The Context-Sensitive Power of Possible Selves
Methods: The predicted motivational effect of fit was tested by manipulating both of these factors separately between-subjects. First, accessible understanding of the college context was manipulated so that participants either considered college as being a situation in which success is likely (most people do well) or a situation in which failure is likely (most people do not do as well as they had thought they would have given on their high school performance). In addition, accessible possible future identity was manipulated so that participants either considered positive expected possible selves over the college years or negative to-be-avoided possible selves over the school years. College students were randomly assigned to condition in three experiments (n = 213, n = 159, and n=122). Measures were self-reported planned effort, study time, and plans for studying for finals. Possible-selves were content-coded (Oyserman & Saltz, 1993).
Results: Analyses of variance and Cohen’s d effect size estimates showed significant possible-self by context interaction effects (d = .31, d = .38, d = .48). Students planned extra effort, study hours , and planned to start studying for finals sooner if accessible positive future identities were coupled with an interpretation of the college years as a success-likely context or accessible negative future identities were coupled with an interpretation of the college years as a failure-likely context. In contexts experienced as success-likely positive possible selves were more motivating, d = .32. In contexts experienced as failure-likely negative possible selves were more motivating, d = .40. And the reverse, if positive possible future identities were accessible success-likely context was more motivating, d = .30 while if negative possible future identities were accessible failure likely context was more motivating d=.38.
Conclusions and Implications: Neither context nor possible self alone is motivating but the fit between them is. Imagining one’s future self is sometimes but not always motivating because the way one thinks about one’s future self may or may not fit contextual cues about risk. Americans are often exhorted to think positive and to “shoot for the stars”, but this is not always a motivating perspective because risky contexts call for considering one’s feared or to-be-avoiding possible selves. Thinking about the self one does not want to become is motivating in risky contexts. In failure-likely contexts on the other hand, it is more motivating to consider how to avoid becoming like one’s feared possible selves and “make hay while the sun shines.”