Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

Teenage Students Are Motivated by Prosocial Purpose

By Alex Shaw, Oren Shapira

Spring is now in full swing and that means that students’ favorite time of year is right around the corner. Once summer arrives they can finally kick back and enjoy some time by the pool as well as fun vacations with family and friends. For students, this time of year can certainly be exciting, but also extremely stressful. Many students are preparing for final exams, which they hope will turn out well so that they can get into their dream college or job. Working hard to succeed in the future can certainly bring your life a lot of purpose, but it can also be quite daunting. As students lock themselves in their rooms, struggling to memorize things like the difference between mitosis and meiosis, one question may come into their minds: Why do I need to know any of this? Although this question may seem a bit flippant, new research suggests that providing students with a purposeful answer to this question is extremely important if you want them to persist in their schoolwork.

Image: © 2005 KF

New work from NPP member Professor David Yeager and colleagues  (open PDF) suggests that imbuing learning with a prosocial purpose can be an important guide that helps students to care about learning and succeeding in school. Specifically, the authors hypothesized that children would be more likely to care about their education and learn if they thought learning promoted a  “self-transcendent purpose”—that is, if they believed that the things they learned impacted the world beyond the self. In the authors’ first study, they recruited seniors in high school. They asked these seniors to fill out scales that measured their academic self-control (for example, “I come to class prepared,” “I pay attention and resist distractions in class”) and the extent to which they thought of learning as having a self-transcendent purpose (for example, “I want to learn things that will help me make a positive impact on the world”). The authors found that those who reported more self-transcendent purpose in learning also reported a higher degree of academic self-control. Additionally, the authors followed up with these seniors to see how many of them actually enrolled in college after high school. They found that those who reported a higher sense of self-transcendent purpose in their learning were almost twice as likely to attend college than their peers who reported a lower sense of self-transcendence. Taken together, these results suggest that purpose may lead students to place a larger value on school and learning.

However, from this first study, it is unclear if purpose makes students care more about school or if those who care more about school are simply more likely to find purpose in learning. To address this concern, the authors ran a study in which they randomly assigned high school freshmen to receive a 30-minute intervention that either emphasized the importance of school to personal success (a control intervention) or emphasized that learning can be useful not only for personal successes, but also to promote prosocial purpose (a self-transcendent purpose intervention). Then, months later, they measured the students’ GPA in science and math courses. They found that those in the self-transcendent purpose condition had higher GPA in math and sciences courses than those in the control condition (.2 GPA points among those who had previously performed less well in math and science courses). Taken together these results suggest that purpose can be a powerful tool for motivating students to care about learning and succeed in their academic endeavors.

Of course, the importance of purpose extends well beyond the classroom; students aren’t the only ones who struggle to complete ostensibly boring tasks. Although our jobs can be rewarding at times, even the best jobs usually involve some parts that are just plain tedious. What can you do at such times? Obviously, if you think your labor is like that of Sisyphus, a mythical Greek figure who was sentenced to meaninglessly move a giant boulder up a hill only to have it roll back the next day, then of course you will be overwhelmed by your work—toil without purpose is torture. However, even the most seemingly menial task likely has the effect of making someone else’s life a little better or easier. Realizing the ways in which your work has purpose and contributes to making the world a better place can make even your heaviest burdens seem doable.

Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
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 & Well-Being

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