The invisibility of belonging and the salience of difference

Many years ago, long before I knew much of anything about social science research methods, I conducted a small-group activity for my fellow teacher colleagues for an in-service workshop. The gist of it was simply for everyone to note the ways in which they were in the majority or the minority with respect to the rest of their group. Although I never did any formal analyses of the data, it appeared as though people were more aware of the ways in which they were different from the norm than of the ways in which they were in the norm. That is, they listed more characteristics along which they were “different from the majority” than “same as the majority.”

This surprised me, since I expected that people would notice all the ways in which they were just like the norm and how a handful of individuals were different—reinforcement that they belonged to the dominant group. I can even propose an explanation for this based on psychology research I know now, noting that people use similarities to recognize differences. But if the results I saw from this little activity were to be believed, people noticed how they were different, moreso than how others were different.

Looking at it now, with slightly older and more jaded eyes, I suppose this egocentrism isn’t so surprising: People are afraid of losing their dominant status and are quick to notice where those privileges might be at risk. That seems to be the same phenomenon at play in Norton and Sommers’ recent article on perceptions of racism.

If only it were easier to demonstrate that societal benefits are not a zero-sum game, that in fact to help others really is to help oneself. It’s puzzling that people can be so keenly aware of how easily their advantages can slip away, yet not realize that constructing a society where everyone is protected is precisely how they can guard against this.


M. I. Norton, S. R. Sommers. Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2011; 6 (3): 215 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611406922

Diligence vs. competitiveness

I continue to be disappointed by the mainstream media’s coverage of the “tiger parenting” phenomenon. Although there’s now somewhat more discussion of the specific parenting practices that are good or bad for the child, distinct practices are still getting conflated. One of the latest that I’ve seen claims that “the intense emphasis on hard work comes with a deep, obsessive competitiveness.”

It ain’t necessarily so.

Setting aside my frustration with the media’s reliance on first-person anecdotes rather than research on aggregate populations, I’ll first acknowledge that emphasizing the value of hard work and discipline is indeed very productive. As I wrote in my previous post, it takes about ten years of deliberate practice to attain expertise[1], and those who believe in the value of effort are more likely to invest further effort[2][3] . A recently reported twin study similarly notes that children with greater self-control do better in school and have better health, financial, and social outcomes as adults[4].

But deliberate practice isn’t just rote practice, and worthwhile effort isn’t merely hours of exhaustion. Both require thoughtfulness in figuring out what needs more work and how to tackle it. Likewise, developing self-control requires more than simply being placed in a constraining environment. As I’ve previously noted, the complex and ill-structured world of imaginative play can improve children’s impulse control and self-regulation[5]. Much like the riddle about the town with two barbers, “just because it looks like what you want doesn’t mean it will produce what you want.” Here, it’s not enough just to put children and students through their paces in rigid settings that prevent them from going astray. The theme underlying all of these phenomena is that people need to learn how to decide for themselves how to manage their efforts and how to improve.

So how does this relate to competitiveness? Competition is based on social comparison, or norm-referenced assessment. While it may be inspiring to see the accomplishments of peers as a possibility for oneself, it can also be limiting to endeavor only to best them and not more generally to excel. Even more damaging, people have no control over the performance of their rivals, and chasing this uncontrollable target can foster that worrisome learned helplessness which can dampen enthusiasm, lower self-esteem, and inhibit future effort[6][7]. Instead, criterion-referenced assessment measures performance against fixed goals which can be set up as benchmarks and eventually internalized by the learner. Not only does this provide a clearer way of measuring success than normative comparisons, but it also helps the budding athlete, musician, or student succeed better in the long run.

I fully recognize that Chinese parents can be obsessively competitive about their children’s achievements, even through their self-effacing denials that their children are anything special. And it’s already been documented that the Chinese culture places a high premium on hard work. But these aren’t uniquely Chinese values, and they can be decoupled. The result isn’t some kind of compromise or blend between Chinese and American philosophies, but a selection of those beliefs and practices that have been shown to be productive across cultures.


[1] Ericsson, K.A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games (pp. 1-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
[2] Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
[3] Dweck, C.M. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York NY: Random House.
[4] Moffitt, T.E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R.J., Harrington, H.L., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B.W., Ross, S., Sears, M.R., Thomson, W.M., & Caspi, A. (in press). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
[5] Bodrova, E.B., & Leong, D.J. (2003). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60, 50-53.
[6] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 451-462.
[7] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1980). An analysis of learned helplessness: II. The processing of success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 940-952.