SAGE Center Forum on Social Psychological Interventions

Phillip J. Ehret

On November 3, 2014, the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara brought together three scholars to both present their research and discuss the continuing growth of social psychological interventions. The day-long event opened with a brief overview by forum organizer David Sherman of UCSB, and presentations by Nicole Stephens of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and David Yeager of the University of Texas, Austin.

Stephens showcased her work in a talk titled, “Let’s talk about class: Closing the achievement gap for first-generation college students.” The research aimed at closing the achievement gap for first-generation college students by exposing them to discussions about social-class differences and how these differences can be personal strengths rather than deficits. In her research, first year students were invited to listen to a panel of junior and senior students talk about navigating college. Half of the participants listened to the panelists talk about how social class influenced how they navigated the challenges of college, and the other half talked about navigating the challenges without mentioning social class. After their first year in college, those first-generation college students who listened to the panelists discuss their social class and its impact on them had increased GPAs, were more likely to seek out campus resources (e.g., extra advising), and had reduced stress and anxiety compared to first-generation college students who only received advice on navigating college without any discussion of social class. Stephens emphasized the importance of this work as it shows that encouraging students, particularly first-generation students, to understand the influence of social class and perceive it as a personal strength can have important impacts in the classroom and beyond.

Nicole Stephens and David Yeager at the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, University of California, Santa Barbara

Yeager presented both his recent work, and also the challenges he and his collaborators face as they expand their interventions in a talk titled, “The psychology of scaling psychological interventions.” Using data collected at professional conferences, Yeager and his colleagues have found that when asking social scientists to evaluate either a more traditional educational intervention (e.g., curriculum reform, classroom redesign, outreach programs) compared to a small, brief psychological intervention, they preferred the more traditional intervention despite identical evidence of intervention efficacy. To advance theory and address skepticism, Yeager described a program of research of continued replications and scaling (see Yeager & Walton, 2011 “Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic” for continued discussion). He also pointed out the potential danger of scaling psychological interventions too quickly without adequate attention to a given intervention’s target population and context. Yeager introduced two other projects that will include nearly 300,000 students, with one being carried out at 100 high schools and the other at 12 colleges. This work will allow for a systematic investigation of moderators and important boundary conditions of interventions, a key step to being able to scale psychological interventions successfully.

The event concluded with a final talk later in the day by Tim Wilson, a visiting SAGE scholar from the University of Virginia, where he demonstrated both with his own and others’ research the power of the personal narrative, in a talk titled “Redirect: Changing people’s behavior by changing their stories.” Personal narratives, how individuals come to understand themselves, and how this understanding can direct attitudes and behaviors, is proposed as a central mechanism to understand a wide variety of social psychological interventions (more can be read in his most recent book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change). After his presentation, Stephens, Yeager, and Wilson hosted a lively discussion about the utility and future of social psychological interventions. In a culmination of the day’s discussions, the speakers coalesced around several predictions and hopes for the continued growth of social psychological interventions:

  1. There will be a persistent focus of research and theorizing on how these interventions work. Yeager emphasized this point, highlighting that despite numerous examples of highly effective small interventions, there is still bias against these approaches compared to more traditional intervention approaches being used in education for example. By better understanding how these interventions work, and replicating their effects, social psychological interventions can continue to grow their potential and appeal to those outside of social psychology.
  2. There will be less of a distinction between theoretical and applied psychology. Stephens and Yeager discussed how these social psychological interventions are more than application of laboratory studies to the real world. Instead, they are an integral part of the theory development. These field studies provide an opportunity to extend laboratory work in the context in which it is hoped the theory actually applies, addressing questions about the psychology of change that can only be observed by long-term examinations of individuals in their contexts. These interventions provide more than a test of the theory, but they can also serve to inform theory and lead to greater insight into the mechanisms underlying interventions’ effects.
  3. There will be interdisciplinary research teams. Yeager noted that this intervention work demonstrates that successful social psychological interventions incorporate people and their situation, as well as people and their available resources. Outside of the controlled laboratory, there are many important factors that will be beyond the expertise of a social psychologist (e.g., available educational resources, policies directing classroom curriculum), and a successful research team will need to include those with expertise in other domains such as policy and sociology.

There will be a need for theoretically trained social context experts. Wilson raised the important point that psychology is one of the few scientific fields that does not train individuals to translate theoretical work to application the real world. Going beyond the laboratory requires a specialized set of skills that range from navigating administration and policy, to working with a diverse population of practitioners. Successful interventions require more than giving a worksheet or a message to a group of individuals, and it will be necessary to have individuals who are trained in theory and also the application of that theory in the desired real world contexts to be able to scale and appropriately implement these interventions.

Tim Wilson, David Yeager, and Nicole Stephens during Q&A at the SAGE Center Forum on Interventions, November 3, 2014

As the use of social psychological interventions as theoretical tools and practical solutions spreads, discussions such as those held during this SAGE event will be necessary to continue developing this promising research approach.


About the Author: Phillip J. Ehret is a Ph.D. student in social psychology at the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at UCSB.

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