The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Contexts in Which "People Like Me" Succeed: Using the Identity-Based Motivation Theory to Connect Possible Selves and Behavior Among Diverse Adolescents

Sunday, January 20, 2013: 8:45 AM-10:30 AM
Marina 2 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
Cluster: Adolescent and Youth Development
Symposium Organizer:
Kristen Elmore, MSW, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
Social structural factors that drive inequalities in adolescents' outcomes (unequal levels of family income and assets, exposure to poor and failing schools, involvement in government institutions, connections to social capital, etc.) affect adolescents at least in part through their role in shaping the futures that students believe are possible for them and people like them (Oyserman, 2007, 2009). The presentations in this symposium will use an empirically-based theory, identity-based motivation,  to consider how contexts shape the degree to which achievement feels identity-congruent for adolescents. Whether or not educational and professional success is something that an individual believes is possible for "people like them" has important implications for how adolescents imagine their future, interpret their experiences, and select behaviors. 

The psychological theory of identity-based motivation (IBM) posits that people prefer to act in ways that feel identity-congruent. Furthermore, IBM argues that context shapes what people believe is possible for them in the future. This perspective predicts that people are sensitive to their environment and that context affects not only what possible selves (i.e., images of oneself in the future) are on one's mind, but also whether or not behaviors in line with those possible selves are likely to occur. Achievement-focused possible selves are necessary to guide goal-relevant behaviors, but simply having a goal does not always translate into successful goal attainment. This symposium will illustrate how the IBM theoretical perspective can both help us understand how adolescents' contexts shape how they view their future prospects and help us predict when these future goals will spur helpful behaviors in the present. Panelists will use this theoretical perspective to examine connections between adolescents' contexts, such as involvement in the justice system or growing up in homes with high vs. low levels of wealth, and adolescents' future goals through longitudinal surveys. Presenters will then support this survey findings with experimental research that explains when and how these future goals translate into goal-relevant action—essentially when contexts align with the way adolescents frame their goals. What is key across these discussions is that it is not only the context itself that matters for outcomes, but also how individuals interpret and make sense of that context.

This approach has real implications for how teachers and practitioners can shape contexts to benefit adolescents. A strength of the IBM theoretical approach lies in its prediction that while an adolescent's view of what is possible for oneself is powerful, it is also malleable. The symposium will close with a presentation of work in which relatively subtle cues in the school or home environment were manipulated to improve student's expectations for their academic outcomes and actually increase students' effort on academic tasks. By helping adolescents interpret difficulty along the way to their goals as a cue to invest more effort, rather than a sign that the goal is impossible for them, practitioners and teachers can bolster motivation. These small-scale interventions offer practical strategies for working with adolescents.

* noted as presenting author
Possible Selves and Risk Behavior Among Adolescents in Conflict with the Law in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
Kathryne B. Brewer, MSW, Columbia University; Michael J. MacKenzie, PhD, Columbia University; Robin E. Gearing, PhD, Columbia University; Craig S. Schwalbe, PhD, Columbia University; Rawan W. Ibrahim, PhD, Columbia University
The Context-Sensitive Power of Possible Selves
Daphna Oyserman, PhD, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; Mesmin Destin, PhD, Northwestern University
An Identity-Based Motivation Perspective On How Students Make Sense of Difficulty At School
Kristen Elmore, MSW, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; Sheida Novin, PhD, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; Daphna Oyserman, PhD, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
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