In order to solve the integration problems of some ethnic minority students at Stanford University, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen carried out a psychosocial intervention that, in just one hour, was able to improve the academic results, psychosocial well-being and health of a group negatively stereotyped in the educational environment.

In other words, there is evidence that it is possible to prevent the negative effect of stereotypes , and in just one hour. Let’s see how this conclusion was reached.

The feeling of social belonging and prejudices

The study, published in 2011 in the journal Science , showed that socioeconomic differences between African-American and European-American students were not only maintained due to structural factors, such as salary differences, accessibility to educational training and social support. Working in the field of social psychology, both researchers wondered how psychological factors might affect the coping techniques of Stanford University students.

They focused on the feeling of social belonging , a basic human social motive defined as the need to form positive relationships with other people. Its importance is such that if it is not satisfied, problems of health, social adaptation, well-being and school performance may appear.

According to Walton and Cohen, members of socially stigmatized groups show greater uncertainty than non-stigmatized groups about their social membership in educational or labour institutions. They are more likely to feel insecure about positive social relationships in these settings, and this uncertainty increases during the transition to a new stage, that is, the first year of university.

During the first year of college it is common for some students to experience a sense of isolation, which affects well-being and performance. Watson and Cohen’s study focused on how to interpret and deal with this feeling as a lack of social belonging or, on the contrary, as a mere transition process.

The aim was to avoid catastrophic interpretations and to ensure that the perceptual change when codifying social experience was maintained in the long term. This required the creation of a “recurrent virtuous circle” in the students according to which initial improvements in academic performance favoured the feeling of belonging, and this in turn boosted performance.

The usefulness of a one-hour psychosocial intervention

The study was conducted during the first year of college for 92 students, 49 of whom were African American and 43 of European origin. Randomly, some students received intervention and others were assigned to the control condition, in which no intervention was performed. The participants completed a daily questionnaire that collected their psychological responses to different problems during the week following the intervention. They also completed a questionnaire 3 years later , in their final year of studies, to assess the effects of the study on their sense of belonging, health and well-being.

During the intervention, participants were presented with an alleged study conducted with students from other courses, without them knowing that this study was not real. The results of the fake study showed that students in higher education were concerned about their social belonging during the first year of university but that, as the course progressed, they became more self-confident. According to several false testimonies, they gained confidence because they began to interpret the problems of the first year of university as something habitual and temporary during the adaptation and not as personal deficits or due to their ethnic belonging.

To help participants internalize the message, they were asked to write an essay on the similarities between their experience and that of the testimonies , which they later narrated as a speech in front of a video camera. The videos of their speeches were supposed to help other students during their first year of university.

The procedure with the control group was the same, except that the trials and videos they made were on a topic unrelated to social membership.

The results of the intervention

During the week following the intervention, the African-American students’ reaction to everyday problems was more adaptive and their sense of social belonging remained constant. In contrast, in the African-American students of the control condition, the feeling of belonging was more unstable and dependent on daily experiences .

Three years later, after conducting the long-term effects questionnaire, the intervention was found to have increased the academic performance of African-American students compared to the control group, and significantly decreased the differences between African-American and European-American students.

Positive effects on the health and well-being of the participants were also found, with notable improvements in the sense of happiness and even fewer visits to the doctor by the students in the experimental group. The difference between African-American and European-American students in the subjective feeling of health and happiness, and in the number of doctor’s visits, disappeared.

What can we get out of this study?

Walton and Cohen’s research showed that a brief intervention on social belonging is capable of significantly improving such important aspects as academic performance, health and well-being in the long term. They also show that the differences between stigmatised and non-stigmatised groups are not only born of structural factors , as psychological factors also have an influence.

It is possible to work on psychological factors such as the concern for social belonging by means of short-term, easily applied and low-cost psychosocial interventions, but to do so it is essential that the school environment is not openly hostile , since the study is based on a change of interpretation in the face of ambiguous situations.

It should be noted that this intervention is a clear example of what the biopsychosocial concept means, as it demonstrates the reciprocal connection between physical health, cognitions, emotions, behaviour and social factors.