Concerns about Belonging and Interventions

Broadening Participation in STEM

Students from marginalized or historically underrepresented backgrounds may question their ability or belonging in academic environments. For example, women often feel a lack of belonging and acceptance in STEM fields, which have traditionally been dominated by men. As a result, fewer women than men go on to major in STEM fields or to pursue graduate degrees or careers in these fields. In our work, we focus on barriers to students’ participation in STEM, and seek to find ways to overcome such barriers. 

With past funding from the National Science Foundation and Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering, our lab has examined how romantic goal pursuit and romantic partner preferences may pose a barrier to women’s performance and interest in STEM.  We propose that whereas the goal to appear romantically desirable and intelligent in STEM fields are compatible for men, for women, these goals may conflict.  Consistent with this idea, women (but not men) reported less favorable attitudes toward STEM fields and showed less desire to major in math and science when romantic goals were activated in the environment, as well as in women’s reports of their daily romantic goal strivings (Park, Young, Troisi, & Pinkus, 2011).  Furthermore, women who preferred to date smarter romantic partners were the ones most susceptible to underperforming in math and reported less identification with and interest in STEM careers when romantic goals were activated (Park, Eastwick, Young, Troisi, & Streamer, 2016).

One way to boost women’s attitudes and interest in STEM may be through the use of situational cues that convey psychological safety, such as receiving positive feedback from perceived gatekeepers in STEM.  Along these lines, we found that women who received positive (vs. objective) feedback on a math test (i.e., their score plus the written comment “Good job!”) from a a male authority figure in a math setting showed improved math-related outcomes, such as increased math self-efficacy, more favorable attitudes toward, identification with, and interest in STEM fields, and greater implicit identification with math  (Park, Kondrak, Ward, & Streamer, 2018).  In our current research, funded by the National Science Foundation, we have found that giving students positive feedback is not the norm in college math courses, but that students (especially women with male math instructors) report that receiving positive feedback would be beneficial. Furthermore, we designed an intervention to train instructors to give students positive feedback or objective feedback in their math courses. Results showed that positive feedback boosted students’ self-efficacy, belonging, interest in STEM, and their final math grades, and several of these findings were especially strong for students from ethnically underrepresented backgrounds (Park, Moore-Russo, Hundley, Rickard, Ward, & Vessels, in prep).

In other work, we found that women who imagined receiving positive instructor responses — when asking a question in a STEM lab seminar — expressed greater interest in joining the lab and recruiting other students to join (Park, O’Brien, Italiano, Ward, & Panlilio, in press). Together, these findings suggest that concerns about belonging can be alleviated through subtle situational cues that convey psychological safety, especially for members of marginalized or historically underrepresented groups. 

Appearance-Based Rejection Sensitivity

We live in a culture that places tremendous emphasis on physical appearance.  Although concerns about appearance are relatively common in everyday life, some people are more sensitive to the possibility of being rejected based on their looks than others, with consequences for health and well-being.  To examine this idea, I developed a construct called Appearance-based Rejection Sensitivity (Appearance-RS) – the dispositional tendency to anxiously expect, readily perceive, and overreact to signs of rejection based on one’s physical appearance.  Our research suggests that individuals with Appearance-RS filter their social world through the lens of appearance; they frequently notice and compare their appearance with others, and feel pressure from peers and the media to look attractive (Park, 2007; Park, DiRaddo, & Calogero, 2009).

Appearance-RS has been shown to shape affective, cognitive, and behavioral reactions to real or perceived instances of appearance-based rejection.  Individuals with higher Appearance-RS feel more alone and rejected when simply reminded of aspects of their appearance they feel insecure about (Park, 2007); they show negative cognitive biases after experiencing an ambiguous instance of appearance-based rejection (Park & Harwin, 2010); and show greater social avoidance and withdrawal on days they feel highly sensitive to rejection based on their appearance (Park & Pinkus, 2009).  Individuals with high Appearance-RS are also more vulnerable to eating disorder symptoms, body dysmorphic disorder, and are more likely to consider cosmetic surgery as a way to improve their appearance, especially after they recall times when they were bullied or teased based on the way they looked (Calogero, Park, Rahemtulla, & Williams, 2010; Park, Calogero, Harwin, & DiRaddo, 2009; Park, Calogero, Young, Harwin, & DiRaddo, 2010).  Appearance-RS is not limited to adults; it has also been documented among adolescents , for whom appearance and belonging concerns are highly salient (Bowker, Thomas, Spencer, & Park, 2013).

In sum, this work suggests that Appearance-RS reflects heightened concerns about belonging, which makes people vigilant for detecting signs of rejection from others based on their appearance. Appearance-RS, like other constructs involving motivations and expectations to detect social evaluative threat, is an important risk factor that contributes to a wide range of mental and physical health problems (Park, Naidu, Lemay et al., in press).  There are ways, however, to temporarily alleviate the sting of rejection for those with high Appearance-RS.  For example, having individuals engage in self-affirmation (e.g., reminding people of their personal strengths), or secure attachment priming (e.g., reminding people of their close relationships), buffer people from the negative effects of appearance-based threats (Park, 2007). Current research is examining how Appearance-RS affects people’s motivation, performance, and well-being in online interactions where their appearance nay be visible to others.