Experiments which will make you think about how to approach social mobility

Clegg speaking at De Montfort University, Leic...

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Nick Clegg frames the Lib Dems as the new progressives moving away from the ‘poverty plus a pound‘ and towards increased social mobility. I think few could argue that there is a need for those who have the ability and try should be able to improve their standing in life. One significant area of a lack of social mobility has been with black and minority ethnic communities (BME). Some interesting experiments undertaken in the 1990′s give us some insight into how to tackle this issue through a different focus on ‘identity’.

In 1995, Steele and Aronson conducted an experiment with African American and white college students who had to take a very challenging standardized test. There were two conditions in which the test was presented:

  1. The control condition; the test was presented as a measure of intellectual ability and preparation.
  2. The experimental condition: the test was presented in a non-evaluative way. The test takers were told that the researchers were not interested in measuring their ability with the test but that they just wanted to use the test to examine the psychology of verbal problem solving.


  • In the control condition the African American test takers, on average, scored much lower than the white test takers
  • For the white test takers there was no difference in their scores between the control condition and the experimental condition.
  • For the African American test takers there was a big difference between the control condition and the experimental condition. They solved about twice as many problems in the test in the experimental condition.
  • There was no difference between the performance of the black test takers and the white test takers in the experimental condition.

By taking away the pressure to perform in the test all students showed equal ability, only when ‘normal’ testing conditions apply was there a difference. For black students this form of test taking seriously affected their ability to show their actual ability at the subject being tested.

Steele and Aronson conducted another experiment again in 1995 where they administered tests to African American and white test takers in a similar non-evaluative way. All of the test takers were assured that their intelligence would not be evaluated. There were two conditions:

  1. The tests were administered normally but in a non-evaluative way.
  2. The tests were administered in the same way but included an item on the cover of the test booklet that asked them to indicate their ethnicity.


  • In condition 1 African Americans performed just as well as whites
  • In condition 2 the test performance of the African Americans plummeted. They solved about half as many items as their counterparts who were not asked to indicate their ethnicity.

A similar test but this time what it shows is that highlighting the students’ ethnicity decreased the black students’ performance in the test by the same amount as the difference as in the first experiment. The direct implication being that being aware of their ethnicity affected their performance, with the indirect implication being that being tested for performance makes them subconsciously aware of their ethnicity which affects their performance.

In 1999 Shih, Pittinsky & Ambady condicted an experiement where a difficult math test was given to Asian women. There were three conditions.

  1. they were subtly reminded of their Asian identity
  2. they were subtly reminded of their female identity
  3. the control condition, they were not reminded of their identity

The results

  • women reminded of their ethnicity performed better than the control group
  • women reminded of their female identity performed worse than the control group

There are many explanations as to why Asian students perform better than white students in math tests (for example here) however this experiment indicates that just being aware of their identity increased their performance and therefore it was not purely that their culture supports increased performance but that being aware of their ethnicity increases their performance. Equally, it implies that being aware of being a female decreases their performance.

The UK heavily focuses on identity as a key part of child development. The government measures students from all backgrounds and continually reports on them showing a clear trends e.g. black students doing worse than white students, Asian students doing better or females doing worse in some subjects. We have spent a lot looking in to why this is the case only for little progress to be made. The formation of these national narratives about certain groups becomes believed by all and so is recreated in further tests becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps what we need is a different approach to teaching identity if we are to improve social mobility. We do not need money wasted on reasons why certain groups underperform, we already have the data. We need a new approach to focusing on students beliefs about themselves and their abilities to challenge the cultural and national stereotypes which they may consciously or subconsciously believe. Teachers need to be acutely aware of their own beliefs about students and the sub/conscious beliefs about ethnicity/culture/gender/groups.

None of this is new and I am sure we will have many more experiements which go on to prove the same thing but this is a continuation of the pygmalion effect. We have spend a lot on trying to increase social mobility and increase the chances of BME students with limited effect. It is time to try something different and actually put into practice what we already know.

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4 Responses to Experiments which will make you think about how to approach social mobility

  1. ChrisB says:

    Hey Mathew,

    There was a good documentary on BBC last night, “Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain” by Andrew Neil, it looked at social mobility and its effects on the ruling class. Well worth checking out, not much to learn from, but it was nice to see someone talk about what I think is the most important factor in our oligarchy democracy.

  2. ChrisB says:

    Just saw a “magazine” piece on the Beeb site about it : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12282505

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the link, it is very interesting shame I can’t watch the BBC from over here. Were there any conclusions about how to address it in the documentary?

      I haven’t forgotten about your other comments, I have just been pushed for time. Hope you don’t mind, I hope to get round to replying soon


  3. ChrisB says:

    Hey Matthew,

    There’s been a lot of good TV recently…hard to believe, I know, but the Beeb have been pretty much on the money and the topic du jour is social mobility. I’ll try to keep a copy of the good ones and work out a way to share them with you – I always think it unfair that licence payers can’t access the iPlayer when they’re away from home.

    Conclusions were admittedly pretty thin on the ground, most interviewees (mainly politicians) predicted this was something that was only going to get worse. A lot was made of the unions decreased political influence and the end of grammar schools. There were probably more answers in “Justice: Fairness And The Big Society”, which was a public debate show.

    There has been parallel narrative on several fronts, for example : http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9378000/9378167.stm

    It’s as if the UK has woken up this week to realise it’s got some of the worst social mobility statistics in the developed world. There are more programmes to come.

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