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Given the increasing evidence that self-control influences academic performance, it is important to try to increase the self-control of children.
Of most interest are motivation strategies which have an immediate impact and don't require a substantial time investment (e.g. unlike meditation).
This study evaluated the impact of mental contrasting on academic performance. Mental contrasting is the act of visualizing a desired future, and then visualizing the obstacles that stand in the way of that future being realized.
The authors propose that imagining a desired future may increase levels of desire, but not motivation – given the ease with which the desired future is visualized, subconsciously, the brain may think that the goal is easy to achieve, and does not require an increase in motivation.
On the other hand, mental contrasting has been shown in adults to increase goal achievement, because, as the authors propose, it increases both desire and motivation, as a carrot is hung in-front, but so to is a hill that first requires climbing.
In this study, students who were assigned to the mental contrasting condition scored 20 to 35% higher on a set of quizzes than those in the positive visualization condition. Presumably, mental contrasting increased motivation, which caused the students to study more, which in turn caused them to score higher.
A key question that remains – does mental contrasting increase self-control, decrease task aversiveness, or both?
Hypothesis: That mentally contrasting a desired future with its present reality will better motivate improved academic performance than only imagining the desired future.
Study 1: 49 German, elementary school students were given two weeks to memorize the definitions of 15 English words. If they did well, they would receive a bag of candy (4+ correct for the 2nd graders, 7+ correct for the 3rd graders). They were asked how well they expected to do, and how motivated they felt.
All students were asked to write down the best thing about getting the required number of definitions correct and winning the prize.
Then, half the group was asked what behaviors could stand in the way of that image coming true.
The other half was asked the second best thing about getting the required number of definitions correct and winning the prize.
Results: Self-reported motivation had no significant effect on quiz performance, but self-reported expectations did. Students in the mental-contrasting condition scored 35% higher than students in positive-future condition.
Study 2: 63 fifth-grade students were given 4 days to memorize how to say hello in 10 different languages. If they got 5 or more words correct, they would receive $5.
Teachers were asked to assess the reading level and classroom behavior of the students.
The instructions for the students were the same as in study 1. They were asked how well they expected to do, how incentivezed they felt, to write down what would be the best thing about them completing the task successfully, and then being split into two conditions – mental-contrasting and positive-future.
Results: Self-reported motivation, classroom behavior, and self-reported expectations had no statistically significant effect on quiz performance, but reading level did. Students in the mental-contrasting condition scored 22% higher than students in positive-future condition.
Concerns: The samples were small (~100 students total).
Questions: Why was mental-contrasting more effective than positive-future? How does mental-contrasting relate to process visualization? Does the effectiveness of mental-contrasting increase if done longer, multiple times, or in combination with process visualization? Is mental-contrasting useful, neutral, or counter-productive with reach-goals, which, unlike with this study, are difficult or seemingly impossible?
Full study here.
Gollwitzer, A., Oettingen, G., Kirby, T. & Duckworth, A. L. (2011). Mental contrasting facilitates academic performance in school children. Motivation and Emotion, 35, 403-412.