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Being stereotyped destabilizes an individual’s self-esteem and affects performance, Columbiapsychology professor Valerie Purdie-Vaughns said at a panel onThursday.

“[Negative bias] calls into question that I’m a good, important person who is able to control important outcomes,”Purdie-Vaughns said. She added that especially in situations in which individuals are being evaluated, such as during examinations or in academic settings, negative stereotypes could seriously limit their achievements.

Purdie-Vaughns joined Stanford psychology professors Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen in speaking on the role of psychology in understanding inequality and achievement gaps in educational settings and successful psychological intervention models. Discussion moderator Dean of the College Jill Dolan explained that the panel was organized to open up a scientific yet accessible sustainable dialogue on inequality and achievement gaps both at the University and in the United States.

Expanding on Purdie-Vaughns’s point, Cohen said students who don’t feel they belong to certain academic settings are often less likely to seek support and help when encountered by challenges, which prevents them from accessing resources and leads to achievement gaps.

“Psychology mediates the reproduction of inequity,” Walton said, emphasizing the role of psychology in understanding why achievement gaps exist and the importance of psychological intervention strategies in closing such gaps.

Achievement gaps arise from the key factors of negative stereotypes and senses of alienation, Purdie-Vaughns, Cohen and Walton all said.

Both Cohen and Walton noted that psychological interventions can foster a sense of belonging among students from less-privileged backgrounds, which increases their performance drastically and helps them better adapt to colleges.

Walton explained that hearing stories of upperclassmen from similar backgrounds can help underprivileged students better adapt to college life by enabling them to anticipate challenges and letting them realize that they are not alone — that they, too, belong to the campus just as the upperclassman storyteller does.

Another strategy, Walton noted, is to clarify the meaning of what could be a threatening message to many students: academic probations. Simply stating that the probation is there to better guide them and help them get back on track, rather than to stigmatize or punish them, helps many students regain their confidence and re-boost their academic achievements, Walton explained.

“From one perspective, these results are hard to believe. They are like magic — but from another perspective, life can work like this,” Cohen said, praising intervention tools for bringing about drastic changes in students’ lives.

Children who are in a more advantageous setting haveopportunitiesfor more positive circumstances, but psychological interventions help narrow the opportunity gap between privileged and underprivileged students by creating possibilities for the latter, he added.

Walton noted that these intervention tools should be complemented by traditional education reforms that would broaden access to education for minority students and support them.

On that point, Cohen noted it is important to think about what these interventions say about the system at large.

“Why do these messages matter so much?” Cohen said. “Why aren’t kids already feeling assured of their belonging? Why are we relying on interventionists and researchers to come in and provide these messages?”

The panel, entitled “The Social Psychology of Inequality: Wise Ideas and Best Practices to Close Achievement Gaps,” was sponsored by the Department of Psychology, the Department of African American Studies and the Princeton Center for Behavioral Science and Public Policy. It took place in Peretsman-Scully Hall A32 at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday and is the first of the six-part Inequality Science Series that will take place throughout the year.

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