School uniforms may fuel rivalries, psychologists say

Philadelphia plan allows students to pick designs, colors

June 07, 2000|By William R. Macklin | William R. Macklin,KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - The new policy requiring Philadelphia public school students to wear uniforms has the backing of the mayor, the endorsement of many parents and teachers, and enough wiggle room to allow reluctant high schoolers to come up with their own designs and colors.

What it lacks is the informed opinion of psychologists who have studied uniforms and how they affect people. Some researchers caution that the plan to have different clothing schemes for different schools might lead to mean-spirited rivalries and even make targets of some students.

"It creates a walking billboard as to which school you attend," said Susan Fiske, a research psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who studies the ways people categorize each other, including their use of personal symbols such as uniforms.

`In-group favoritism'

"Almost all groups tend to see themselves as superior," Fiske said, "and so to the extent that uniforms encourage group identification, you increase `in-group' favoritism."

In other words, uniforms can make one group of students consider themselves better than other groups of students.

That's not necessarily bad, Fiske said, especially if the feeling of superiority is rooted in genuine school pride.

But uniforms, and even the "uniform look" sought by the school board, can become a catalyst for conflict, Fiske said. When added to other elements, including existing rivalries between students or schools, uniforms can create the perception that the places where one school's students hang out are off-limits to those who don't wear the same uniform.

There is also the possibility, she suggested, that children who attend schools that have a poor reputation may feel stigmatized by wearing a uniform associated with violence or lackluster academic performance.

Sound unlikely? Apparently not to some of the nation's social psychologists - researchers who study how personal attitudes and behaviors affect the larger society.

Though they are not in full agreement about the impact of uniforms on students (a leading Philadelphia psychologist dismissed them as "a superficial intervention"), they do have years of research showing that people typically use whatever tools they can - including uniforms - to underscore their differences.

Scott Plous, a researcher at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., cited a groundbreaking 1970 study by social psychologist Henry Tajfel in which a group of people was asked to estimate how many dots appeared on a page. Each subject was then designated either an "overcounter" or an "undercounter." The researchers found that the subjects tended to associate with each other based on their designations, apparently believing they shared a bond rooted in their tendency to over- or undercount dots.

In fact, Plous said, the researchers had made the designations at random. Simply being called one thing or another was enough to create divisions.

"It takes very little to trigger prejudices within people," he said. "Anything that accentuates differences, including uniforms, will have that effect."

That's not what the school board had in mind when it approved the policy recently. Board members say that by getting the district's 212,000 students out of street clothes and into uniforms, they hope to end personal rivalries based on the style or cost of clothing and cut down on the distraction of worrying about who is wearing what - and why. They have cited research and anecdotal evidence showing that uniforms can improve the learning environment in a school.

Christine James-Brown, chairwoman of the board's education committee, said that in devising the policy, board members reviewed the impact of uniforms in other school districts and in some city schools that have voluntary uniform standards, but they did not consult psychologists.

She said a task force set up to guide the implementation of the policy would monitor for potential problems and recommend changes, if necessary.

`We may need to tweak

"We need to know what adjustments need to be made," James-Brown said. "We may need to tweak the policy."

The task force also is to help schools decide what kinds of uniforms they will adopt. Here too, social psychologists have studied how different uniforms can stimulate differing behaviors.

Fiske cited a 1988 Cornell University study that found that athletic teams in dark uniforms played more aggressively and racked up the penalties to prove it. Teams that switched from light colors to darker ones were assessed more penalties.

She said the researchers concluded that the change occurred not only because the players considered themselves fiercer in dark colors but because officials tended to consider dark-clad players more aggressive.

Philadelphia school students have suggested that wearing uniforms may change how they view themselves, depriving them of some self-expression, creativity and imagination.

The board did not buy that argument.

"We didn't think this was an issue of psychological damage," James-Brown said.

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