151 Transcript

Dr. Jeremy Sharp Transcripts Leave a Comment

Dr. Sharp: [00:00:00] Hello, everyone. Welcome to The Testing Psychologist podcast, the podcast where we talk all about the business and practice of psychological and neuropsychological assessment. I’m your host, Dr. Jeremy Sharp, licensed psychologist, group practice owner, and private practice coach.

This episode is brought to you by PAR. The TSCC and TSCYC screening forms allow you to quickly screen children for symptoms of trauma. Both forms are now available through PARiConnect- PAR’s online assessment platform. You can learn more at parinc.com

All right, everyone. Welcome back. I am truly honored to be talking with Dr. Josh Aronson who is a true pioneer in the area of stereotype threat and growth mindset. Let me tell you a little bit about Josh and give a little context for the conversation we have before we totally dive into it.

Josh is a professor of developmental, social, and educational psychology at New York University, where he directs the Mindful Education Lab, a group of psychologists and neuroscientists dedicated to using research to improve the psychological functioning and learning of children confronted with stress.

He is known internationally for his pioneering research on “stereotype threat” and like I mentioned, “Growth Mindset.” His work has been featured in popular books like Blink, Nurtureshock, Mindset, Drive, Nerve, Choke, Grit — and books with long titles like Lean in, How Children Succeed, Intelligence, and How to Get It, and Whistling Vivaldi. His work has been referenced in 4 Supreme Court cases. He is listed by Education Week as one of the most influential education scholars in America. He is the editor of Improving Academic Achievement (Academic Press) and Readings about the Social Animal and is Co-author of the best-selling text, The Social Animal with his father Elliot.

Josh’s current work helps schools become environments that promote excellence in cognitive, socio-emotional, and moral development by incorporating social-psychological interventions including mindfulness and meditation into classrooms, and by developing a “4-dimensional curriculum” to improve learning, curiosity, critical thinking self-control, and purpose.

Dr. Aronson is the executive advisor to the Casa Laxmi Foundation, which is building a school designed to develop leadership and academic success in the world’s most impoverished children. He is the founder of New York University’s School to Prosperity Pipeline, which serves children aged 4 to 22, with scientifically-based interventions to educate and elevate NYC children at risk for incarceration.

As you can tell from that lengthy bio, Josh has been just a true expert in this field for quite a long time. His work really started back in the mid-90s when he published or rather co-authored and published along with Claude Steele, the article Stereotype Threat and The Intellectual Test-Performance of African-Americans. 

This was the original article that got the ball rolling so to speak with Joshua’s career and his now widespread fame of sorts in the field. I think talking about that just briefly is important. It will provide some context for our conversation here today. You will hear Josh talk about the [00:04:00] changes and really the tidal wave of attention that came after publishing that article which was relatively early in his career. We do talk briefly about how young he was when that happened and how that really changed things almost overnight for him.

So, I think there are a lot of contexts to be had by reading that original article. I do link to it in the show notes. So certainly check that out and use that just to understand our conversation and know what Josh is referring to when he talks about that original article and the work that he pursued early on that resulted in so much attention from the media and elsewhere.

So this was a wide-ranging conversation. We dive into stereotype threat- what it is, Josh’s reconception of identity threat, and then we transition and talk about how those concepts are related to his current workaround mindfulness and meditation in the classroom, and how he is working to really help kids do their best using these interventions.

He’s done a ton of work in this area. Like I said, I’m honored to be speaking with him. So, I will conclude this rightfully lengthy intro and go ahead and transition to my conversation with Dr. Josh Aronson.

Josh, welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Josh: It’s wonderful to be here.

Dr. Sharp: Thanks for taking some time. I am excited [00:06:00] to talk with you about this topic. It is something I think that’s always relevant but possibly gotten more relevant over the last several months as people’s consciousness is pointed in this direction, generally speaking. So, I think there’s a lot for us to dive into, but I want to really just start as usual by asking you, how did you get into this and why is this important to you?

Dr. Josh: Well, when you ask the question, why is it important to me? Do you mean as a human being, a professional, an academic who wants to explain things? It hits all of those taste buds for me.

I got into this research through the back door in a way. I wanted to study something called self-affirmation with the author of that theory. A wonderful professor named Claude Steele fell in love with his writing on self-affirmation. He invited me to Stanford to do a postdoc with him after I did my dissertation on self-affirmation and then almost immediately, he said, let’s not work on self-affirmation. He told me he was very excited, he had just come from the University of Michigan and transferred to Stanford, very excited about using social psychology and subjective experience to understand and perhaps even help students navigate what is a huge achievement gap between black students and white students.

And so, my original response to it was that I was deflated because I didn’t feel like I had any intuitions about that. I came to study self-esteem and self-affirmation something which I lacked, [00:08:00] whereas now they were asking me, he wanted me to help understand the African-American experience. And my first response was, I’ve got no insight.

As we started doing the research though, I was a much better experimenter back then. I think Claude was very excited about taking the talents that he had seen on display in my dissertation and applying them to these new areas. So I designed a bunch of experiments that tested the hypothesis that if you are a member of a certain group, in this case, African-American, at a place like Stanford, and somebody asks you a question that somehow relates to your ability, that this would be a frightening experience.

As I started designing those experiments, I realized that this was not just research. It was me-search where I was discovering my experience, which was puzzling because I’m not black and we were talking about the black-white achievement gap.

And so from the very beginning, what excited me about this research was the common humanity in it. All of us have experiences where we walk into a room and maybe it’s the way we look or the group we belong to or some reputation that we’ve established earlier in our relationship with these people that may mark us in some way where people have expectations about us. And I think this is highly relevant now, more than ever, for everyone.

I was excited when at all different levels because the most exciting thing was to see what a big difference in the laboratory was made by a few details that you could say to somebody, hey, this is a test [00:10:00] that’s going to help me figure out where you’ve got problems. It’s an IQ test. Something that your listeners probably do often. And that detail combined with the detail that most students know about the stereotypes, about their group, the

African-Americans don’t have a stereotype of doing really well on IQ tests or standardized tests. We’re always talking about the gap in SATs and things. That knowledge would combine with the details of the situation, A white guy handing you a test and calling it a test of your ability, that that would do something that most people don’t think will happen is that your actual intelligence level for that moment will be compromised, in some cases dramatically.

Now, this was not a brand new idea. All of us had heard of test anxiety at that time. And in fact, when I went back to do research, I was embarrassed because there was some sense that this was a new theory, but I found lots of old stuff. And in fact, stuff that is even the most relevant for your listeners was stuff done with actual IQ tests in children- finding the little details of the situation would make a 10 to 15 points difference in how well a child performed on an IQ test. This was done in the 60s. We came along in the 90s and applied the same logic to the black-white achievement gap at the university level.

It was personally relevant because also at the same time, we published this research and we were in the middle of a storm [00:12:00] immediately. We’re being attacked. We’re being lauded as the great answer to the problem of the black-white achievement gap. I gave a talk once and this man said, “Your paper was like a shot heard round the world.”

Dr. Sharp: My Gosh.

Dr. Josh: Yeah. So it had a tremendous effect on me, both positive and negative. I don’t think I was ready for that kind of attention. And I certainly wasn’t ready to start receiving six articles a month on this topic to review, but that’s what happens when you pioneer an exciting field. Everyone jumps in, and all of a sudden you’re the expert on the topic.

So, I think of this time in my life as just a time of incredible excitement and energy and optimism, but also exhaustion and being attacked by people I’ve never met. And that continues. Some of the fervor has died down, but the attacks continue. And now, as I told you before, I’ve given myself the treat of backing away from being on the cutting edge of this. I’m standing back and looking at what other people are doing. It’s a much better place to be, to tell you the truth.

Dr. Sharp: I bet. That sounds like a complete whirlwind. And if I’m doing the math right, this was happening fairly early in your career. That’s a lot to take on us as a…

Dr. Josh: It was my second publication.

Dr. Sharp: Oh my goodness.

Dr. Josh: All of a sudden, I was in Supreme court cases and being talked about, and I was being villainized by people who hated my mentor like his brother. I don’t [00:14:00] know if you know that Shelby Steele is Claude Steele’s identical twin brother.

So here were two guys raised in the same home with identical genes, if I heard one of them talking, I couldn’t tell them apart until I heard their political attitudes, which were opposite. And it broke around affirmative action. So my advisor, Claude and I were both pro-affirmative action. I’m less so now. I don’t know where Claude stands on it. I think, in fact, our work showed the problems with affirmative action. So, I have a very different theory now. This work helped me evolve in terms of my policy thinking on things.

His identical twin brother was a vocal opponent of this stuff. So among the people attacking us were family members, not my family members, but his family members. And it was all in the press. And so there were just layers of drama and hype and overwork from my part on this. That wasn’t my favorite part of the importance of it, but now that I look back, it does. It looks like there was a section of the Beatle’s life during Beatlemania when it was just like crazy. And that was right out of the gate for me.

Dr. Sharp: What an incredible experience in positive and negative.

Dr. Josh: I love thinking about it. I just could come up with studies all the time. Part of the heartache about it is that I think this research needs to be done slowly and carefully so that we don’t make mistakes that take a lot of time to correct, but what I experienced, do you know what I mean?

[00:16:00] Dr. Sharp: Well, I’m curious.

Dr. Josh: That we get it right so that we don’t have to unlearn some false findings. I remember putting in grant proposals where I would propose 8 studies and it got funded and then I would open my mail and there would be four experiments for me to review from a journal of the studies I had just gotten funded for. There was like a gold rush into this field. Hundreds and hundreds of publications. I couldn’t keep up with it. I’m not smart enough. I couldn’t assimilate all of that information and it was literally slowing me down from doing my own work.

And I think even though that’s the work that really launched my career, I loved the smaller studies that I did off of it that also made a statement which was I think my favorite study is when I was thinking about my own experiences of feeling sort of out of place in school and my parents would tell me that I was really bright, but when I was in social situations, I felt so shy and constrained that bright was the last thing that I would feel. And I thought, well, again, I’m not an African-American student, I’m not a woman in math, there must be a more general process going on here.

And so my proudest moment I think was showing that we could take the brightest, I mean, we looked around Stanford for the very brightest people we could find, the brightest than the elitist non-minority students, people that came into Stanford with perfect scores on their SATs and who were [00:18:00] just…

I remember being around these people. You could feel their intelligence. It had a presence in the room. I remember that all it took to make them choke on a really difficult math test was to invoke the stereotype of the group that they are afraid of, which are Asian males in that same major in engineering.

So when these people describe their experience, if you took race out of it, if you didn’t identify their race, it would sound a lot like W. E. B. Du Bois. I’m talking about being black in the early 20th century where he says, “When I walk into a room, I count the number of black faces that I see.” And for a guy like Du Bois, it was often none or a few. And this is exactly what high pressured Stanford students would tell me. When they would walk into a science or physics class or a mathematics class, they would count the number of Asian heads in the room. And if there were too many, they would decide maybe to take the course in a different trimester so they could have a shot at a better grade.

I’ll talk about using a race as a proxy for ability. Everyone is doing it in ways that really affect their behavior. I found that really interesting. And so, we did an experiment showing that people that could dazzle you with their intelligence and confidence one minute would score a full standard deviation lower on a math test that they were happy to take just because you told them that the study was going to compare them to Asian students.

Dr. Sharp: That’s so powerful.

Dr. Josh: So if you [00:20:00] walk people through the predicament that others experience, they often experience cognitive deficits, and we’ve shown this in many circumstances, for me, that’s the fundamental unifying message of stereotype threat or identity threat is that what we call intelligence is a performance and that performance takes place under certain circumstances. Maybe you’re hungry. Maybe there are the circumstances of thinking about a different group is a powerful one. And what it means is that human intelligence or the measure of it is a fragile business.

We’ve all experienced this in school. You have that really warm teacher that brings out the best in you. You feel yourself getting smarter. I feel that all the time. It’s called acceptance. Trust enables us to be smarter. And so, for me, that is the message that reverberates through all this research, all of us are capable of stupidity. And I have seen Nobel prize-winning economists act as stupid as you can imagine.

Dr. Sharp: That’s just so fascinating. There’s so much to unpack here.

Dr. Josh: Yeah. I tend to unload for long periods of time until my students tell me, “Dr. Aronson, somebody has their hand up.”

Dr. Sharp: Okay. Fair enough. There are some episodes where I feel like I asked more dumb questions than others. This might be one of those episodes. Let’s go for it and see where we go.

Dr. Josh: We like dumb questions.

Dr. Sharp: The first one, let me just back up a little bit, and for anyone who isn’t completely clear on what we mean when we say stereotype threat, can you just give a solid definition of that? And then I think we’re off to the races [00:22:00] in terms of this.

Dr. Josh: Yes. Stereotype threat, I should say is the more popular term for it. It’s the one we started with. We tried on two different names. But the one I really like better is identity threat. And the reason for that is because it generalizes to individual experience.

A stereotype threat is when I’m a white guy and I walk into a classroom full of young students and they go, oh, white guy, but he has a certain set of attitudes. These days, especially I’m monitoring my behavior for anything I might say that might get me in trouble. Professors are being fired for silly slips of tongue and things like that. That’s a stereotype threat because what’s invoked is a stereotype of white males.

However, identity threat can be tied to my individual identity. And so there are people like… I like the example of George W. Bush, who, yes, he’s a white male and the stereotypes of white males are a certain stereotype, but this guy had an individual identity that everyone knew. And one of those identities was the guy is not very curious or bright. And he’s one of my favorite examples of an individual who, when the cameras are on and the stakes are high, makes lots of verbal disfluencies and says dumb things, however, when the cameras are off, he manifests more apparent IQ when the stakes are low.

David Brooks interviewed him and he said, “I’ve seen a 60-point IQ difference in president Bush in private versus public things.” I don’t think David Brooks fully understands what that represents in terms of IQ [00:24:00] point. He’s exaggerating greatly to make his point. It’s like a different guy. And again, I find that fascinating. Human intelligence is fragile.

So the definition I would give is the apprehension that human beings feel when confronted by a stereotype or individual identity that is unflattering or adds pressure to their performance. And the reason I say unflattering or adds pressure is that some groups can fail and choke when there are high expectations on them under certain conditions.

So like if somebody comes up to you and says, Hey, I hear you’re The Testing Psychologist’s expert. Please explain to me and this group of people that are listening to you the difference between some archaic points about psychometrics. Now we’re all saying, we think you’re brilliant, but that’s adding pressure. And so, it can be trying not to look dumb. And that invokes what psychologists call a prevention focus. It’s sort of like the, oh, I better not look stupid here rather than I feel comfortable enough to reach beyond my normal level of ability.

One thing I want to say about this is that it’s for this reason that I don’t think identity threat is necessarily a negative in people’s lives. I think it’s often a motivator that once you get used to and knowledgeable about how it operates, it can be like that extra little bit of pressure that Michael Jordan feels when he does something amazing on the court, [00:26:00] right? He always got better under pressure. It’s the same kind of pressure that people feel when they are taking an IQ test. But some people have learned how to turn that pressure into higher performance. And I think that’s the good side of stereotype threat.

Dr. Sharp: Right. Kind of like the difference between eustress and distress, I suppose.

Dr. Josh: The key is what you do with it. So you can have a bad test performance. And the problem with stereotypes is that they suggest an explanation for your low performance. You can choke. And one of the tragedies that I saw in my original research was in the interviews with these students. Okay. So you have a really bright student come in, you give them a really difficult test, you’ll manipulate something in the environment that makes the student choke. They look at their performance, some might say that they choked or were extra nervous, but it wouldn’t be because of what you actually did. They would come up with some other reasons.

For example, we ask them how many hours of sleep did you get last night? Miraculously, people in this who were randomly assigned to the stereotype threat condition said they got a lot less sleep the night before. That’s impossible. They’re making an excuse for their low performance. They’re saying, I did badly?

The thing that’s useful about stereotype threat it’s that it’s a vertical explanation, but it’s temporary. So you can say, I felt a lot of stress. The white guy gave me [00:28:00] a really difficult test and he told me it was going to tell me what my IQ was.

When people understand that that can make them underperform, that actually helps them feel less stressed when they take the test because what is the alternative hypothesis? I’m stupid. I’m not smart. And so it gives them a way of explaining their behavior that can actually improve their performance. Oh, I get it. I get extra stressed when I do this because there are some racial stereotypes about my race. And once you know it and you have a strategy, which we give students, which begins with knowing you’re not special, this happens to a lot of people, but continues with breathing and reminding yourself that this doesn’t mean you’re not bright. It means you’re taking a hard test and a lot of people do. That little flick of the mind can raise scores.

Dr. Sharp: Interesting. I know that you’ve been doing quite a bit of work over the last few years with how to combat some of these things, I suppose. I would love to get into that and your work with mindfulness in the schools and so forth

Dr. Josh: Growth mindset too came directly out of the stereotype threat work. It’s funny. This is one place where I almost feel like I’ve created a monster because I just see it in everything. I see the growth mindset in everything now. And I worry that it’s becoming so… It’s one of those things where people say it and it’s lost its meaning.

Dr. Sharp: Well, I’m glad [00:30:00] that I have you on that. We can actually drill down into the original, right?

Dr. Josh: Yes. The original came from the question. We had done studies showing that if I can convince you that the test is not a test of your ability but really just a problem-solving task, which lowers the psychological stakes of low performance, oh, this is not a measure of my permanent ability, it’s just a thing that I’m doing, we found that framing improved performance dramatically among students who belong to groups who were stigmatized: African-Americans, women in math and science, computer science, Latino students.

The problem with that is that in everyday life, no one ever tells you that the test you’re take are meaningless. In fact, they tell you there’s probably a job or college admission riding on it. So, this is like a laboratory in which you take away some elements. We often do experiments in a vacuum. Here we took away the real-world stakes of low performance and what we found with that is for a lot of students, it doesn’t matter. They will feel stereotype threat or identity threat even when it’s low stakes because they care so much about every performance. They’re always evaluating themselves. You know people like that. They always try hard. And so, it was indeed those people who experienced the most deficits.

So you can’t take away the high-stakes nature of testing. In many cases, even when you [00:32:00] say you are, a lot of students feel a sense of high stakes. You often hear that The Nation’s Report Card in America can be taken as the best measure of the black-white achievement gap because its low stakes. I don’t know if I’ve believed that. If it’s so low stakes, it could also mean that students aren’t really trying either. So, there can be a lot of slippage in test scores.

Why we got to teaching students the growth mindset was because we knew we couldn’t change their situations. We couldn’t read their situations of high stakes testing, nor could we read their situations of the other thing that seems to turn on stereotype threat, which is indicating making salient your identity. So for example, when we give them a low-stakes test but say, write your race down on the cover sheet, black students would perform worse. They were reminded of their stereotype status, put it on their minds, and it turned into a high-stakes endeavor.

Dr. Sharp: Sorry, Josh, can I ask you a question real quick?

Dr. Josh: Yes.

Dr. Sharp: We’ve talked a lot about the role of race, ethnicity, culture, and this whole process is. Are there other characteristics that are salient for identity threat that is worth mentioning? Gender, I would imagine.

Dr. Josh: Yeah. Gender is the one that’s been studied the most simply because it’s the easiest. [00:34:00] Women are more than half the population of most universities whereas African-Americans are about 5%. So to do the research and to use the numbers that we need, most of the research has been conducted using the stereotype of women in math. I’ve done some of that work, but the racial stuff has been the stuff that I’ve cared about most.

There are other individual differences that seem to matter a lot. And one of the most interesting ones is just how much the student cares. How much they are staking their salvation of being good at this thing you’re testing them on. For example, the more you care about math, the more a stereotype that says people like you weren’t good at math is going to undo you. It is going to bother you. You’re going to need to do something or it’s going to undo you. And most students overcome this stuff just by working through it and getting used to it.

What I worry about are the students that interpret the threat as an indication that they don’t belong, that they’re not bright enough when really there’s just a learning curve for everyone early in the game. We see a lot of black students dropping out, even ones with very high scores and perfect grades dropping out in their first year of college because they haven’t been prepared for certain aspects of college. And I think one of the things is stereotype threat. What it’s like to not understand in a situation where people might look at you and go, oh, you’re only here for affirmative action. That is an uncomfortable place to be.

But what I’ve learned is that most students [00:36:00] come to college wondering if they belong and in certain environments. This is feeling like identity threat doesn’t make you special at all. But we cannot in any integrated college, get rid of the two things that reliably invoke stereotype threat, one being the salient of one’s race. As soon as you have diversity, you have racial salience or gender salience. And the other thing is the relevance and importance and stakes attached to testing. You can’t get rid of that in college. It’s everything. Students drive themselves crazy with it. But what you can do is teach people techniques, attitudes, and ideas that help them reframe the threat in ways.

And so, I just went directly at the stereotype that people held about intelligence. Most of us who were brought up when I grew up, heard a story about intelligence that you’re born with a certain amount of intelligence and that you can lose it. Don’t drink beer, don’t sniff glue because you get a finite number of brain cells and it’s just like sands and an hourglass. You’re just running out of them. There’s a real terror created by that. And I think that most people in my era believed that.

When I first saw that psychologists were starting to talk about neuro-plasticity, that was in the early 90s, it immediately struck me that this was the solution to stereotype threat. If you can’t get rid of racial judgment, if you cannot get rid of high-stakes testing, maybe you can teach people that the thing being tested is just always growing with [00:38:00] effort. That’s one insight.

Another one that changed my life was designing an experiment that was a field experiment where we simply changed people’s attitudes about the nature of intelligence and did a really good job of changing their attitudes. Social psychology gives us a lot of tools for getting people to adopt mindsets and attitudes. And so we did that. We worked hard. And what we found was that relative to control groups, people that learned their intelligence could be built with effort and really came to believe that those students narrowed the gap considerably between themselves and white students on the Stanford campus. That was the first study like that. We did several, and then it started a wave of research. And now, every kid gets bombarded with the notion of a growth mindset ad nauseum.

Dr. Sharp: Yeah. So in your mind, where did things start to degrade with that, if that question makes sense, or get diluted maybe is a better way to think of it? And is it still valuable? I suppose there’s…

Dr. Josh: I think it’s still valuable, but it’s still valuable in the same way that a hamburger is still nutritious despite the fact that McDonald’s scaled it up into something that you can serve billions and billions of.

Dr. Sharp: That’s a great analogy.

Dr. Josh: Thank you. I love food analogies because I like to cook. I’m probably old enough to remember when a McDonald’s hamburger was a really good thing, $0.15 a delicious and you didn’t feel like it was going to make you sick.And I’m sorry McDonald’s but that’s how it’s been for me the last eight times I’ve tried eating the actual food there.

[00:40:00] The growth mindset started out as a beautiful four-course meal cooked by a chef. Somebody who got every single student believing magnificently that their minds were like muscles. And we had them involved in a real intervention where they were helping a child to understand this. They were convincing a younger child who was struggling in school.

I’m proud of that paradigm because everybody wins from it. You mentor somebody about an attitude that you yourself need to learn and they learn it, and then it becomes something that elevates the performance and learning of both parties. I love that.

I totally understand wanting to get this stuff to as many people as possible, but in the process, you got a lot of people cooking a complicated meal that they aren’t cooking with love and are making minimum wage and are being told to give this to people on mass. I don’t believe in that kind of intervention because I think it becomes just another thing that gets shoved at kids by an overworked teacher who’s sometimes resentful.

Now, this is not to say I’ve talked to teachers, they do love having the vocabulary growth mindset. I just worry that it’s going to go the same way as “have a nice day.” He shows all the signs of great engagement, growth mindset, and blah, blah. It’s going to be a checklist. So, we went on we tried to go big and when people [00:42:00] started selling this stuff to schools.

There are a lot of people making money on it. That breaks my heart because teachers don’t need more stuff sold to them. I really think most teachers know this stuff intuitively. They’re happy to have the terminology for it. But most teachers will do well when left alone to their own devices if they’re given the resources they need. That’s my sandbox on stereotype threat and growth mindset.

Dr. Sharp: Well, I think that’s valuable. You’ve seen it from the inside for many years. I want to put things in context a little bit as we transition to the work that you’re doing now. You have a long career in this research around stereotype threat, identity threat- what leads to it, and what can help combat it. And my understanding, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, of course, is that now you have transitioned into more real-world application of this stuff and how strategies and things that you could do in the classroom to really help students who might run into some of this. Is that right?

Dr. Josh: Yeah. But my focus has broadened. Instead of saying, 20 years ago, 15 years ago, I just wanted to get test scores to go up because that was the dominant way of evaluating whether a school was working. But then I got smarter. I started visiting schools and seeing that a lot of kids weren’t wrestling with stereotype threat, they were wrestling with something else or you.

So I think when psychologists [00:44:00] get into the business of promoting a theory and testing a theory, it’s sort of like Abraham Maslow said, “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And I was going into a school with my hammer and not everything looked like a nail to me. I realized that what I was doing might make me famous and wealthier and respected, but I would be lying on some level to sort of say that this stuff was the be-all and end-all of what kids needed. That was one thing.

The other thing is that in my quest to find something that didn’t just help students do better on tests, but help them develop into people that wanted to go to school in the first place, then enjoyed the learning process and didn’t feel stress, I stumbled upon kids meditating in school- sitting there meditating twice a day.

I saw the data. This is a broad array of things that everyone cares about like the number of suspensions in the school, the test scores, and interestingly, the number of teachers who quit or call in sick each week in high-stress schools. And I saw the numbers about what meditation was doing, and I frankly didn’t believe it. I just didn’t believe it. It was something like two standard deviations better than any intervention I had ever done or seen in the literature.

My parents meditated. I knew about the Beatles. I had tried it once in college and [00:46:00] it had had some nice effects on me, but this was… So I went out to the school. I took a plane and I went out to visit. I love this because after the data presentation at the David Lynch Foundation, the moviemaker, David Lynch, I went up to the director of the foundation and I said, I don’t really believe this. I believe in meditation, but I don’t really believe it.

His response was so beautifully non-defensive. It just sort of was like, okay, I like that. He invited me to just go visit any of the schools where they were doing this. And so I went out to California and I went to a school of the sort that I’d been into hundreds of times. The school that you want to go into and then you quickly turn around and want to leave because there’s sort of a bleak threatening vibe to the whole thing.

But I walked in and immediately could feel the absence of that vibe. It was a different feeling. And then we meditated with these children or at least watched them. We talked to the children and thing after the thing happened on that trip that just said what, like hearing an 11-year-old girl who had witnessed somebody being killed-a lot of gang activity in this part of San Francisco, middle school, these are middle schoolers who have witnessed a murder.  I walked up to her after the meditation and I said, could you just tell me what this is like for you? What has this done for you?

And there was something about the way this 11-year-old girl [00:48:00] treated my question. That moment to sticks with me because most teenagers you meet don’t look like they’re being really thoughtful in their answers. And she sort of looked up into the right and she goes, what is this stuff? And then she looked at me and she said, I’d have to say that this opened me. This is an 11-year-old girl who is in like the terribly fraught section of town. And here she was just with such thoughtfulness and clarity, talking to a total stranger with absolute trust. I’d never experienced anything like that. And now I experienced that over and over again.

I was doing interventions that had a certain amount of impact on students. And if you did the statistics, you could see that it was affecting their grades some of the time when the intervention was done well. Now I do interventions where you don’t need statistics. You talk to a kid that started meditating three months ago. And you remember what it was like the first time you met them.

I had this experience directly where I met a teenager from one of these tough schools and my first impression was I don’t like this kid- a gut impression. Now, that is an important feature in a child’s life. If this teacher feels that way about a child, that child’s chances of getting quality education are less than a child who has the opposite effect on you when you meet them. So I come back three months later and I see the same kid and my gut [00:50:00] is a totally opposite feeling is like, what a nice kid.

You don’t need statistics to tell you that something powerful has happened. And I see this over and over again. And so for me, it’s just like, I had a certain part of my career where I was obsessed with how do we make kids smarter and then happier and kinder to each other. And as you know from being a testing psychologists, we could do lots of interventions. We can have kids practice all kinds of things. We can have them sign up for Lumosity or something like Tetris, and it will make a very small part of them better at one task.

I’m watching kids become smarter, happier, calmer, and kinder to the people around them, which has environmental effects that spread to everyone. And it’s just the coolest job because I get to watch transformations. Now we do science on this, of course, but for me, it’s bottling what is it like to be with this personal experience? How bright do they feel? How much do I want them in my class, in a room with me, in my life, taking care of my kid? In my experience, all of that stuff improves, and in a general way, when people do this very simple exercise of just sort of slacking off with their eyes closed twice times a day. So I’m fascinated with everything about that. I know that it reduces what I call identity threat from my own experience. 

Dr. Sharp: Yeah, I was going to ask about the connection there. Can you articulate that a bit? How is this helping with what we’re talking about with identity threat and so forth?

Dr. Josh: Well, a lot [00:52:00] depends on the context we’re talking about. In a testing situation, 15 minutes of meditation before taking a test will boost your score on a GRE. There are published lab studies on this. So will writing about your fears. Anything that gets rid of anxiety and leaves you with a little pressure, but not too much will help your test performance.

The really exciting contexts for me are the learning contexts where people are interacting with each other and you can just see that children who meditate just listen way better. They will know better. They’re more considerate. There’re studies done where they’ll do an experiment where there are people sitting in a waiting room and there are no more seats, and some of the people will have been taught to meditate and others not. A person walks in on crutches and needs to sit. Meditators are way more likely to get up and offer their seat to this person.

So on every level, they’ve looked, if you do the intervention well, you really implemented, well, you see just sometimes spectacular effects. And I should say, sometimes you can do the intervention poorly and you will see nothing. And yeah, we have arguments with people about what that means.

Dr. Sharp: How so?

Dr. Josh: Well, they’ll look at studies that didn’t work and go meditation doesn’t work and I’ll go, well, I could show you a restaurant where they make terrible food, but I wouldn’t conclude from that, that restaurants don’t work. I would conclude that that restaurant did a really bad job of implementing [00:54:00] food delivery and preparation. I wouldn’t say restaurants don’t work. But our arguments when it comes to things like meditation or interventions often go in that direction of well, I see one study where it didn’t work.

Dr. Sharp: Wow. That is truly amazing. I know someone who has a history of mindfulness practice in different forms. I love to hear this.

So Josh, the audience for this podcast is largely practitioners. We are testing kids. We’re testing adults. I wonder if you could talk just a little more explicitly about what the takeaways are here for us and how this stuff might be relevant for the work that we do?

Dr. Josh: Yes. Great question. I said earlier that human performance is fragile. It’s fragile because human relationships are fragile in a way. We often judge each other by little details. We frightened each other in ways that are often quite subtle. I mentioned earlier what a great psychologist who was one of the reasons we have head start had a career of finding out about what worked for little poor kids. And he found that if you had their IQ test given by somebody who they played a little game with before, like solve the puzzle for, that was enough to warm up the relationship, to create enough trust and comfort where the kid could do 10 to 15 IQ points better on the test that they took.

To me, that is that’s the take home message is that intelligence is not just a thing in somebody’s head. [00:56:00] It’s the product of an interaction between at least two human beings. Somebody asks you a question who that person is. Their relationship with matters a lot. And we all know situations how bandwidth can be destroyed by fear or nervousness or wanting to impress that person?

That’s the message is that you want to take steps to make the environment comfortable for somebody whose test results are going to help you understand them. You want to get the best test results. You want to create an environment that is not unwittingly scaring them a little bit stupider or less creative or whatever you were measuring.

So the take-home is, my wife, for example, once she started reading my research. She’s a tester. She’s a neuropsychologist. She started making sure that the kid who was taking the test knew that this was not a permanent mark about them. That most of these areas could be developed. So that experience, knowing that your score is not going to be carved on your tombstone because it’s measuring something permanent, but is just your score where you’re at right now, I think releases kids from a lot of anxiety that would cloud their results. That’s a lot of neuropsychologists that they do exactly that, which is to promote the growth mindset in an interpersonal context. 

Dr. Sharp: sure. Thank you. I love those actionable tips. So I appreciate you delving into that. Are there any other things that you might recommend to help people do their best?

Dr. Josh: Yeah. Well, the research points pretty strongly to several things: [00:58:00] 1, prepare, 2, get a good night’s sleep. It’s so important. In fact, many of the things we talk about that we’ve developed in the lab are just so inferior to having people eat well and sleep well and that sort of thing.

Dr. Sharp: That’s so true.

Dr. Josh: We should amend everything we say with after eating well, sleeping well, getting exercise, and stuff you can do. Regular meditation to me is not just a way to do better on tests, but it’s a way to do better in all of the tests that life presents you with. So when I started meditating maybe five years ago, seriously, I started noticing something different in my course evaluations from students, which is, the word intelligent started appearing a lot more. He’s so intelligent. That’s a new experience for me.

Dr. Sharp: Fascinating. That feels good.

Dr. Josh: It does. Although we can have a philosophical argument about whether I’ve gotten more intelligent or just less stupid in public circumstances, the end result is that I’m fooling more and more students into thinking that I’m actually intelligent.

Dr. Sharp: Can I put you on the spot a little bit and ask, if you had to really nail it down, what do you think is changing there? Uh, you know, like what’s happening internally that then students are seeing as “more intelligent”?

Dr. Josh: I think it’s poise, confidence, the rapidity with which I speak, my absence of fear. I think if I had to say one thing that stands in the way of being [01:00:00] smart, curious, and helpful to other people, it’s often fear. My wife who’s a neuropsychologist, I heard her recommending it to someone and she said, it just takes the fear out of every.

He says to me if somebody could turn down your fear, turn up your compassion, turn up your curiosity, increase your energy, I sound like an advertisement for it, but it’s all been true in my case and the people that I’ve worked with who stick with it. Now, people just give this up really easily because fewer methods of torture are more effective than having a person just sit there and amuse themselves with their own thoughts. In fact, there’s good research on this showing that most people will refuse to just sit there. They need a distraction of some sort. In fact, they’d rather have pain.

Dr. Sharp: I’ve read that stuff. Yeah.

Dr. Josh: They’d rather have pain than just sit there and be a victim of their own thoughts. Meditation teaches you how to welcome those situations. It’s just like lifting weights. You just get used to it. So I think that what’s happening in the brain is a great deal of reduction of pain. What we experience as mental pain is also called boredom.

Boredom is really painful. People would rather have an electric shock in many cases than boredom. People would rather cut themselves with a knife than feel that mental pain of anguish that many of us are experiencing now. So [01:02:00] if people stick with it, and that’s the tough part because it’s difficult, what starts to happen, I think is that your prefrontal cortex is starting to connect more to the full operation. It’s brought online a lot more.

The way I heard it described to me is, in lay terms, it’s like when you’re impulsive, there’s sort of like a direct line from your amygdala to your action centers. What meditation does is say, wait for a second, let’s bring the prefrontal cortex into this decision. And I’ve seen brain scans where meditators seem to have more of a linkage with their prefrontal cortex.

What it feels like as an individual is that I’ve gotten great sleep and that somebody gave me 15 more IQ points. And I can think on my feet. Things don’t bug me as much. I can do podcasts and not stutter. One of the reasons I want so badly for kids to get this before they hit middle school is because I spent a lot of time watching kids just become awful in middle school: unconfident, mean, frustrated, not knowing how to relate to other people. And I think this can have a huge effect on that kind of dynamic.

Dr. Sharp: Are you seeing any differential effects just to get in the weeds a little bit with the research between say like different ethnic groups or boys versus girls versus non-binary? Are there any effects like that that are popping up that you know of?

Before we dig into that question, let’s take a short break to hear from our featured partner.

With children currently exposed to [01:04:00] conditions including a global pandemic, social injustice, natural disasters, and isolation, you need a trusted tool that can screen for symptoms of trauma quickly. The TSCC screening form allows you to quickly screen children ages 8 to 17 years for symptoms of trauma and determines if follow-up evaluation and treatment is warranted.

The TSCYC screening form does the same for children ages 3 to 12 years. Both forms are available in Spanish and support the trauma informed care approach to treatment. These screening forms are now available through PARiConnect- PAR’s online assessment platform, which provides you with results even faster. Learn more at parinc.com\tscc_sf or parinc.com\tscyc_sf.

Dr. Josh: We actually haven’t seen big group differences based on anything. The major difference between somebody that has it have a good effect or not much is just the amount of time. It really is a dose-response perfect effect. So you’ll often meet people who go, I tried meditation and it did nothing for me. And you go, well, how much did you do? Well, I tried two minutes that one time and it didn’t take. So it really needs to be thought of in the same way as you would think about lifting weights because that’s essentially what you’re doing with your brain is that you’re teaching it to be nonjudgmental.

That’s what it feels like. It’s sort of like you have all these thoughts coming at you and you just keep reminding yourself to not let those thoughts carry you away and to take them too seriously. And it is very hard for human beings to do that. [01:06:00] And that’s why I hate sitting still. You work that muscle.

I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten to the point where you just don’t need anything. You’re just happy to be an embodied brain just sitting there taking in everything around you. Most people can’t stand that. And yet when I’ve gotten to that feeling and I’m one of those people, I need to be doing something distracting, but when I’ve gone on like a retreat and meditated a lot and really worked out, it’s sort of like running a marathon, you just go, oh my God, this is a runner’s high. Meditators high is like, I don’t need anything to be totally happy and feel amazing. I don’t need music. I don’t need to smoke anything. I don’t need to drink anything. It just is so good to be just right here.

Pascall once wrote, do you remember Pascall? He said, most of humankind’s problems stem from the back that people are unable to sit in a room by themselves. So even what was that 500 years ago, recognize that people are terribly distracted. They love distraction. Their minds are a mess just as the Buddhists talked about 3000 years ago.

So, if I leave your listeners with anything, the big individual difference in this is how much of a chance you give it.

It doesn’t affect men and women differently. It doesn’t affect adults and children differently. The one caveat I would say is that if you’ve had traumatic experience or you have mental health issues, you may need a different method than most people engage in. You need to be mindful of the fact [01:08:00] that closing your eyes may bring out different experiences for you then. And so, there are meditations for people that have trauma.

The other difference is that when we work with kids in the inner city, two things frighten them that make sense once they tell you about it- closing their eyes and quiet. Quiet is unsettling if you live a mid noise all day long. And so, after a small period of fear where we tell them that they have to trust us that we’re not going to let anything bad happen to them, after a slightly longer period of getting over that, you see inner-city kids shedding some of the things that make their life so hard, and able to recognize the beauty that people that live in peaceful environments take for granted.

So it’s been quite eye-opening in that sense. So for example, one of the transformations that I’ve seen was from a guy who totally didn’t want to be involved in this. Somebody pushed him into it and he was resistant and he finally told him, he said, well, I got to sit here anyway. I might as well just try it.

And he told me that 10 days into the program we offered, he said, I walked down the street and I saw there’s always a swarm of frightening thoughts in my head. Maybe the police are going to shoot me because I’m a black male today. Maybe my friend’s going to get shot. Maybe I’m going to fail a class, maybe some bad stuff. And he goes, but this day I was walking down the street and I noticed a tree [01:10:00] that I must’ve walked by a million times before. And I noticed that the light was hitting leaves and just a certain way. And I have this thought how beautiful. And he said, Dr. “Aronson, I’ve never thought those words, how beautiful in my life before.” And that’s when I knew I was studying the right thing. For once in my life, I was like, you are studying the right thing, Aronson, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.

Dr. Sharp: I love that story. I think that may be a nice note to end on too. Full circle. You’ve found your place and the work is so meaningful in these kids’ lives.

Dr. Josh: Yeah. That was kind of nice how that happened.

Dr. Sharp: I like it. Yeah. Sometimes things work out, right?

Dr. Josh: Well, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it. 

Dr. Sharp: Of course. Thank you.

All right, everybody. Thank you so much for tuning in to this episode with Dr. Josh Aronson. He is truly a legend in this field and it was an amazing opportunity to really get to talk through the progression of his career and the story there. I love mindfulness. So, the work that he is doing now is just completely fascinating and inspiring, and I hope you feel the same.

There are plenty of resources in the show notes for you to check out. So definitely take a look at those. And if you have not subscribed to the podcast, I would love for you to do that. You can also tap a quick rating in iTunes pretty easily or in the podcast app, and that will help keep the podcast on the map for other folks who are trying to find it. So thank you as always, I will be back with you on Thursday. Take care.[01:12:00]

The information contained in this podcast and on The Testing Psychologist website is intended for informational and educational purposes only. Nothing in this podcast or on the website is intended to be a substitute for professional, psychological, psychiatric, or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Please note that no doctor-patient relationship is formed here, and similarly, no supervisory or consultative relationship is formed between the host or guests of this podcast and listeners of this podcast. If you need the qualified advice of any mental health practitioner or medical provider, please seek one in your area. Similarly, if you need supervision on clinical matters, please find a supervisor with expertise that fits your needs.

Click here to listen instead!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.