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When I grow up, I will be …

Daphna Oyserman’s research explains why the imagined futures of young people matter for the actions taken in the present

Devil’s Night in Detroit, the eve before Halloween when youths traditionally tear up the town, got Daphna Oyserman thinking.

The USC faculty member had just arrived in nearby Ann Arbor for her doctoral studies at the University of Michigan. In quainter times, Devil’s Night tricks involved egging windows and toilet-papering trees. But by then — 1983 — pranks had escalated to fire-setting in parts of the city.

I wondered what the youths who were setting fires were imagining about their futures.

Daphna Oyserman

“I wondered what the youths who were setting fires were imagining about their futures,” Oyserman wrote in the author’s note of her new book, Pathways to Success Through Identity-Based Motivation (Oxford University Press).

“Surely they were not thinking something along the lines of ‘I will set a fire and this may ruin my life if I get caught in a felony and am jailed’ or ‘I will set a fire and someone might die in this fire; it will be on my conscience and forever change the person I become.’ ”

On the flip side, she wondered about the ones who did not partake. “Perhaps they had a particular way of imagining possibilities for their future selves that highlighted the risks of participating in Devil’s Night.”

The big questions

Daphna Oyserman,

Daphna Oyserman, Dean’s Professor of Psychology at USC Dornsife (Photo/Peter Zhaoyu Zhou)

For the next nearly three decades, Oyserman — Dean’s Professor of Psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and co-director of the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center, with a joint appointment at the USC Rossier School of Education and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism — has been researching these questions.

She started by considering how immediate situations (e.g., waiting at the bus stop, walking down the hall in school) influenced which social identities (e.g., student, son, Angeleno, Latino) come to mind and what these identities mean. For example, she wondered when does being a student imply a desired future as an A student, a feared future as a dropout, versus not much of anything? In doing so, she distinguished “social facts” like being a student, being a son or daughter, having a biological gender, from what these facts were taken to mean in the moment and hence what they might imply for behavior. She realized that just because an identity comes to mind doesn’t mean one must do anything about it.

That is, identities motivate behavior if they seem to require action, not otherwise.

Outlining the process

Pathways to Success outlines this process of “identity-based motivation,” including both Oyserman’s findings from research and the intervention program on which it is based. The studies were conducted in various countries; the intervention was conducted in Detroit. The book shows how to translate the intervention to various settings, age groups and cultures.

Identity-based motivation has three core parts: an identity must come to mind and seem relevant to current possibilities for action in the moment, creating a feeling that the time to act is now.

Though Americans often assume that it is always good to focus on the positive, Oyserman found positive imagined future selves do not necessarily result in taking early enough and sustained enough action.

Instead, positive selves must be combined with something else to create both an impetus for action and resilience.

Across studies, students with strategies linked to their future self-images attained better academic outcomes. Their future self-images could be either positive (desired) or negative (to-be-avoided) ones — what mattered was the link to strategies. Compared to youth from families with higher socioeconomic status, youth from working-class backgrounds did not lack for positive future images of themselves — what they lacked were strategies.

Having strategies means that when a future self-image comes to mind so does a needed action. She then found two other ways that future self-images can cue the need to act now. First, students were more likely to take action if the future self felt close and linked to the present. Second, they were more likely to take action if difficulties doing so were experienced as evidence for the importance of attaining the future self. Just as in sports, a “no pain, no gain” approach implies that important goals are worth the effort.

“It is not enough to complete one homework assignment or stay after class just once,” Oyserman said. “If the possible self rarely comes to mind, mostly feels too far away to matter or if difficulties working on it are interpreted as implying that it is impossible rather than important to attain, this sustained pattern of engagement is unlikely to occur.”

High aspirations

Most students, including those at risk of failing, want to do well in school, she said.

“They have high aspirations, but often fail to notice that now is the time to take action to attain their desired and avoid their undesired future selves,” she said.

She synthesized the research into an intervention she called School-to-Jobs (STJ), setting in motion a process by which students would notice educational opportunities even when, and especially when, it felt difficult or they experienced failure.

STJ is a set of activities that are provided twice weekly for a total of 12 sessions, which end prior to the end of the first marking period. In sessions, students produce something. They can then see what everyone else has also done. The role of the teacher is not to lecture but rather to guide students. The W. T. Grant Foundation and the National Institutes of Health funded development and testing of STJ, first as an after-school program and then as an in-school program.

Putting it on the page

When Oxford University Press approached Oyserman about writing a book, she recognized how much it could help. The book explains the basic research and how the intervention was developed and tested. It also includes the STJ manual as well as a set of principles that must be preserved in order to make relevant changes.

The goal is to keep testing and simplifying so that the positive effects of identity-based motivation can be provided to teachers.

Daphna Oyserman

The work is far from over. Last summer, Oyserman spent time in Singapore, consulting with the nation-state as it prepared to provide STJ nationally. A Singaporean delegation visited the University Park Campus in January for a follow-up. This fall, Oyserman will be funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Educational Studies to develop and test a teacher-led, teacher-trained version of the STJ intervention in Chicago public schools.

“The goal is to keep testing and simplifying so that the positive effects of identity-based motivation can be provided to teachers,” Oyserman said, “and through teachers to students.”

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