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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Seedcorn grant report

01.09.2016, by Sibylle Classen in grant report

Cristina Aelenei
The function of selection in the academic system: competence - agency and warmth / communion. The subsequent effects on students’ academic choices

The EASP’s Seedcorn grant enabled me to spend 7 months at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, from February to August 2016. The main goal of this research stay was to develop a new line of research with Prof. Vincent Yzerbyt. My doctoral dissertation focused on the self-enhancement/self-transcendence cultural dimensionality (as conceptualized by Schwartz, 1992, 2012) in the educational system, and addressed the impact of these subtle cultural marks on the gender and ethnic inequalities. Building on the conceptual symmetry between Schwartz’s values dimensions and the fundamental dimensions underlying social judgment (e.g., Abele & Wojciszke, 2007, 2013; Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2008; Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002), we aimed to go a step further by investigating the relation between these dimensions of social judgment and specific structural elements in higher education, particularly the function of selection.

As argued by various researchers (Darnon, Dompnier, Delmas, Pulfrey, & Butera, 2009; Jury, Smeding, & Darnon, 2015; Smeding, Darnon, Souchal, Toczek-Capelle, & Butera, 2013), in the majority of the Western countries, higher education institutions aim not only to teach students skills and knowledge (i.e., the function of education), but also to select and classify people based on their competence or merit (i.e., the function of selection). Previous research in sociology (Bourdieu, Passeron, & Nice, 1990) and economics (Arrow, 1973) as well as current demographic analyses (OECD, 2014) support the idea that higher education institutions, through their different selection processes and a competitive distribution system used with respect to grades (Deutsch, 1979), have taken up the structuring role to detect those who, among the millions of students who enroll each year, are the best students and those who will occupy the most prestigious positions in the workplace. This selection function—the less competent people are selected out—creates a “struggle” for competence and renders students’ academic competences negatively interdependent. The chances of one’s success negatively depend on the chances of other students’ success. As a consequence, to succeed in such a system, one has to be not only competent, but also better than others (i.e., striving to demonstrate one’s competence). In other terms, succeeding in a highly selective academic system necessitates both competence and agency.

For more than five decades, competence and agency have been considered as referring to the same dimension in social judgment, namely the vertical dimension. Indeed, depending on the specific line of research, one can identify this dimension under the label agency (Abele and Wojciszke, 2007, 2013) or competence (Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002; Judd, James-Hawkins, Yzerbyt, & Kashima, 2005; Yzerbyt, Provost & Corneille, 2005).

Broadly, there is general agreement that these two concept-labels share a great similarity in meaning, communicating the motivation and the capacity of individuals to attain their objectives. Building on a suggestion by Abele, Cuddy, Judd and Yzerbyt, (2008), Carrier and colleagues (Carrier, Louvet, & Rohmer, 2014) provided preliminary evidence that agency and communion may in fact stress somehow different aspects of social judgment. As a matter of fact, by referring to a deployment of energy toward self-promotion, agency has a fundamentally dynamic character, distinguishing itself from the rather static character of competence, which appears as a set of resources having an instrumental value in attaining personal goals. This distinction is supported by the observed variation in the traits which are most often employed by the proponents of the “agency” and “competence” approaches (independent, determined, dominant, assertive - for agency; competent, capable, intelligent, efficient, skilful - for competence).

Drawing upon this distinction, we suggested that succeeding in a highly selective academic environment would indeed rely on the competence dimension, as a set of acquired skills and knowledge, but also on the agency dimension, as the motivated demonstration of this competence. In contrast, conceptualizing an academic environment in which the selection function is minimized would render the agency dimension less salient. Therefore, we expected that in the highly selective academic settings, the characteristics perceived as useful to succeed would integrate both competence and agency. However, we thought that in an exclusively formative academic system, by attenuating the impact of the selection function, the competence only, without deploying the agency dimension might be considered sufficient to succeed. Moreover, we argued that this distinction is important as it implies that the way we depict the success in the academic system may have an impact on the second dimension in social judgment (i.e., communion/warmth, Abele & Wojciszke, 2007; Fiske et al., 2002). This second dimension relates to what makes someone likable or unlikable, socially attractive or unattractive, and includes traits such as nice, likable, aggressive, and selfish. Furthermore, we suggested that whereas the competence dimension may imply an orthogonal relation with the warmth / communion dimension, the agentic dimension may describe a negative relation, particularly within a selective system rendering individuals’ academic competences negatively interdependent. In other words, an individual high in agency would be perceived as being low in warmth / communion.

Moreover, we suggested that the dynamics presented above may further impact students’ academic choices. We argued that this particular culture of an academic system focused on the selection function, in which the successful individuals may be perceived as low in warmth / communion, would have a deleterious effect on students’ academic choices. Specifically, we hypothesized that conceptualizing the academic environment as emphasizing the selection function as opposed to the formative function would lead students - and particularly female students – to make less profitable academic choices (e.g., courses that are less difficult and associated with lower status in the academic curriculum). Three studies were designed to test our predictions. In study 1, undergraduate students were asked to evaluate 11 master courses on two main criteria: perceived difficulty (e.g., The success rate in this course is very low) and perceived status (e.g., This course will considerably improve your chances to have a prestigious career). In study 2, a similar induction as the one used by Jury et al., (2015) depicted the mission endorsed by the academic system as focused either on ‘education’ or on ‘selection’ (e.g., “[psychology] teachers do their best, throughout their practices, to help students become psychologists” vs. “to identify the best students among you—those who deserve the most to become a psychologist”, Jury et al., 2015). The design also included a control group. The participants (i.e., undergraduate female students) were then asked to estimate the likelihood to enroll for the 11 courses evaluated in Study 1. Going a step further, in Study 3 we presented the participants with the same induction (selection versus education) and then asked them to evaluate the students who succeed in this academic setting on the competence, agency and warmth dimensions. Finally, as in Study 2, the participants had to estimate the likelihood to enroll for each of the 11 courses. We hypothesized that the participants would perceive the successful students as higher in agency and lower in warmth / communion in the ‘selection’ condition as compared to the ‘education’ condition, which would further mediate the effect of induction on students’ academic choices. The preliminary results are encouraging and suggest that the female students, and particularly those with relatively high grade point average, are less likely to enroll for highly difficult master courses when the academic system is depicted as focusing on the selection function as opposed to the education function. However, the hypothesized meditational process was not supported by our data, and further studies are needed to clarify the underlying mechanism of this effect.

Being able to conduct this research project during a seven-month period in Louvain represented a great opportunity for my research career. Indeed, having had the chance to benefit from Prof. Yzerbyt and his colleagues’ vast expertise in the field of social judgment gave me new and essential insights in the outcomes and future directions of the project. Moreover, I had the invaluable opportunity to start several collaborations with other members of the CECoS on new and exciting research ideas.

Finally, I would like to thank the European Association of Social Psychology for awarding me this grant, all the CECoS members for having made this stay so delightful, and Sibylle Classen for her kind assistance in the application process.


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