Someone recommended I read a paper by Profs. Daphna Oyserman and Mesmin Destin on a social psychological framework called Identity-Based Motivation (IBM). The model offers not only an explanation for poor educational outcomes among certain populations (especially for low-income black and Hispanic boys), but it also offers a modest but proven method for closing the gap between students’ desire to do well and actual academic attainment. Oyserman and Destin’s study hinges on a concept of identity that is both multifaceted, fluid, and contextual. They argue that when individuals encounters difficulties in school, they interpret those problems through the lenses of these identities. If the difficulty seems congruent with whatever identity happens to be salient in that context, such individuals view the difficulty as a challenge that can be surmounted. Inversely, if the difficulty is incongruent with a salient identity, the individual will conclude that a certain problem, behavior, or activity is “not for people like me,” and will not be motivated to work through the difficulty. (The authors give an example of a girl who might give up easily on math problems because “girls aren’t good at math.” It might not even occur to her to take certain measures to improve her skills, such as taking better notes in class, or asking the teacher for help afterward.)
The power of stereotypes might seem disheartening at first, but the reassuring thing about these sorts of identifications is that, as Oyserman and Destin point out, none of us possesses just a singular identity. A girl is never simply a girl. She might, more precisely, be a girl whose parents are from Mexico, who wants to play the violin, who hates school, who expects to get As and expects to be really popular, who wants to become a doctor, and who is afraid she may end up poor, unemployed, or homeless” (1005-6). Given that our self-concepts are so complex, different identities matter in different contexts. (It will matter less in Mexico that the girl’s parents are from there than it does here in the United States, for example.) And the upside to this is that it’s been proven that certain identities can be cued. A short and simple exercise of circling either singular or plural first-person pronouns in a passage will prime in readers either an individual or collective mindset.
With this knowledge, they designed a seven-week program for eighth graders in school districts that were predominantly black and Hispanic. The intervention aimed to instill in participants the awareness that they already had within themselves many skills which enable them to succeed; that they each had the potential to become a successful adult; and also that everyone faces obstacles and challenges on the road to their future selves. Over the course of the program, the students were encouraged to plan out the steps they could take to realize their future selves, which included coming up with solutions to problems they might face along the way. Even two years later, the students who participated in the program were shown to demonstrate measurable changes not only in their grades, but in their behavior in and out of school (a decrease in in-class disruptiveness, more time devoted to homework, fewer unexcused absences, etc.). Even more significantly, these changes held true even for students with low parental involvement.
This study really affirmed my hunch that being able to imagine and continually reimagine one’s future self beginning in adolescence, but especially through the teenage years, is fundamental to setting and reaching personal goals. Teenagers need a lot of motivation to resist their impulses and their very real desire for social connection and acceptance. What about parental pressure and social expectations? In my opinion, there is nothing more powerful than the urge to become the person you’ve always wanted to be to light that fire.