Coaching Letter #96

This Coaching Letter is about framing. I’ve been doing a lot of dog-walking lately, so I’ve been listening to more podcasts. This morning it was #64 of The Knowledge Project, and Greg Walton was being interviewed. He is a Stanford psychologist; I know of his work, and think of it as being about small interventions that make a big difference, but in this podcast he started off by talking about how he came to be interested in this topic. He talks specifically about stereotype threat: the research finding that “negative stereotypes raise inhibiting doubts and high-pressure anxieties in a test-taker’s mind.” For example, if I am a girl who has been socialized to believe that girls are not as good at math as boys, and if you remind me that I’m a girl before I take a math test, my score on that math test will likely be lowered as a result. That reminder can be as small as asking me to check a box at the top of the test to say whether I am male or female.

Here’s a story of stereotype threat. I used to run quite a lot, and then I had a series of injuries that made it hard to run for a while, and still makes it hard to run on asphalt. But there’s a 10K not far from my house that’s on trails, so I decided to sign up for that, even though I wasn’t feeling very confident about my running. When I went to the website, my age category was listed as “geezer”, and this image instantly entered my head of being laughed at for being a weak runner, and I didn’t sign up. I’m not sure that this technically meets the definition of stereotype threat, because my performance was not suppressed by the mental energy of battling the perceived negative stereotype—I took the easier route and just bailed altogether. Which is interesting because I think of myself as being resilient, confident, not easily cowed, and not especially interested in how others think of me—and here I was abandoning my plans because of all the meaning I made of one word that told me that I didn’t belong in that setting.

For another take on this research, you should read Chapter 8 of Biased, written by Jennifer Eberhardt, who is also a Stanford psychologist, but also a MacArthur grant awardee. The lede: “Researchers have identified key elements that can improve school performance. They rest on a basic principle: Students need to feel individually valued and respected, connected to both the people and the process involved in their education. Those psychological factors can affect how and how much our children learn.” And you should definitely read one of the first articles about stereotype threat by Claude Steele in The Atlantic.

As Greg Walton points out, and which is summarized here, the beliefs we have about ourselves and about how others see us are very powerful. But the flip side of that is that it is relatively easy to decide to change our own words and actions so that what others take from what we say and what we do is positive rather than negative. For example, if the 10K sign up category had been “varsity” or “masters” rather than “geezer” then I might have felt very differently.

For leaders and coaches and teachers, then, you have obligations to frame the interactions you have with others in ways that are less susceptible to negative interpretation because of lack of specific positive framing. In other words, don’t allow your audience to make meaning of the fact that you don’t say something encouraging, even though you don’t say anything discouraging. Take feedback, for example. Teachers give written feedback to students all the time, and assume that students understand that it is intended to improve their performance. But if my default belief, conscious or not, is that you don’t think that I’m a very good student OR I don’t think I’m a very good student, then I am likely to construe the feedback as further proof of that belief. As the research cited by Eberhardt shows, teachers have the power to countermand self-limiting beliefs by providing explicit positive frames. To understand how to do that, watch this video—and share widely, as feedback is being generated and received all the time, not just in written comments on student essays.

If you are skeptical about how much these very subtle signals can cue us, you should read this story in this week’s New Yorker about Derren Brown. Or you could watch Brown in this TED Talk, which won’t tell you anything about how he does what he does but is wildly entertaining and starts with a lovely preamble about the stories that we tell ourselves, or listen to him on this New Yorker Radio Hour podcast. He is also mounting a Broadway show, and I am just about to buy tickets for over winter break. All this is to say, he is the best example I can come up with of how much data we make available to others about us, even if completely unconsciously; and therefore we should not be surprised about how much we discern about how others think about us and about their mental models of the world, also, often, completely unconsciously; and how much those received signals end up influencing the way we think and behave.

I started off by saying that this CL is about framing. That’s a construct that was first described in this paper by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman that showed that the way a problem was framed changed subjects’ responses. It was one of many studies that became, collectively, the new field of behavioral economics, which shifted the entire field of economics away from its fundamental premise that humans are rational. And I would like to end on the point that this lack of rationality, for all its downsides, also means that you and I hold great power over the ability of others to realize their goals, because we influence their perceived self-efficacy. Small acts of encouragement have enormous pay-offs, and cost almost nothing. It may be the greatest return on investment there is.

If you need encouragement, call me. I have had a lot of practice expressing faith in people and increasing their perceived self-efficacy, and it gives me great joy to do so. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
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