In Praise of Social Psychology

When I was in college, I studied cognitive science. Then, I went on to graduate school and studied cognitive psychology. My postdoctoral research fellowship focused on cognitive modeling, so naturally when I became Assistant Professor of Psychology, I affiliated with the cognitive group (now called “cog/cogneuro” to include cognitive neuroscience as well). In case you’re now wondering what “cognitive” means, here’s a definition from “of or relating to the mental processes of perception, memory, judgment, and reasoning, as contrasted with emotional and volitional processes.”

To put it mildly, my intellectual passion has long been focused on scientific understanding of cognitive processes – like those listed in the first part of the definition above. This focus has served me well because cognitive processes are indeed critical to learning and, in turn, to my other passion – improving education.

However, in contrast to the cognitive emphasis of my first 10 years of post-secondary training, I want to highlight something I’ve keenly acknowledged over my last 15-20 years of more broad-based independent study, namely, that “emotional and volitional processes” (not to mention other non-cognitive processes) also play a big role in students’ learning. Because many of these processes are in the purview of social psychology, getting to know relevant social psychology research can significantly enhance our work as educators. (This is, of course, in addition to cognitive psychology research, my first intellectual love, which is highly beneficial to educators, too!)

For an excellent and eminently readable survey of social psychology research on motivation, I highly recommend the book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D.. Below are a few of my favorite excerpts from her book to encourage you to read it. At the same time, these excerpts give me – a formally trained cognitive psychologist – the  opportunity to make several points in praise of social psychology research. These excerpts, just like social psychology research in general, provide:

  • Super cool empirical results with direct implications for education
  • Surprisingly large effects on student behavior (driven by relatively modest interventions)
  • Strong capacity to bust deeply held myths about teaching and learning

Super cool empirical results with direct implications for education

Throughout her book, Grant Halvorson describes social psychology research conducted in real-world educational settings. It’s wonderful to read how social psychology concepts like choice and optimism can have direct impact on educational outcomes we care about. I’ll share two excerpts. The first is drawn from chapter 5 “Goals Can Make You Happy” and involves elementary school children getting greater confidence and higher scores in math.

Take for example one study in which psychologists Diana Cordova and Mark Lepper gave young children the feeling of choice in a learning game. … Cordova and Lepper gave students a computer math learning program, with a science-fiction theme. The program was designed to teach them about mathematical order of operations. So in this instance, as is usually the case with most classroom activities, what was learned was determined for the child, without any freedom of choice. However, some students were offered choices of “instructionally irrelevant” aspects of the learning activity. In the feeling-of-choice condition, students got to choose the icon that represented them in the computer game from a set of four options. They got to name their spaceship. They were also able to choose the icon representing their alien enemy and to name the alien’s spaceship. The students in the no-choice condition played the same game, except the icons and names were chosen for them by the computer.

Cordova and Lepper found that in the feeling-of-choice condition, students liked the game much more and were far more likely to be willing to stay after class to continue playing, even though it meant giving up valuable recess time. The children who experienced choice, even though the choice was completely irrelevant to what they were learning, also used more strategic moves and scored significantly higher on a subsequent math test measuring what they had learned. They reported greater confidence in their own ability and said that they would enjoy a more challenging version of the game in the future. Creating a feeling of choice, even when the choices aren’t particularly meaningful, satisfies our need for autonomy and nurtures our intrinsic motivation, creating both a far better experience and a far superior performance. Pp. 116-117.

This next excerpt involves college freshman and demonstrates that a social psychology intervention can lead to higher GPA. This is just another great example of social psychology research having direct implications for education.

The difference between realistic and unrealistic optimism was nicely demonstrated in a study of incoming college freshmen. The researchers measured the students’ optimism when they arrived on campus, and found that many were strongly optimistic but not particularly realistic. Half of those high in optimism were given a special intervention, called attributional retraining. “Attributions” are the explanations we come up with for our successes and failures–what we believe to be the underlying causes. In the retraining, the students were taught that it’s better to attribute your performance to how much effort you put in and which strategies you use, rather than to how smart or talented you are. The researchers also explained that even ability-related performance (like math skill) is changeable and will improve over time with learning. This intervention turned the unrealistic optimists into realistic optimists, who became confident in their ability to make success happen, rather than simply assuming that it would.

The results of the retraining were remarkable. Those highly optimistic students who received attributional retraining completed their first year with a GPA average equivalent to a B, compared to a C average among highly optimistic students who received no training! These results, and others like it, show that it’s a very good idea to be optimistic about your future, so long as you understand that your actions are directly responsible for making success a reality. p. 203

Surprisingly large effects on student behavior (driven by relatively modest interventions)

In chapter 9, Grant Halvorson describes the power of implementation intentions, a social psychology intervention that involves the simple act of deciding (and then jotting down) when and where you intend to complete a given task. For example, imagine you are a student with the optional task of writing an essay. If you want to double your likelihood of actually doing it (yes, I said double; I could have said more than double based on research cited in this book!), take a moment and try an implementation intention, i.e., simply ask yourself exactly when and where you will write the essay and then jot down your answers on a slip of paper. You don’t even have to keep the paper; this simple and quick intervention does its work regardless!

Here’s an excerpt from the book, where Grant Halvorson describes her own study investigating implementation intentions’ surprisingly large effect on student behavior. Read on: this social psychology research is good stuff!

…we decided to really put implementation intentions to the test, by using them on a group of people notorious for the lack of discipline and self-control: tenth-graders on summer break. These were students who were going to be taking the PSAT test in the fall, and they all had the goal of studying for it over their summer months. In May, we gave the students a book of ten PSAT practice tests and told them that we would collect the book back when they returned to school in September. Half of the students were also asked to decide when and where they would work on the practice problems over the summer (e.g., “After breakfast on weekdays in my room.”) The students did not get any reminders of any kind from us over the summer–they didn’t even get to keep the piece of paper they had written their plan on. After collecting the books from them in September, we found that nonplanners completed an average of 100 practice problems. Planners, on the other hand, completed a staggering 250 problems! Once again performance more than doubled, even though that performance was stretched out over the course of an entire summer. All this from an intervention that took little more than a moment of the student’s time. (pp. 174-5)

Strong capacity to bust deeply held myths about teaching and learning

If you give feedback under the belief that (a) it’s best to soften the blow when discussing poor performance or (b) all positive feedback is helpful for student motivation, you’re in for an awakening thanks to social psychology research. In chapter 13 “Give the Right Feedback”, Grant Halvorson provides five research-based rules for how to give feedback in a way that is honest and motivating. She illustrates her rules with concrete scenarios and sample phrasings that demonstrate the rules’ application to real world situations: “Instead of saying: … Say: …”. This concreteness is especially helpful because enacting the rules sometimes requires reversing our commonly held, but counter-productive, beliefs about feedback. Speaking of reversing misconceptions, I also like the fact that this chapter emphasizes something that many other treatments of feedback don’t: we may think that positive feedback always leads to greater motivation and desired behaviors, but paying attention to how we give positive (not just negative) feedback is very important to outcomes.

I am tempted to insert as an excerpt the entire chapter 13 right here, but that would mean a lot of typing, let alone pushing copyright. Instead, I’ll hope that by now I’ve given you enough reason to get the book yourself so you can read the whole thing.

In sum: social psychology rocks! (And that’s coming from a cognitive psychologist)

If you do read Grant Halvorson’s book (or other research from social psychology), I think you’ll find, as I have, that this kind of research has a lot to offer as we seek to improve our teaching and instructional designs. I’m certainly an advocate for leveraging cognitive and social psychology research to foster more effective, more deliberate instruction. After reading this post, I hope you are too.

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