Do minorities engage in strategic effort reduction?

Are minorities modulating their efforts when they think their status as minorities will give them a boost? This is something I’ve thought about for some time, especially after I caught myself doing this a few years ago.

What do I mean by “give them a boost”? I mean credit for being a minority, where such credit is included in the evaluative criteria that drives a selection decision for things like awards, college admissions, scholarships and fellowships, interpersonal contexts, or a job or promotion (I’m less confident in an effect in the job domain, but accrued effects in the other domains could influence one’s positioning for jobs…)

What do I mean by “modulating their effort”? I mostly mean reducing their effort to match the level of effort they estimate a goal requires. (There is also room for increased effort in some edge cases.)

What do I mean by minorities? I mostly mean Latinos, African-Americans, and Natives in the US — the groups where we see persistent achievement gaps. I’m trying to explain real-world outcomes and behavior, so the effort-reduction hypothesis won’t apply well to high-achieving minority groups (Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Lebanese immigrants, Hindus, et al.)

Forget about minorities for a minute. Imagine that goal-seeking humans tend to match their efforts to the amount of effort they think a task or goal requires. Individuals will likely vary in how much they modulate their effort in response to perceived requirements. And some situations won’t provide good information about the level of effort needed to succeed (take sports where you don’t know how well you did, or don’t know your score, until you’re done, like figure skating or staggered races/obstacle courses where you don’t know your relative standing with other athletes until it’s over.)

If humans generally modulate their efforts based on an informal calculation of the amount of effort needed to succeed, then it makes sense to wonder if minorities reduce their efforts when they know they don’t need to quite match or surpass non-minority competitors.

A lower-level question: Does priming diversity goals cause minorities to reduce their effort? Here I’m thinking of a momentary prime that precedes a challenge, like an academic test of some sort. Imagine participants seated at computers for a test that will influence an outcome they care about. Now imagine that the test is preceded by a screen touting the organization’s commitment to diversity, perhaps with a photo of racially diverse individuals.

At minimum, this should signal to minorities that their inclusion is valued, that their identities and perspectives are valued. This is the typical and commendable aim of diversity programs (in the US and elsewhere). Implicit or explicit in a diversity message (depending on the message) is that one’s identity as a minority is a plus, and will influence decisions. It would be strange if it didn’t — what’s the point of a diversity program that just says “We want diversity” but doesn’t take affirmative action to make it happen? (The formal term affirmative action has been confused with quotas in American discourse — it’s a much richer and more versatile framework than just quotas.)

This is a good time to pause and note that I support diversity efforts. In social science, I think diversity on racial, ethnic, intellectual, political, and sexual dimensions is essential to our bread and butter goals of understanding human behavior and motivation. Whether minorities throttle their efforts in response to diversity messages — or to specific kinds of diversity messages — is an empirical, scientific question, and presumably an important one. If you’re jumping to political narratives here, I think you might want to meditate on how complicated and nuanced reality can be.

I think this question and its offshoots deserve intensive research. As far as I know, it hasn’t been done. There is some research showing that white Americans view minorities as less competent if they think that they got their jobs because of quotas or affirmative action. That’s not surprising. The question of whether minorities are modulating their efforts has not gotten much attention (it’s possible I’m not using the right search terms — this problem of lexical exactitude is one of the easier problems Leon will solve with its semantic taxonomies and ontologies.)

If minorities are chronically, strategically reducing their efforts, these less than 100 percent efforts could have an aggregate effect of reduced learning or skill development long-term. This could manifest in at least a couple of ways.

  1. If they’re not studying as hard, for example, they will presumably learn less over time. For example, if supersmart minorities are counting on their minority status to be the clincher at various decision points, and they’re studying and reading 10 percent less than supersmart white kids, then over time they will be less learned than those white kids (and Asians, who seem to be doing the opposite of throttling — see Amy Chua’s book.)
  2. If they’re modulating, they’ll have less experience with putting in 100 percent effort, or 110 percent, as it were. That experience might be qualitatively distinct, or an important resource. They might have no experience with trying really, really hard (to put it scientifically) or pushing themselves to the limit. Not knowing what it’s like to put every last effort into a goal, to push oneself to the breaking point (or even 90 percent of the way to the breaking point), could have substantial long-term costs when competing with people who do know what that’s like.

Social psychologists might frame some of this as a mastery experience, in a broader self-efficacy framework (see Bandura and others.) However, I’m thinking of something more a bit more extreme, along the lines of challenge →mastery or adversity →extreme effort. Call it extreme grit (see Angela Duckworth’s work here.)

If you’re a researcher, feel free to jump ahead of me on this. This isn’t my main research area, and I won’t be ready to publish any findings for about a year. I see it as more something we need to find out, as a public service, than a long-term research program for myself. If minorities are modulating, we need to know. If not, we need to know that too. Science is about meticulous discovery, and this topic requires careful, rigorous research.

Research considerations:

Moderators

If diversity messages spark reduced effort, presumably it will come down to specific elements or aspects of a diversity message. I doubt that any kind of diversity message will have an effect (which will be good news for diversity programs.) Also, characteristics of the participants, including racial-ethnic self-schemas (see Daphna Oyserman’s body of work — there are also similar constructs in the literature from other researchers.) RESS seem to impact academic performance more broadly, and it would be interesting to see if they interact with diversity messages — I can see a few possibilities.

Accuracy

For effort reduction to be functional, a person’s estimate of the required level of effort needs to be roughly accurate. Computationally, it may come down to a few rough effort levels or modes — I doubt people are being super precise.

Are there unique accuracy issues with minority effort reduction? I have no idea. I can think of one possibility — minorities might be less accurate in estimating the amount of effort required to be competitive in a particular challenge because they come from backgrounds where no one knows much about college admissions, big test-taking, graduate admissions, professional job interviews, etc. The clearest example of this are first-generation college students (como yo.) Minorities are often first-gen and lack the family knowledge resources that other students enjoy.

Homophone problems

A major validity problem in social psychology is the conflation of real-world, long-term phenomena with lexically similar constructs manipulated in a lab (typically using college student participants.) I call this a homophone problem (which is a pretty bad label, and ripe for replacement.) For example, the word and concept power as used to describe a 40-year-old who has worked her way up to management over a span of many years is not commensurable with a psychology undergrad who has been assigned to a “power” condition. We see it with other state/trait conflations, but power or “the powerful” seems to come up a lot lately (no disrespect to my boy Paul Piff, who has done remarkable research on this and related topics, using a wide range of methodologies — his work adds up nicely.)

The effort reduction hypothesis is at least somewhat vulnerable to this problem. I mentioned above that one way to research this would be to prime participants with a diversity statement, then give them a test (related to an outcome that could be plausibly influenced by diversity aims, not just a random math test.) This would help us understand short-term priming effects, but I’d expect effort reduction to work differently out in the world. It’s a much longer term process, perhaps more diffuse, perhaps concentrated in salient bouts of work clustered around major milestones. Momentary priming may or may not cohere with real-world behavior. It’s not as worrisome to me as the power example, but it deserves careful consideration.

Effort

A possible flaw in my hypothesis — the amount of effort required of matched white and minority students to succeed at a milestone might not be the same (matched on grades or other academic metrics.) The achievement gap starts early. It might be harder for minorities to achieve the same level of performance, not because of innate differences, but because we’re looking at a milestone that comes a decade after the achievement gap has opened up. This is mixed up with the accuracy issue above.

Stereotype Threat

A diversity prime may function as a stereotype threat prime. If minorities perform worse on a task afterward, it could be due to the stereotype threat mechanism, not reduced effort. (This assumes that the stereotype threat mechanism is not a reduced effort mechanism.) I’m not up to speed on the latest word on stereotype threat, effect sizes, moderators, etc. (One of the key stereotype threat findings was widely misinterpreted for years.) Manipulation checks will likely be necessary to tease out the true causes of any performance drops.

Desire

If minorities reduce effort, maybe it’s because they don’t value the outcome as much as whites and Asians do. Maybe they just have different values. I’m not confident in this explanation. Well, maybe.

Alternatives

My hypothesis could be wrong (there is more than one — they could all be wrong.) I might even have it reversed. Perhaps diversity messages cause minorities to perform better, by sparking optimism or a sense of being welcome (and making it worth the effort.)

Afterword on Chua and Tiger Moms:

One of the most controversial parts of Chua’s book was the story of how hard she pressed her daughter Lulu to master an extremely difficult piano piece. The controversy obscures what scientists might find most interesting about the story — her daughter Lulu succeeded. She mastered an absurdly difficult piece.

I don’t know what that’s like. I don’t even know what that is. My parents never pushed me to learn or master anything. The idea of my parents keeping me up at night, forcing me to keep working on something, is alien to me. I’m deeply fascinated by what is happening cognitively when a child masters an extremely challenging skill or task after having been pushed and pushed by a parent who simply knew she could do it, a parent who will not entertain the possibility that she cannot do it. I wonder if it influences perceptions of task difficulty later in life and school, if it rescales what “hard” means to that person, and if it rescales the amount of time they are willing to devote to learning something.

I wonder if it influences the subjective experience, including the affective valence, of sustained effort. I wonder if it sparks a deeper, more resilient optimism. And with the piano piece in particular, I wonder about the conceptual and motor manifestations of the learning experience. What is the nature of that skill, cognitively speaking? Will mastering that kind of piano piece make it easier to understand certain kinds of relationships — including scientific and artistic ones? Will mastery strengthen a broader set of motor skills, spatial intelligence, etc.?

I disagree with some of Chua’s values. I don’t know why a child must learn either piano or violin — what’s wrong with guitar or drums? I think college should be the default assumption, and parents should be actively involved in educating their children, but I don’t think children should be pushed into such a constrained set of fields: engineering, science, medicine, law.

History, anthropology, and the arts seem like perfectly legitimate domains. I also don’t think every journey needs to include college, much less the academic all-star track. There’s more to life than being “successful” or having a “good” job. I worry about how an ultra-competitive focus might affect how these children see other people, especially people they see as competition — does it lead to dehumanization? Does it create more of a zero-sum mentality? I wouldn’t want my children to be hard and cold (if that’s what it does — I don’t know.)

The Bohemian life, the wandering life, the questioning life, the barista life — these are all legitimate lives, potentially full of grace. Our civilization benefits from those journeys, even sprouts from them. It makes no sense to me to think less of our children because their journeys deviate from a script. I think Mexican-Americans could learn much from Asian-Americans and Tiger Moms, but ultimately I favor a diversity of journeys.

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Updated on October 21, 2015: I replaced the term “throttling”, as in throttling their efforts, in the title and elsewhere. I meant throttling as in modulating or regulating, like the throttle of a car engine regulates the engine’s output. However, the word throttle had primary connotations of choking or strangling for some readers. I also added the section on stereotype threat, which I had forgotten to include initially.

José L. Duarte recently defended his doctoral dissertation in Social Psychology at Arizona State University. You can email him at jose.duarte@asu.edu.