Psychological disengagement represents a coping mechanism that preserves a person's sense of self-worth in the face of negative feedback. For example, a student may discount a bad grade on an exam by framing it as an aberration, thereby preserving a 'good student' self-identity. Employing this coping mechanism has specific advantages, such as allowing the student to be persistent about achieving academic success despite receiving negative feedback (Nussbaum and Steele, 2007). On the other hand, psychological disengagement could facilitate a student framing academic success as irrelevant to their personal goals and future. Such students tend to perform poorly in school and suffer from increased dropout rates (reviewed by Stephan, Caudroit, Boiche, and Sarrazin, 2011). In contrast, students who are academically successful tend not to disengage, despite receiving a negative evaluation, and self-perceptions of their academic competency suffers accordingly. Understanding the mechanisms that encourages psychological disengagement therefore has important implications for academic success.
Self-Determination Theory proposes that the nature of academic motivation can have a significant impact on the prevalence and type of psychological disengagement. Students motivated by an intrinsic desire to be successful, who have integrated academic success into their value system or simply feel it is important to succeed academically, tend not to disengage (reviewed by Stephan, Caudroit, Boiche, and Sarrazin, 2011). In contrast, students who are not motivated (amotivated) to succeed academically tend to be chronically disengaged from the academic domain as a whole. The nature of the motivation for academic success therefore plays an important role in determining the likelihood of becoming psychologically disengaged from academic feedback.
Another factor that influences academic disengagement is race or ethnicity. Major and colleagues (1998) compared levels of disengagement between African-American and Caucasian (White) students after they took a test designed to measure their intellectual abilities. African-American students appear to be primed to protect themselves from negative academic feedback, by relying on a generalized assumption that academic tests in the United States are racially biased against them. This was revealed by the finding that the self-esteem of African-American students was higher than their White counterparts after a negative evaluation, but only if first primed to think about the possible racial bias in the test. This suggests that African-American students are chronically disengaged from academic evaluations.
This theme of a propensity to disengage academically along racial lines was expanded to include Hispanics by Schmader and colleagues (2001), who found that disengagement can take many forms. This study revealed that the self-esteem of White students depends on academic feedback and therefore poor academic performance is a reliable predictor of disengagement. In contrast, African-American students were found to rely on devaluing the academic domain as a whole, because they tend to assume U.S. schools are ethnically biased against them. Academic performance was therefore not found to be a good predictor of disengagement in this population. The propensity of Hispanic students to disengage seemed to lie in between these two extremes, such that discounting of situation-specific negative feedback predicted disengagement, as did poor academic performance. These results were confirmed in part by a more recent study in the Netherlands, which revealed academic performance was a reliable predictor of disengagement for White students only (Verkuyten and Brug, 2003).
The research results discussed here suggests that a racially diverse student body in a New York City college would rely on psychological disengagement in different ways and for different reasons, depending on which racial group they identify with. Academic performance would be a reliable predictor of disengagement for White, but not African-American students. Although Schmader and colleagues (2001) revealed that academic performance did predict disengagement for Hispanics, this was true only for students with low academic performance. Given the relatively small study sample utilized in the present study, we predict that academic achievement will not be a significant predictor of disengagement for Hispanics.
Our sample consisted of 354 undergraduate students (58.5% female) from John Jay College in New York City. Of these, 116 were African-American, 121 Hispanic, and 117 White descendents of Northern Europeans. The age of the study subjects ranged from 17 to 35 (M = 21.01). The relative contributions from the different academic rankings were 47 freshman, 88 sophomores, 121 juniors, and 96 seniors. No information was collected that could identify the…