Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

Inside the Science of Purpose: David Yeager

By Oren Shapira

In our continuing series of monthly posts on the NPP blog called “Inside the Science of Purpose,” we get access to our NPP network members’ minds and discover how they bring purpose into both their research and their own lives.

This time we interviewed Professor David Yeager from The University of Texas at Austin.


Tell us in a few sentences about your NPP project.

In collaborative work with Marlone Henderson at The University of Texas and Sidney D’Mello at Notre Dame, we’re interested in the ways in which a purpose can contribute to self-regulation in academic settings.  We’re especially interested in exploring this among adolescents in middle school or high school and in the context of learning tasks that are not directly relevant or useful in and of themselves but that lay the groundwork for later knowledge acquisition.  It’s amazing that there is so little research on this even though the lion’s share of tasks in school are given to kids with no explanation for why they are useful.  School is full of “rites of passage” tasks—tasks that are tedious, repetitive, frustrating, but you have to do them.  Often there is no objective reason why the learning tasks are useful, as in the case of factoring trinomials or diagramming sentences.  We’re interested in the psychology of motivation in the context of such tasks.  How can you help a kid take a tedious or frustrating task seriously and attempt to truly learn from it, even when there is not a strong argument for why they should and when there are tempting alternatives available, such as goofing off on the Internet?

Professor David Yeager

Our hypothesis has been that if you can give adolescents a prosocial, self-transcendent purpose for working hard in school in general, then they may display greater self-regulation even when they don’t have a compelling reason to engage in a specific task in a specific class.  That is, if you can give teens a prosocial “why” for learning, one that impacts the world beyond the self, then they might find unpleasant schoolwork more bearable, and do what they need to do to be on the path for later knowledge acquisition.

So far, we have had some encouraging success.  We find that it’s possible to promote a self-transcendent purpose among teens through brief (20-30-minute) reading and writing exercises.  When this is done, teens show greater self-regulation in the face of temptations, they attempt to deeply learn from review materials, and they earn higher overall GPAs in their science and math classes many months later.  We’re now moving on to the study of other behaviors, including the decision to cheat on pointless practice problems vs. actually trying to learn from them.  We’re also examining these effects in other populations, including low-income, urban middle schools.

How do you think this research can contribute to the understanding of purpose?

Research on purpose has been difficult to carry out, because to date very few studies have been able to manipulate it experimentally.  Indeed, a purpose is highly personal, and likely the result of many months or years of introspection and feedback from valued adults or peers.  Yet we have been able to learn from recent advances in the psychology of behavior change—what Tim Wilson calls a “redirect” or what Greg Walton calls a “wise intervention”—to develop brief and theoretically precise manipulations that can edge teens closer to more prosocial purposes.  As a result, we’ve been able to begin to map out the behavioral consequences of purpose during adolescence.

Purpose is not something that has traditionally been studied in behavioral science. Do you think your work will help to make the subject more attractive and tractable for future researchers? Why?

What’s more important in life than a purpose? As noted, despite the importance of purpose, it’s been difficult to manipulate.  Yet, at least in our data—and in other people’s data too—we’re finding that interventions that move people in the direction of having more of a purpose can help address behaviors that many past efforts have been unsuccessful at doing.  Paying kids for doing their homework, with money or with cell phone minutes, had little discernable impact on their free choice behavior over time.  Yet in our research a brief, free writing exercise leading them to adopt more of a self-transcendent purpose could improve overall grades in the most potentially-boring classes.  Chris Hulleman and Judy Harackiewicz show similar findings.  In collaborative work with Chris Bryan, we are extending these effects to free-choice healthy eating among teens. Ultimately, I think the study of purpose is appealing because it’s undeniably an important part of the human experience—that much has always been true—but it’s also increasingly being shown to unlock self-regulatory mechanisms that might be more powerful than other ones documented in the literature, meaning that it may be a cost-efficient strategy to address pressing social issues.  It’s never been a better time to study purpose.

Please consider the times when you personally feel the strongest and most satisfying sense of purpose in your life.  What do you find most helpful in promoting those experiences?

For me it’s always been about opportunities to address inequalities affecting young people through rigorous experimentation.  I’m inspired by the tradition of classical theorists like Kurt Lewin and Urie Bronfenbrenner and contemporary scholars like Geoff Cohen who have shown that it’s possible to carry out research that both illuminates the causes of behavior and simultaneously addresses social problems. They’ve shown that you don’t have to compromise; high-impact work can both advance theory and do good.  

Thinking broadly about all of your research interests, if money were no issue, what is the study you would most want to run?

I think less about the impact of a single study—which will often end up as just one data point in a meta-analysis—and more about what we need in order to make a more sustained impact on the field. In my opinion at least, I think that behavioral science in general and social / developmental psychology in particular is under-utilized as a policy lever.  

I think at least two things would help.  First, the funding situation and publication incentives are such that behavioral scientists feel forced to use convenience samples and arbitrary dependent measures.  Experimental research in the tradition of Lewin’s cheap meats studies or Leventhal’s tetanus studies are far too rare, yet those studies stand the test of time.  Laboratory experimentation on self-reported attitudes of course have an important role in the development of theory, and I do some of this research too.  But it would be great to lower the barrier to field experimentation, assessing real-world behavioral DVs, but also allowing for the assessment of mechanisms through passive data such as social networks or mobile devices.  Currently, it can take years to get a single field study off the ground.  This is a major disincentive for young scholars.  In an era of big data, it would be good if there was a network or organization that provided easier access to large-scale behavioral data for experimental purposes (and I don’t think more MTurk data is the solution).

Second, and related to this, it would be good to occasionally consider how we might more systematically test our ideas in probability samples.  In public health, it is not uncommon to have a representative sample as the first study in a series of studies.  In political science and sociology, representative samples are sometimes a prerequisite for publication.  But in psychology, less than 1% of studies are tested in probability samples (in my count of JPSP papers over the last decade).  If we want to claim that our findings apply to “people”—which we want to do sometimes but not always—then occasionally we might consider testing our ideas in random samples that allow for generalizability.  Doing this may even increase the value of our research in the eyes of the public, and help us make the case for using the field’s insights in policy.  Such studies also naturally invite interdisciplinary collaboration.  The major issue of course is one of cost.  But the prompt here asked “if money were no object…”


Oren Shapira is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Prosocial Behavior

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