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Alexander Browman

Kevin Binning  

Fostering Equity in Education with Social Psychological Interventions

Alexander S. Browman, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Boston College 
Kevin R. Binning, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh 

Link to SIPR article:

Many of us wish to not simply understand the social and psychological causes of educational achievement gaps, we also wish to address them. Researchers, practitioners, and policymakers alike are increasingly recognizing the potential for social psychological interventions to serve as inexpensive and potentially powerful means to foster equity and inclusion in education settings. However, for those wishing to use these interventions in their research, institutions, and policies, it can be difficult to know where to start. On one hand, there are an increasing number of interventions available and a growing number of resources for people who wish to implement them. At the same time, evidence regarding the effectiveness of many of these interventions is mixed. That is, while research has yielded a number of powerful results (e.g., in one case, brief self-affirmation writing exercises continued to exert benefits 7-9 years after the intervention; Goyer et al., 2017), in some cases, the same interventions have yielded null or even negative effects. Thus, there is a pressing need to develop guidelines for effectively and ethically using social psychological interventions to address educational achievement gaps.  

To that end, in our recent article (Binning and Browman, 2020), we emphasize two interconnected points: (1) interventions are not interchangeable—different interventions influence different psychological processes—and, thus, (2) the appropriateness of using a particular intervention with a particular student depends on the psychological state of that student. For example, some students experience a heightened state of threat in academic contexts, in which they feel they do not have adequate competence or psychological resources to handle the academic problems they face. By contrast, other students have the opposite problem: they incorrectly perceive their resources to exceed the requirements of the academic situation at hand, resulting in overconfidence or disengagement. While both psychological states may result in suboptimal academic performances (see Figure 1), addressing these students’ distinct psychological needs will require different intervention approaches—an intervention designed to reduce threat for the former student (e.g., self-affirmation and social belonging interventions) and one designed to increase engagement for the latter (e.g., utility-value affirmation and self-transcendent purpose interventions). In other words, it is necessary to diagnose where each student falls along the psychological threat continuum before deciding which intervention to implement (or whether to implement one at all).  

To aid in this diagnostic process, psychological measures, archival data analysis, and qualitative observation (e.g., interviews with students and teachers) should all be deployed to understand the psychological landscape before interventions are selected and delivered. Specifically, we demonstrate that students thrive in a “Goldilocks zone” of threat, where threat is neither too low (resulting in boredom or lack of engagement) nor too high (resulting in stress and defensive withdrawal from the domain). Those planning to use interventions must therefore identify which “direction” of movement each of their particular students would benefit from, instead of uniformly assuming that all students will benefit from a singular type of intervention.  

Social psychological interventions in education are a potentially revolutionary means to foster equity in education, as they have the power to shift students’ long-term academic trajectories. However, educational settings and students are highly heterogeneous, both across the globe and within a few mile radius. By wielding intervention tools effectively, social psychological interventions can be a means to help all students reach their potential and foster a more just and equitable society.     


Binning, K. R., & Browman, A. S. (2020). Theoretical, ethical, and policy considerations for conducting social–psychological interventions to close educational achievement gaps. Social Issues and Policy Review, 14, 182–216. doi: 10.1111/sipr.12066 

Goyer, J. P., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Binning, K. R., Cook, J. E., Reeves, S. J., Apfel, N., Taborsky-Barba, S., Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2017). Self-affirmation facilitates minority middle schoolers' progress along college trajectories. Proceedings of the National  

Academy of Sciences, 114, 7594-7599. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1617923114 

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