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Intervention: Adaptive Attributions and Stereotype Threat

Attributions are the explanations that we make for the outcomes experienced by ourselves and others. They have the power to drastically change the way that we feel about people and events, and can change our outlook to being either positive or negative.  Psychologists have identified three components in explanatory style: Internal vs. external: This is the extent to which you feel something was your fault. Example: “I’m just no good at math” (internal) as opposed to “That was a really hard test and I needed to study more” (external). Stable vs. unstable: This is the extent to which you feel something is temporary or lasting about yourself. Example: “I’m not very good at this yet (unstable)” as opposed to “I will never be able to do this (stable).” Controllable vs. Uncontrollable: This is the extent to which you feel the outcome of events are something you can control or change. e.g., “I need to work harder on my quadratic equations (controllable)” as opposed to “I am dumb (uncontrollable)”.

Some people naturally tend to blame themselves for negative events, believe that such events indicate they are lacking in a critical ability, and that they will always be that way. Conversely, other people naturally tend to take into account the role a situation played in negative events, believe that the reasons they happened can be changed, and that poor performance indicates only that they need to work harder to develop a specific skill or ability.

Healthy attributions are important for two reasons. First, worries about ability (and belonging) are normal, and shared to some extent by all students. They are also shown to have a critical impact on student’s motivation, resiliency, and self-concept. By making students more aware of their automatic attributional tendencies, they can learn to enjoy challenges and give the benefit of the doubt to both themselves and others.

Second, students’ perceptions regarding the negative stereotypes others hold about them can cause them to attribute the normal anxiety of a learning environment in ways which diminish their performance, learning, and enjoyment of school. This is known as stereotype threat. In certain environments, students naturally worry if other people are judging them negatively because of the groups to which they appear to belong—by gender, race, age, ethnicity, etc. In a testing situation, the anxiety caused by such worry can decrease students’ performance and lower their scores. There is also evidence that this process can directly undermine learning itself.

By understanding that anxiety is a natural part of the testing process shared by all of us, and that there are healthy ways to attribute challenge and setback, students can reduce or eliminate the performance and learning loss caused by unhealthy attributions and stereotype threat.