Thoughts about a successful future encourage action in the face of challenge

Abstract

College environments can put lower socioeconomic status (SES) female students at particular risk of withdrawing during challenging academic situations. However, thinking about reaching a successful future identity may encourage these students to take action rather than withdraw. In a laboratory experiment, we tested the hypothesis that imagining a successful future identity would help lower SES female students to actively and successfully confront challenging tasks (i.e., a mock student–faculty interaction and difficult academic test). As predicted, when future identities were cued rather than past identities, lower SES female students demonstrated greater action readiness. Specifically, they showed more expansive body posture during the mock interaction and more attempts to complete the academic test, which led to better performance. The motivation to take action among higher SES and male students, who are at lower risk of vulnerability in college environments, was not influenced by future identities.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2

Notes

  1. 1.

    All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

  2. 2.

    In Study 1, we also recruited participants from all other income groups, in order to empirically validate our assumption that the effects would be stronger and more meaningful among students who were objectively lower SES and higher SES and parallel in their distance from the median income within the university context. As shown in supplemental materials, analyses including participants from other income groups supported our assumption and approach.

  3. 3.

    For Study 1, only one research assistant coded most videos, so a measure of inter-rater reliability could not be calculated. For Study 2, two coders rated most videos and reached strong agreement (κ = 0.73).

  4. 4.

    In an underpowered test of the interaction effect in ANCOVA, the overall interaction does not reach statistical significance, posture F(1, 74) = 2.00, p = .161; effort F(1, 81) = 3.38, p = .070.

  5. 5.

    Two coders reached strong agreement on ratings of expansive body posture (κ = 0.73) so we used ratings made by the research assistant who coded the complete set of videos in our analyses. Three videos encountered recording errors and could not be analyzed.

  6. 6.

    Results for questions attempted on the GRE are interpreted cautiously due to a violation of the assumption of homogeneity of variances in Study 2, Levene’s test F(7, 177) = 3.42, p = .002. However, results were consistent across Study 1, Study 2, and the test of moderated mediation using 5000 bootstrap samples.

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Correspondence to Mesmin Destin.

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Appendix: Sample student responses

Appendix: Sample student responses

Low SES/future identity

“I think others will be able to associate with me in a very different way. It sucks when your friends want to go on a ski trip or live in an apartment but you cannot because of money. In that regard I think that I would be able to do more things with friends and they will see this change. I think my living situation would improve because I can now take care of my parents and their health issues. I also think that it would be beneficial because no necessities would be lacking. I would obviously have more money, and with that comes trying new things, and venturing into different activities that actually do cost money. My children would be provided for and they would not have to worry about bills. I would experience less stress.”

Low SES/past identity

“During my freshman and sophomore year of high school I lived in a single-parent home with my mother and brother. My mom worked hard to create the image that we were doing fine when in reality we weren’t, because I had been accepted into a “decent” high school, I had several wants and needs that were not being met. Because I was going from home, where not too many people were well off or even decent, and to school, were most of the kids I associated with came from upper-middle class families, my mood and self-image pretty much sucked.”

High SES/future identity

“I’ve grown up in a family that has been generally well-off. Both of my parents are doctors so money is never really an issue. After I graduate though, I will have to manage my own finances. It might be difficult because I have never had to do so before on my own, except for managing my own birthday money or something like that. In terms of status, I want to be successful and have a respectable career to be the best person I can be. I want to prove to others my talents by achieving the best that I can. I really hope to become a doctor 1 day. That would make me”.

High SES/past identity

“Both my parents are tenured professors in the sciences, so we had plenty of money. I attended a boarding school that had a lot of wealthy kids, but also some students there on scholarship. My family’s money was only important insofar as it gave me the chance to attend that school. Once there, parents wealth didn’t affect much and didn’t really matter. The community was very tight, and I felt like everyone was judged based on their personality and merits, rather than on status.”

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Destin, M., Manzo, V.M. & Townsend, S.S.M. Thoughts about a successful future encourage action in the face of challenge. Motiv Emot 42, 321–333 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-017-9664-0

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Keywords

  • Future identity
  • Action readiness
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Student–faculty interactions