Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Value of Having A Transcendent Purpose for Learning

School is the ultimate marshmallow test.  I’m sure you all remember Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test in which an experimenter gives a child one marshmallow and leaves the room saying that the child will get two marshmallows if he or she doesn’t eat the marshmallow while the experimenter is out.  Resisting the temptation to eat one marshmallow is taken as a measure of self-control.
School requires doing lots of things in the short-term that are less fun than what you could be doing, but lead to better long-term outcomes.  Studying for an exam is less fun than watching YouTube videos or playing video games.  But, people who get a college education typically make more money and have more satisfying careers than those whose education stops at high school.
A paper by David Yeager, Marlone Henderson, David Paunesku, Gregory Walton, Sidney D’Mello, Brian Spitzer, and Angela Duckworth in the October, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explored motivations that would focus students on schoolwork rather than tempting alternatives. 
These researchers distinguish between two kinds of motivations:  self-interested and self-transcendent.  Almost every student has a self-interested motive for education.  They want to learn to make themselves smarter or to help them get a job.  Only a subset of students, though, has a self-transcendent motive in which they also want their education to allow them to help make the broader world a better place and to help others.  The question is whether this added “purpose” would influence students’ motivation to study.
In a field study, over 1,000 high-school seniors from a low SES background were studied.  These students were all planning to go to college the following fall.  The participants were given questionnaires to assess whether they had a self-transcendent motive for their education, or just a self-interested motive.  They were also asked about other motivations for going to college like extrinsic motivations such as being able to move out of their parents house or to make new friends.  Participants filled out a self-control measure that examined their perceptions of how well they control their behavior.  They participated in a task in which they had the chance to either do math problems (which they were told would strengthen their basic skills and help them academically) or to do something tempting like watch videos or play a video game.  Finally, the experimenters measured how many of these students were enrolled in college the next fall. 
Having a transcendent purpose for their learning predicted participants’ scores on the self-control measures.  It also predicted the likelihood that students would do math problems rather than watch videos or play a game.  Finally, the more that students had a purpose, the more likely they were to be enrolled in college in the Fall. 
Of course, it is hard to draw strong conclusions just based on a correlational field study like this.  In a second study, ninth-grade students were given an exercise to get them to think about having a broader purpose to their education.  This exercise had them write about how their education in high school would allow them to help others and make the world a better place.  A control group wrote about differences between middle school and high school.  The researchers then measured the students’ grades in science and math classes at the end of the term.  The students who did the purpose intervention had higher grades at the end of the term than those who did the control manipulation.  This manipulation was most effective for the students with the lowest GPA before the intervention was done.
Two other studies used college students.  These studies encouraged participants to develop a purpose for their education.  One study demonstrated that participants spent more time on study questions if they were told to think about the transcendent purpose for their education than if they were not.  A second study found that students were better able to resist tempting alternatives to work when they thought about the transcendent purpose for their education than when they did not. 
What does all of this mean?
Success in school requires pushing off many enjoyable moments for the future in order to focus on learning.  Certainly, many learning activities are enjoyable.  But, learning new skills and facts also requires a lot of tedious and frustrating activities.  These desirable difficulties are a part of the learning process.  To stay motivated to engage in these tasks for the long-term, it is crucial to have a broader purpose for education.  It is not enough just to want a job or to make money.  It is also important to want to do things for others and to make the world a better place.  As humans, we find these transcendent goals highly motivating.
And, of course, this works for things beyond school.  Work is another aspect of life that can often be tedious and frustrating.  People who succeed in the workplace are also those people who see their work as having a higher calling to help others and to improve the world.