As a third-grader in Austin, Texas, in 1969, psychologist Joshua Aronson, PhD, looked like many grade-schoolers; a long, thick, coffee-colored muddle of hair drooped down his forehead and over his ears and neck. And despite--or perhaps because of--the mop top, his teacher, Mrs. Williams, loved him. He was one of her favorite and best performing students.

The following year his family moved to California. His hair was the same but his teacher was not. Mr. Tomlin, his new teacher, had a short, spiky crew cut and disliked "long hairs"--even when those long hairs were 9 years old. He thought they were dirty and dumb, and he humiliated Aronson on the first day of class. From that point on, until he reached college, Aronson struggled in school and, in turn, his school placed him in remedial classes.

"A really good teacher can change your life, and a bad one can too," said Aronson, a New York University psychology and education professor, at the Southwestern Psychological Association (SWPA) Annual Convention, held in Austin in April.

Based on his own experience and the research that it helped spark, Aronson suggested that in most situations human intelligence reflects a social transaction: When one person in the social interaction holds a negative stereotype of the other person, like Mr. Tomlin's notion of long hairs' intelligence, it can cause the stereotyped person to mirror the other's expectation.

Aronson further suggested that if teachers focused on counteracting negative stereotypes of certain groups' academic abilities, like those of blacks, Hispanics and women, they could help to dramatically improve those groups' performance. "Even if we can't get better teachers, we can improve the system," he said. "We should be stressing belongingness, engagement and challenges."

Fragile intelligence

Aronson urged psychologists to pay attention to their psychological fathers. His own work builds on research that emerged in the 1960s when psychologists like his father and fellow conference speaker Elliot Aronson, PhD, investigated social influence, and Claude Steele, PhD, first proposed the underpinnings for the concept of stereotype threat--the fear that one will be reduced to the negative stereotype of one's group. "You don't want to confirm a negative stereotype, or even a positive stereotype, because it…pegs you," Aronson said.

For instance, when Aronson was working with a realtor to buy a house in Austin, she asked him, "Why are you Jews so good with money?" The realtor explained that nearly every Jewish person she had ever worked with had wanted to live in the most exclusive areas. Aronson explained to her about the dangers of such stereotypes, and she apologized. But later when they went to lunch he was caught in a Catch-22. If he offered to buy the realtor's lunch it would confirm her stereotype, and if he didn't he would confirm another stereotype about Jewish people--that they are cheap.

And for many blacks in America, he's found that the threat posed by the subject of intelligence can be extremely damaging.

In a 1995 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 69, No. 5, pages 797-811), Steele worked with Aronson to examine whether reducing stereotype threat could bolster threatened group members' academic performance. The researchers had black and white students take a difficult standardized verbal test. Half the students were told that the test measured their intellectual ability; the other half were told it was unrelated to ability. They found that the black students who were told that the test measured their intellectual ability did significantly worse on the test than the black students in the other group--even after Aronson adjusted the scores to eliminate any differences in the students' academic abilities. The finding points to the stereotype threat to their intelligence, brought on by attaching the intelligence label to the test.

In subsequent studies, Aronson has found that teachers can trigger stereotype threat by having students identify their race, which can apparently hamper black students' performance, or gender, which can interfere with women's performance on math tests. The findings help explain the black-white and male-female achievement gaps in National Center for Educational Statistics reports for more than 40 years, he said.

Reducing threat

Reflecting on the inability of his former teacher, Mr. Tomlin, to shake the notion that long-haired children are dumb, Aronson pointed to cognitive dissonance theory, developed by Leon Festinger, PhD--his father Elliot's graduate school mentor at Stanford University from 1957 to 1959. The theory suggests that people are powerfully motivated to maintain consistent beliefs--like long-haired children are dumb--even when that belief is irrational or even maladaptive.

To address the problem, Aronson suggested that schools incorporate programs like the "jigsaw classroom"--a concept conceived by Elliot Aronson to help integrate minority students into predominately white Austin schools in 1971. In the program, a teacher assigns students to racially and academically mixed groups. Each member of the group learns one piece of academic material and teaches it to the others in their group. Elliot Aronson found that the project appears to boost students' reliance on each other, fondness of each other and of school, and their self-esteem.

Moreover, the program doesn't have to be interracial to work, since discord and bullying occurs in all schools, he added. "I invented jigsaw to get kids to work together and not compete," said Elliot Aronson during a discussion with SWPA President Paul R. Nail, PhD, following his son's address. "It makes them interdependent and breaks barriers to help them work as colleagues, not enemies."

The key to jigsaw and other such programs is that they challenge and push students and teachers' expectations, said Joshua Aronson.

"We need for teachers and the system to understand that intelligence is malleable--and it needs nurturing," he said.