavior
and homework time (Horowitz, Sorensen, Yoder, & Oyserman, 2016). Teachers who were
trained in two days then trained teachers from other schools in three days. Initial analyses show
that this results in fidelity of implementation that is at least as high as when trained by the
developer, implying a path to policy-relevant scalability. An alternative to teacher-delivered
intervention is to use a digital platform, whether in school or in out of school settings such as
Boys and Girls clubs. Oyserman and colleagues have received Federal funding to develop both
kinds of digital platforms as both address different ways in which to scale intervention and are
complementary rather than competing possibilities.
Low place in social hierarchy is stigmatizing: Policies should not reinforce stigma through
means-tested service provisions.
Second, we highlighted the link between racial-ethnic attainment gaps and policies that
both kept racial-ethnic minorities from attaining education and accruing assets while at the same
time stigmatizing their low position in social hierarchy. This stigma makes the general public
question whether those in low social positions are deserving of public investment (Blumkin et
al., 2013; Gilens, 1999; Pescosolido & Martin, 2015; Quadagno, 1994). Hence services provided
only to those with low-income or only to those who are racial-ethnic minorities are likely to be
stigmatized, and may perpetuate the stigmatization of their intended beneficiaries, a cycle that
can result in reduced funding and staffing for programs. These stigmatization processes are
consequential for education and education disparities. For example, despite their benefits to
society, programs such as Head Start that are administered in racially-ethnically segregated
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 40
contexts tend to receive greater criticism and less funding (Head Start teachers are less qualified
and earn substantially less than public school teachers) than programs that serve more majority
group members. This makes it more difficult for minority students to attain their academic goals
if the academic resources available to them are more limited due to social stigma. Without the
resources to foster a connection between a school identity and the relevant strategies for attaining
school-relevant goals, students are likely to interpret experienced difficulties as impossibility,
which undermines their sustained effort. Hence one policy implication is to provide de-
stigmatized universal services rather than stigmatized “means-tested” ones (see also Goldstein,
2016). Examples of universal, non-means tested ways to improve educational outcomes are
universal pre-kindergarten, universal child development accounts (Curley & Sherraden, 2000;
Loke & Sherraden, 2009), and universal family and child allowances (Béland, Blomqvist,
Andersen, Palme, & Waddan, 2014; Henneck, 2003; United Nations Development Program,
2011). Children whose families have assets and children who believe that they are saving for
their educational future, no matter their current asset level, are more likely to finish high school,
enroll in, and finish college (for a review, Oyserman, 2013).
Social stigma and social position jointly influence identity-based motivation: Policies
should encourage community investment in paths to success.
Third, we have highlighted how geographic segregation of minorities and college-
educated groups exacerbated the effects of stigma. Minority students are likely to live and go to
school in contexts that are highly segregated by markers of position in social hierarchy in which
the relative proportion of college graduates is low and concentration of minorities is high. This
leaves students more likely to have only their peers as comparison standards so that their relative
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 41
standing provides a sense of identity (e.g., Antecol et al., 2016) and if they fall behind national
standards, they are likely to be unaware, mistaking their desire to succeed with their actual
success (e.g., Serra & DeMarree, 2016). In contexts in which there are few college graduates,
even if college bound possible identities come to mind, these identities are unlikely to feel
relevant to current possibilities for action and less likely to be linked to specific strategies, since
few others in the contexts provide models for how to do this. Moreover, though others can
provide support, they themselves may not be able to give useful advice as to how to proceed
toward college-focused futures. Hence, in addition to structured activities to activate identity-
based motivation, policies to increase access to higher education, using open-access and low cost
institutions of higher learning (community colleges) as gateways, and reducing barriers such as
high cost of public college, and infiltration of predatory for profit degree granting institutions are
needed5. To the extent that low-income and racial-ethnic minority desire to attain education but
do not know the path and feel stigmatized, they are more likely to end up in dead-ends rather
than along the path to success (Taylor & Appel, 2014; Quinlan, 2015; as reviewed more broadly
by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2016).
Concluding Comments
America is diversifying rapidly and the new generation of Americans is majority
minority, which means that the strengthening of minority Americans will strengthen America’s
future. The good news is that Americans, whether African American, Latino, White, or Asian
American, desire education, aspire to finish college, and to major in sciences, technology,
engineering, and math. The bad news is that macro-level structural factors, often legacies of our
racist past, impede this goal more for African American and Latino Americans than for other
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
5!For a review of these issues see National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2016.
SEEING THE DESTINATION AND THE PATH 42
Americans, and that because we stigmatize people for their low place in social hierarchies and
geographically isolate them, it is harder to leverage identity-based motivation to succeed than
might be expected. Universal rather than means-tested policies that provide scalable solutions to
these issues, including educational programming to help students see their college-bound future
self as currently relevant, to appreciate experienced difficulties as motivational cues and obtain
actionable feedback about strategies to attain this future self will help not only individual
students, but American economy and society as a whole.
... However, thinking about the future has different effects on different people (McElwee & Haugh, 2010;Nurra & Oyserman, 2018). For example, when people think about the future, some may feel positive emotions, motivation, and greater willingness to devote effort and have better performance, while others may not obtain these effects (Bandura, 1997;Oettingen & Mayer, 2002;Oyserman & Lewis, 2017;Seligman, 1991;Taylor & Brown, 1988). Some researchers suggest that whether an individual believes the future is attainable may account for such differences (Oettingen, 2012;Oettingen & Mayer, 2002). ...
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