When I was applying for college, a high school counselor told me that Northwestern would be too selective and expensive to consider. I often think about how that type of discouraging message could dramatically affect a person’s life.
Fortunately, my family reminded me of my qualifications and the support available to me. But we can all think of a time when someone said something to us that affected us deeply, perhaps even changing the course of our lives. Messages can build us up or tear us down. They resonate, especially when they strike at the core of our identity, shaping our impressionable understanding of who we are and who we might become.
In my multidisciplinary psychosocial lab at Northwestern, we seek to discover the types of messages that make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. We study how social forces such as peers, parents, teachers and financial resources shape the academic experiences and life paths of young people. The right message from these sources at the right time can change how someone feels about themself and transform the type of education and life that they might envision and pursue.
We have found three types of messages to be especially influential. First, people need to be shown that there is a path to achieve their goals. This could mean growing up in an environment where resources are available or having someone tell you about an accessible support system. In our social psychological experiments, bringing these types of resources to mind opens possibilities for young people in ways that not only expand their dreams but also inspire them to put in the necessary work. For example, sharing information about need-based financial aid increases the likelihood that middle school students imagine futures that include college; subsequently, they dedicate more time to schoolwork.
Second, people need to be shown that their identities have value. All too often, people receive subtle or overt messages that their background, community or culture is a “problem” to overcome. Our experiments show that recognizing the ways someone’s background has contributed to their strengths bolsters their sense of self-worth and their drive to persist when they encounter challenges.
Finally, it is essential to be reminded of the importance of social relationships. Growing evidence shows that constantly pushing to overcome barriers — without making space for rest, healthy relationships, community and joy — can harm our short- and long-term physical health. Our research shows that being reminded to hold on to the important people in our lives as we work toward goals reduces the dangerous consequences of stress, such as inflammation, which is a precursor for chronic disease development.
Because of persistent forces like racism, segregation and other forms of oppression, some people and groups are bombarded with messages that attack their worth and humanity while others receive overwhelmingly positive reinforcement. These different experiences can have dramatic effects on whether or not people are able to reach their goals later in life. So, while attention to everyday interactions can make a difference, systemic efforts — such as increasing funding for access to higher education — remain necessary to strike at the root of inequality.
Mesmin Destin ’05 is an associate professor of psychology at the Weinberg College of Arts Sciences and of human development and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy. He’s also a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.