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  • Sex Roles, Vol. 25, Nos. 9/10, 1991

    Strategies to Motivate Helpless and Mastery-Oriented Children: The Effect of Gender-Based Expectancies

    Ann K. Boggiano 2 and Marty Barrett

    Five studies examined potential determinants of gender differences in helpless- ness by investigating two major steps in the expectancy confirmation process. The first step, i.e., an examination of gender-based expectancies, was addressed in three studies in which subjects (parents and college students) read vignettes that included either masculine or feminine sex-linked tasks performed by help- less and mastery-oriented children. We hypothesized that across tasks subjects would consider a "helpless" approach toward achievement as stereotypic of girls and "mastery-oriented" behavior as stereotypic of boys. The next step of the expectancy confirmation process, and central question addressed here, centered on the proposed differential t reatment prescribed .['or children who performed inadequately on an academic activity, depending on whether these children's behaviors were consistent or inconsistent with stereotypic expecta- tions. The pattern of data obtained generally supported hypotheses that (1) under conditions in which children's behavior confirmed expectancies, i.e., girls acting helpless and boys showing mastery-oriented behaviors, supportive responses would be prescribed, whereas (2) when children's behavior violated expectancies, i.e., girls acting in a mastery-oriented manner and boys acting in a helpless manner, more controlling techniques would be used. These findings are discussed in terms of consequences of use of these different strategies to remedy helpless behaviors in children.

    1The authors are particularly grateful to Louise Silvern, Paget Gross, Diane N. Ruble, Bernadette Park, Charles M. Judd, and Deborah S. Main for their helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of this article. The research was supported in part by Grant No. 39197 from the National Institute of Mental Health to the first author.

    2To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of Psychology, Campus Box 345, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0345.


    0360-0025/91/1100-0487506.50/0 1991 Plenum Publishing Corporation

  • 488 Boggiano and Barrett

    Gender differences in the way that boys and girls approach achieve- ment situations have been a consistent finding in the educational and developmental literature (cf. Parsons, Kaczala, & Meece, 1982; Solomon, 1982). Girls have been found to blame their failure on lack of ability more frequently than boys and show more negative affect relative to boys after failure information (Deaux & Emswiller, 1974; Nicholls, 1975; Parsons, 1981; Parsons, Ruble, Hodges, & Small, 1976). In addition to gender-re- lated self-conceptions about ability, girls often exhibit more "learned help- lessness" than boys (Dweck, 1986; Dweck & Licht, 1980) by responding to failure or uncontrollable experiences in maladaptive ways (Maier & Selig- man, 1976). To illustrate, failure feedback on an achievement-related task produces deterioration of subsequent performance and motivation for girls, but not for boys (Dweck & Gilliard, 1975; Dweck & Goetz, 1978; however, see Eccles, Midgley, & Adler, 1984). In fact, upon receipt of failure feed- back, boys generally display mastery-oriented behaviors, i.e., their effort in- creases after failure, which often produces an increase in performance relative to baseline (Dweck & Reppucci, 1973).

    Although all children will experience some degree of failure during the school years, little is known about why a significant proportion of girls, and in particular, sex-typed females, exhibit a range of helpless responses, whereas boys generally manifest mastery-oriented behaviors following failure or experiences of low control (Baucom, 1983). This issue is of con- siderable significance as propensity toward helplessness might not only have negative and long-lasting implications for school achievement (Nolen- Hoeksema, Girgus, & Seligman, 1986), but is considered a major cause of depression in females (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1987; Peterson & Seligman, 1984; Radloff, 1975; Seligman, 1975).

    One way to conceptualize the emergence of differential responses of girls and boys to failure feedback may be in terms of expectancy confir- mation of socializing agents (Brophy & Good, 1974; Darley & Fazio, 1980; Jussim, 1986, Snyder, 1984). According to this perspective, expectations of adults may produce hypotheses or behaviors correspondent with these ex- pectancies (e.g., behaving aggressively toward a person believed to be "tough") which in turn may lead to behaviors on the part of the person for whom the expectancy is held (e.g., angry responses) that provide be- havioral confirmation for the initial, and perhaps highly invalid, expectancy (Darley & Gross, 1983; Snyder, Tanke, & Berscheid, 1977; Word, Zanna, & Cooper, 1974). Application of the expectancy confirmation model to gender differences in helplessness is assumed here to operate in the fol- lowing manner. The first step in the expectancy confirmation sequence would be a socializing agent's expectancies about helpless vs. mastery- oriented behaviors in boys and girls. More specifically, a perceiver is

  • Gender-Based Expectancies 489

    hypothesized to consider a "helpless" approach toward achievement fol- lowing failure as stereotypic of females, and "mastery-oriented" behavior as stereotypic of males. Confident, mastery-oriented responses are consis- tent with stereotypic conceptions of males who are deemed independent, whereas nonconfident, helpless responses are consistent with stereotypic conceptions of the dependent female (Ashmore & Tumia, 1980; Baucom & Danker-Brown, 1984; Deaux, 1976; Del Boca & Ashmore, 1980; Ruble, 1983; Ruble & Ruble, 1980; Spence, Deaux, & Helmreich, 1985; Spence, Helmreich, & Stapp, 1974).

    According to an expectancy confirmation formulation, the next step of the process and central question addressed here, centers on the dif- ferential treatment provided to children behaving in ways that are consis- tent or inconsistent with stereotypic expectations (see Condry & Condry, 1976; Condry, Condry, & Pogatshnik, 1983). According to several theoreti- cal analyses (Cooper, 1979; Jussim, 1986), children's behaviors violating expectations may lead to attempts to control the behaviors of those stu- dents by setting up a highly structured environment where activities are monitored carefully, in contrast to a more emotionally supportive environ- ment for students whose behaviors and outcomes are consistent with ex- pectations (Jussim, 1986). Thus, for example, a dependent, helpless girl or independent, master-oriented boy should be responded to with greater support than others whose behaviors are not consistent with stereotypic conceptions. Conversely, responses of socializing agents that are more power-oriented or coercive may be utilized in order to ensure control over the behaviors of the gender-inappropriate child, presumably because gender-inappropriate or expectancy disconfirming behaviors elicit negative feelings (Jussim, 1986) and are perceived to reflect maladjustment (Costrich, Feinstein, Kidder, Maracek, & Pascale, 1975). {To determine whether subjects would prescribe the use of controlling strategies under conditions in which negative attitudes would most likely be held (e.g., toward children intentionally displaying acting-out behaviors), a sample of subjects was provided with scenarios of children displaying mildly disrup- tive behaviors. The important factor was whether subjects were told that the children were "intentionally acting-out" or not. Subjects' mean ratings for use of controlling strategies were significantly higher for children described as intentionally acting-out as compared to children displaying the same behaviors but without the attribution implying that the behavior was purposeful [F(1, 47) = 4.29, p < .05; M = 5.0 vs. M = 4.1, respec- tively; 1-7 scale where 1 = not at all appropriate and 7 = very ap- propriate)].} Thus, although clearly socializing agents would prefer use of supportive over controlling strategies (Barrett & Boggiano, 1988), this analysis based on gender-appropriate behaviors of children would suggest

  • 490 Boggiano and Barrett

    Expectancies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . > Behav ior . . . . - . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . > Effects on child's Achievement

    Antecedents Soclalizer'e Behaviors Consequences (Based on previous findings)

    Effects of Coercive Techniques 1) reduced problem-solving sk i l l s ,

    creativity, and achievement 2) decreased motivation

    Gender-Role 3) increased susceptibility to stereotypes helplessness

    4i lowered porceptions of competence and self-esteem

    Behaviors chosen by socializing Agent Coercive vs. Supportive

    Interpretations of Behavior of Child

    Effects of SUDDortlve Techniuues Pralse/Success Feedback: 1) positive effect on boys, intrinsic

    motivation and performance 2) mixed effect on 9irls' intrinsic

    motivation and performance 3) mixed effect in reducing helplessness

    Effort-Outcome Covariation 1) may increase Internal locus of

    control 2) beneficial effect in reducing


    Fig. 1. Potential socializing agents' responses to a child's achievement-related failure as a function of gender-based stereotypes.

    (1) less coercive and more supportive treatment of helpless girls and mastery-oriented boys after failure, and (2) more coercive and less sup- portive treatment of gender-inappropriate types given the same perfor- mance, as depicted in Fig. 1.

    The present set of studies attempts to examine