Research Library

Search over three decades of research on mindsets, including Mindset Scholars Network briefs and working papers, and other publications from Network studies and initiatives.


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Students from higher–socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds show a persistent advantage in academic outcomes over lower-SES students. It is possible that students’ beliefs about academic ability, or mindsets, play some role in contributing to these disparities. Data from a recent nationally representative sample of ninth-grade students in U.S. public schools provided evidence that higher SES was associated with fewer fixed beliefs about academic ability (a group difference of .22 standard deviations). Also, there was a negative association between a fixed mindset and grades that was similar regardless of a student’s SES. Finally, student mindsets were a significant but small factor in explaining the existing relationship between SES and achievement. Altogether, mindsets appear to be associated with socioeconomic circumstances and academic achievement; however, the vast majority of the existing socioeconomic achievement gap in the U.S. is likely driven by the root causes of inequality.

Immigrant adolescents are generally more ambitious but not as likely to achieve their career/occupational aspirations as their peers. The present study draws on self-discrepancy and social identity literatures to define and explore the role of mismatches between ethnic and aspiration-related ideal selves. In two samples recruited in Canada, 73% of immigrant adolescents aspired to a university-bound career (e.g., physician, engineer). As expected, adolescents reporting larger ethnic/ideal self-discrepancies were less engaged towards their aspiration (Sample 1, n = 73) and viewed school less favorably (Sample 2, n = 125). The present analyses suggest that actual/ideal self-discrepancies mediate these associations, thus extending prior findings and highlighting the role of self-discrepancies in immigrant adolescents’ experiences.

A growing amount of psychological research contributes to the understanding of complex social issues, including socioeconomic disparities in academic outcomes. At a basic level, several studies demonstrate the ways that socioeconomic resources and opportunities shape the identities of students during adolescence and young adulthood, particularly emphasizing how they imagine their lives in the future. These future identities, in turn, affect how students engage in school tasks and respond to academic difficulty. The implications of these basic insights connecting socioeconomic resources, identity, and academic outcomes are most meaningful when considered within various levels of social-contextual influence that surround students. A collection of studies demonstrates how peers, parents, teachers, and educational institutions as a whole can be targeted and leveraged to support student identities and outcomes. This deepened engagement with various levels of context can complement and advance the existing emphasis on individual-level intervention as a strategy to contribute to the progress of psychological science toward greater influence and significance.

A growing amount of psychological theory and evidence explains pathways between a young person’s socioeconomic background, their identity, and their achievement of academic and career goals. These models provide an important foundation to investigating life trajectories, which can be expanded in 3 specific ways. First, studies can explicitly consider the important role of other social factors that intersect and overlap with socioeconomic considerations, including those related to the experience of race-ethnicity and racism. They can also be expanded to more directly acknowledge the strengths and assets of students from nondominant groups. Last, more research can holistically investigate the connections between achievement goal pursuit and physical health. The current article highlights select empirical studies advancing the psychological study of socioeconomic opportunity in these ways. The article also includes implications for the study of identity and the development of not only interventions but also a reimagining of systemic and institutional support particularly for people who face multiple dimensions of barriers in pursuing opportunities.

By many accounts, young people from modest socioeconomic backgrounds who succeed in education and secure gainful employment should expect to experience better physical health as a result of their elevated social position. However, increasing evidence indicates that experiences of socioeconomic mobility may not accompany a health benefit but rather can lead to poorer physical health for some individuals. On certain indicators, adults who originated from disadvantaged backgrounds and achieved educational and economic success found themselves in worse health than their childhood peers who did not experience an upward socioeconomic trajectory. The current article organizes studies from three bodies of research that attempt to describe and explain the health costs of socioeconomic mobility. In addition, a novel framework builds upon the existing studies to articulate a common psychological process, centered on identity and immunology. Underutilized studies of identity provide a deeper understanding of the challenges associated with socioeconomic mobility and their consequences for inflammation and the immune system. The novel framework serves to bridge prior studies of socioeconomic status and health and also provides guidance to inform future studies. Finally, interventions to encourage socioeconomic mobility are considered, with an emphasis on provisions to include elements of social support that may lead to simultaneous positive effects on achievement and physical health.

Research in psychological and behavioral science has demonstrated the incredibly powerful role that psychological factors can play in helping encourage college student learning, success, and completion. In simple terms, psychological factors refer to considerations of how people subjectively experience any given task (e.g., assignment), situation (e.g., classroom), or institution (e.g., college). The core psychological question is whether these college contexts and practices convey to students that they are supported and likely to reach their goals or that they are unsupported and unlikely to reach their goals. Thoughtful consideration of how institutions convey these messages to students through their policies and practices has enormous consequences for student success.

Economic inequality can have a range of negative consequences for those in younger generations, particularly for those from lower-socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. Economists and psychologists, among other social scientists, have addressed this issue, but have proceeded largely in parallel. This Perspective outlines how these disciplines have proposed and provided empirical support for complementary theoretical models. Specifically, both disciplines emphasize that inequality weakens people’s belief in socioeconomic opportunity, thereby reducing the likelihood that low-SES young people will engage in behaviours that would improve their chances of upward mobility (for example, persisting in school or averting teenage pregnancy). In integrating the methods and techniques of economics and psychology, we offer a cohesive framework for considering this issue. When viewed as a whole, the interdisciplinary body of evidence presents a more complete and compelling framework than does either discipline alone. We use this unification to offer policy recommendations that would advance prospects for mobility among low-SES young people.

Despite facing daunting odds of academic success compared with their more socioeconomically advantaged peers, many students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds maintain high levels of academic motivation and persist in the face of difficulty. The researchers propose that for these students, academic persistence may hinge on their perceptions of socioeconomic mobility, or their general beliefs regarding whether or not socioeconomic mobility—a powerful academic motivator—can occur in their society. Specifically, low-SES students' desire to persist on a primary path to mobility (i.e., school) should remain strong if they believe that socioeconomic mobility can occur in their society. By contrast, those who believe that socioeconomic mobility generally does not occur should be less motivated to persist academically. One correlational and two experimental studies provide support for this hypothesis among low (but not high) SES high school and university students. Implications for future intervention efforts are discussed.

Psychological research on socioeconomic status (SES) has grown significantly over the past decade. In this article, the researchers build upon and integrate existing approaches to direct greater attention toward investigating the subjective meaning and value that people attach to understanding their own SES as an identity. Drawing from multiple areas of research on identity, the researchers suggest that even temporary shifts in how people construe their status-based identities predict changes in thought, affect, motivation, and behavior.
This novel focus is positioned to examine the psychological effects of status transitions (e.g., upward or downward mobility). Further, in initial empirical work, we introduce a new measure to assess uncertainty regarding one’s SES (i.e., status-based identity uncertainty) and offer evidence that greater uncertainty regarding one’s status-based identity is associated with lower individual well-being. In sum, we argue that insight from the literature on identity will both expand and serve to organize the burgeoning literature on the psychology of SES and, in so doing, reveal promising new directions for research.

Despite a growing number of brief, psychosocial interventions that improve academic achievement, little research investigates how to leverage parents during such efforts. The research team designed and tested a randomized controlled intervention targeting parents to influence important discussions about the future and responses to academic difficulty experienced by their adolescent during eighth grade in the United States. Experienced parents were recruited to convey the main messages of the intervention in a parent panel format. As expected, current parents who were randomly assigned to observe the parent panel subsequently planned to talk with their adolescents sooner about future opportunities and to respond more positively to experiences of academic difficulty than parents who were randomly assigned to a control group. The intervention also led to a significant increase in student grades, which was mediated by parents’ responses to academic difficulty.

The current longitudinal study draws on identity based and expectancy-value theories of motivation to explain the SES and mathematics and science course-taking relationship. This was done by gathering reports from students and their parents about their expectations, values, and future identities for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) topics beginning in middle school through age 20. Results showed that parental education predicted mathematics and science course taking in high school and college, and this relationship was partially mediated by students’ and parents’ future identity and motivational beliefs concerning mathematics and science. These findings suggest that psychological interventions may be useful for reducing social class gaps in STEM course taking, which has critical implications for the types of opportunities and careers available to students.

One contributing factor to gaps in academic achievement may be that some students perceive long-term educational goals, such as college, as financially out of reach, which can make schoolwork feel meaningless even several years before college. However, information that leads students to perceive that the financial path to college is open for them (i.e., need-based financial aid) can increase school motivation.

Two classroom-based field experiments expand this area of theory and research. Early adolescent students who were randomly assigned to receive information about need-based financial aid (open path condition) showed greater school motivation than those who were randomly assigned to a control condition, specifically if they came from low-asset households. In a second exploratory experiment, the open path effect was mediated by an increased likelihood that students envision a future career that includes college (education-dependent identity). Implications for the study of identity and disparities in academic achievement are discussed.

The extent to which socially-assigned and culturally mediated social identity affects health depends on contingencies of social identity that vary across and within populations in day-to-day life. These contingencies are structurally rooted and health damaging inasmuch as they activate physiological stress responses. They also have adverse effects on cognition and emotion, undermining self-confidence and diminishing academic performance. This impact reduces opportunities for social mobility, while ensuring those who "beat the odds" pay a physical price for their positive efforts. Recent applications of social identity theory toward closing racial, ethnic, and gender academic achievement gaps through changing features of educational settings, rather than individual students, have proved fruitful.

The researchers explicate an emergent framework, Jedi Public Health (JPH). JPH focuses on changing features of settings in everyday life, rather than individuals, to promote population health equity, a high priority, yet, elusive national public health objective. Policies and interventions to remove and replace discrediting cues in everyday settings hold promise for disrupting the repeated physiological stress process activation that fuels population health inequities with potentially wide application.

The current research proposes that the extent to which a university is perceived as actively supporting versus passively neglecting students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds can influence low-SES students’ academic motivation and self-concepts. In Experiments 1 and 2, low-SES students exposed to cues suggestive of an institution’s warmth toward socioeconomic diversity demonstrated greater academic efficacy, expectations, and implicit associations with high academic achievement compared with those exposed to cues indicating institutional chilliness. Exploring the phenomenology underlying these effects, Experiment 3 demonstrated that warmth cues led low-SES students to perceive their socioeconomic background as a better match with the rest of the student body and to perceive the university as more socioeconomically diverse than did chilliness cues.

Imagining one's possible future self can motivate action but whether motivational power resides more in positive or more in negative future identities is not clear. We predicted that motivational power resides not in these positive or negative future identities but in the fit between context and future self. We varied fit in four experiments by having students read about college as a success-likely or failure-likely context and then write about their desired or undesired possible future identities. Which aspect of the future self was motivating depended on context. Motivation was higher in success-likely contexts if desired rather than undesired possible futures came to mind and was higher in failure-likely contexts if undesired rather than desired possible futures come to mind.

A growing social psychological literature reveals that brief interventions can benefit disadvantaged students. We tested a key component of the theoretical assumption that interventions exert long-term effects because they initiate recursive processes. Focusing on how interventions alter students’ responses to specific situations over time, we conducted a follow-up lab study with students who participated in a difference-education intervention two years earlier. In the intervention, students learned how their social-class backgrounds matter in college (Stephens, Hamedani, & Destin, 2014). The follow-up study assessed participants’ behavioral and hormonal responses to stressful college situations. We found that all difference-education versus control participants more frequently discussed their backgrounds in a speech, indicating they retained the understanding of how their backgrounds matter. Moreover, first-generation participants (i.e., whose parents do not have four-year degrees) in the difference-education versus control condition showed greater physiological thriving (i.e., anabolic balance), suggesting they experienced their working-class backgrounds as a strength.

An intervention designed to reduce the gap between first- and continuing-generation college students used senior students' real-life stories to illustrate how students' diverse backgrounds can shape what they experience in college. The intervention eliminated the social-class achievement gap by increasing first generation students' tendency to seek out college resources, improving their GPAs.

Children from families with fewer assets may lower their expectations for school success and plan to engage in less effort in school because the path to achieving their desired possible selves appears closed. To test this hypothesis, the authors examined the impact of experimentally manipulating beliefs about college as either ‘‘closed’’ (expensive) or ‘‘open’’ (can be paid for with need based financial aid) among low-income early adolescents. Adolescents assigned to an open-path condition expected higher grades than those assigned to a closed-path condition and planned to spend more time on homework than those assigned to a no-prime control condition.