Identity: Influence of social interactions on education outcomes

Choices in education by their very nature are dependent upon social interactions. These social interactions are complex and cognitively demanding due the number of variables involved, and problems of incomplete and asymmetric information. Consequently, ‘‘the ability to sort people (or objects) spontaneously and with minimum effort and awareness into meaningful categories is a universal facet of human perception essential for efficient functioning’’ (Bodenhausen, Todd and Becker 2006). A person’s identity defines who they are with regards to their social category, the ‘in-group’ (Akerlof and Kranton 2010). Having a common ‘identity’ in social interactions significantly reduces the amount of information asymmetry present with regards to individuals within the group, thereby decreasing the complexity of decision making.

The same heuristics that are valuable in reducing complexity and cognitive load can also lead to bias-confirming assessments of inter-group relations giving rise to stereotyping. The perception of an individual’s identity status via social cues can reinforce confirmation biases associated with maintaining a state of identity threat (Darley & Gross, 1983). Identity threat is one of the mechanisms that lie behind persistent achievement gaps in education outcomes (females: Spencer et al., (1999); African-Americans: Steele and Aronson (1995); students from low socio-economic backgrounds: Croizet and Claire (1998)). However, being a socially context dependent behaviour, identity is localised and does not persist beyond its context frame. For example, low achieving boys when changing grades experience large gains when leaving behind old identity norms and expectations (Dweck et al., 1978). For an explanation of the decision processes that underlie poor academic achievement due to identity threat (see Cohen & Garcia, 2008). Continue reading

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