How Focusing on Individual Achievement Favors the Upper Class

I want you to think about two college athletes: Alex and Ryan. Alex is the fastest runner on the cross-country team, while Ryan is considered the best on the basketball team. Who do you think is more athletic? Who is a better player?

These questions may seem like either a trick or impossible to answer: “Cross-country running and basketball are totally different sports!” you might say. “Each sport has unique standards for what constitutes being a ‘good’ athlete.”

Indeed, when we think about what makes someone a successful and effective cross-country runner, we often think of someone who can perform well as an individual: for example, someone who keeps their head down and focuses on running as fast as they can to achieve their best personal race time. In contrast, when we think about a successful basketball player, we’re more likely to think of someone who can perform well as part of a team, like someone who can skillfully pass the ball back and forth with their teammates to move the ball down the court.

It makes intuitive sense that we would measure athletic skill differentially based on whether it’s an individual or team sport. But we’re not always as sensitive in adjusting how we measure what is good. In the realm of academic achievement, we often apply a universal standard. Using individual metrics (like GPA) or standardized exam scores (like the ACT or SAT), we determine whether a student is performing well or poorly based on individual measures.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In other cultures, people sometimes use a very different standard of achievement: how well people work together.

In the United States, we often take for granted that the best or right way to assess people’s skills and abilities is through individual standards of achievement. In essence, we assess all people as though they were cross-country runners, when many might actually be basketball players—or soccer players, or football players, or a whole host of players from different sports!

It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, in other cultures, people sometimes use a very different standard of achievement: how well people work together.

Building upon this idea, Nicole Stephens, Sarah Townsend, and I investigated whether how we assess achievement—as individuals or as we work together in groups—might help to explain a key disparity that has been documented time and again: the social class achievement gap in the U.S.

By social class achievement gap, I mean evidence that lower-class individuals (i.e., people with high school–educated parents) have worse experiences and outcomes than their more advantaged higher-class counterparts (i.e., people with college-educated parents). Time and again, research has shown that students from lower-class contexts earn lower grades in college, drop out more, and, if they do make it through college, tend to earn less money than their higher-class counterparts.

Lower-class groups had more active and balanced discussions than did higher-class groups, and this helped to explain why they performed better on the task.

Across a series of four studies, we find that these social class achievement gaps really represent only half of the picture. While working individually tends to produce the typical social class achievement gaps documented in previous research, when working together people from lower-class contexts have unique strengths that can set them apart from their more advantaged higher-class counterparts.

Not only does working together improve the performance and experience of people from lower-class contexts, under certain circumstances, working together can even lead them to outperform groups of their more advantaged higher-class counterparts. Importantly, working together doesn’t have the same benefit for people from higher-class contexts, who have similar experiences and performance regardless of whether they work individually or together.

In two experiments, one online and one in-person in the lab, we assigned people from different social class contexts to work on a problem-solving task alone or with a partner from the same social class. Study participants read through a hypothetical survival scenario in which they were lost at sea and had fifteen items that varied in how helpful they were to their survival. The goal of the task was to rank the fifteen items in order of their importance to survival outcomes.

Pairs of people from lower-class contexts working together performed better on the survival task than lower-class individuals who worked on the task solo. People from lower-class contexts also reported that they felt like they were more able to perform up to their full potential when working together than they did while working individually.

Most strikingly, in the lab experiment, groups from lower-class contexts actually outperformed groups from higher-class contexts. To better understand why this might be the case, we had research assistants code videos of the pairs working together on the task to see what these groups were doing differently. It turns out that the lower-class groups had more active and balanced discussions—they took more turns in conversation—than did higher-class groups, and this helped to explain why they performed better on the task.

Student-athletes from lower-class backgrounds had more positive experiences on the types of teams where people work together—like basketball and soccer—and worse experiences on the individual-focused teams, such as running and swimming.

We also examined this phenomenon in two real-world settings: college sports teams and college course grades. As I noted earlier, group-based sports like basketball require working together—passing the ball back and forth to teammates to score points. Other sports are better characterized as a loose collection of individuals: each cross-country runner runs their own individual race, and then runners’ places are summed up to yield the team score. We exploited this natural variation in different kinds of sports teams to determine whether we’d see the same pattern we saw in the experiments. Indeed, student-athletes from lower-class backgrounds had more positive experiences on the types of teams where people work together—like basketball and soccer—and worse experiences on the individual-focused teams, such as running and swimming.

Finally, we looked at a college course that included assignments where people worked both individually and together in groups. Like a lot of previous research, we observed the typical social class achievement gap when people worked on individual assignments: students from lower-class backgrounds earned worse grades than higher-class students. A very different pattern emerged, however, when we looked at how groups performed on the group assignments. In fact, groups with more students from lower-class contexts actually performed better on group assignments than those with fewer.

Why is this the case? We know from a large body of research in social psychology that lower-class people are often guided by a more relational, interdependent understanding of themselves. I’ve previously written about how social class is a form of culture that shapes people’s understandings of themselves and their behavior. Critically, gateway institutions like higher education and professional workplaces also reflect divergent cultures—reflecting an individualistic ideal for students and employees that can feel uncomfortable and unnatural for people from lower-class backgrounds, who more often have interdependent understandings of themselves (e.g., preferring to be part of a group).

Groups with more students from lower-class contexts actually performed better on group assignments than those with fewer.

There are some key caveats to note. First, not all forms of working together are uniform. To obtain the benefits for people from lower-class contexts, the group context must actually require coordinating, synchronizing, and integrating each other’s inputs, as is the case when basketball players are coordinating and synchronizing their movements. If it’s a type of task that can be easily divided up into individual work, as is the case when individual runners complete their own race and simply add up their scores at the end, the interdependent strengths of working-class people are less likely to shine through.

What do we make of these findings? There are at least three clear takeaways for gateway institutions, like those of higher education and professional workplaces. In addition to the individual standards that are already in place, these institutions might consider promoting working together to create spaces that are inclusive to those coming from lower-class backgrounds. Secondly, to help improve outcomes on tasks where effective teamwork is required, institutions should consider recruiting and retaining social-class-diverse student bodies and workforces. Finally, beyond increasing social-class diversity, institutions might also consider putting trainings in place that help all people learn about how to be more effective team members.

While it’s clearly critical to document that social-class disparities exist and have meaningful consequences, our research suggests that we can’t forget to study the situations and circumstances that actually enable people from lower-class contexts to demonstrate their unique strengths. Understanding this can inform future interventions and policies aimed at promoting more equitable outcomes for people from lower-class contexts.Achievement is truly in the eye of the beholder. Creating more inclusive definitions of what it means to be competent and training people from different social-class contexts how to be effective at both individual and group tasks can help reduce social-class achievement gaps. We might even come to recognize that one style of achievement is not superior to the other, but simply different. We can also recognize that people from different class contexts bring different skills to the table.