Mesmin Destin


Hearing that their identity offers special skills or traits can boost youths’ self-esteem and increase their persistence.

WHEN MESMIN DESTIN WAS 16 years old, he was getting straight As at his college prep school and feeling good about his future. But when he told his guidance counselor that he hoped to study biology, piano, or psychology at Northwestern University, the response was underwhelming.

“He told me it would cost a lot of money and they don’t let many people in,” Destin said during a TEDxChicago talk. “That was pretty much the end of the conversation.”

Pondering this interaction, he began thinking about how his experience compared with what others might be going through. His family was supportive, and he ultimately followed the path he envisioned, becoming a social psychologist. But what about those who weren’t so sure about their direction in life? Or who didn’t have the resources they needed?

Now Destin seeks to answer those questions as an associate professor of psychology and of human development and social policy. Also a fellow with Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, Destin studies how the timing and delivery of messages can influence young people’s lives and trajectories, for better or for worse. His revealing experiments over the last 15 years have asked whether messages can change people’s lives by expanding their identities.

Destin explains that the messages themselves can be embedded into how we teach important and challenging topics in such areas as science, language, math, the arts, and history. They can also be central to mentoring, enrichment programs, and other activities outside the classroom.

“People are constantly made to feel smaller than they might otherwise by the people in the systems around them,” Destin says. “This holds us back from seeing and reaching where we might be. But key messages at critical moments can keep people inspired by possibility.” His research on the impact of messaging has led him to develop the SESP Leadership Institute and other initiatives centering on personal strengths.

Messages and opportunity

Can instilling a sense of opportunity change how children respond when asked what they see themselves doing in life?

The message: A teacher or counselor says something that opens possibilities, such as “College can cost a lot of money. But there’s this thing out there called need-based financial aid. There are resources and opportunities to help you get there. Tuition can be low or even free if you set yourself up to get to the right places.”

Destin’s findings: Children who hear a message of opportunity are 30 percent more likely to believe they could get into college than those hearing the message “here’s the cost of college, end of story,” according to the study “An Open Path to the Future: Perceived Financial Resources and School Motivation,” published in the Journal of Early Adolescence. A statement that opens possibilities will also change what the child does to get there. Destin’s work shows that after getting such a message, children are seven times more likely to complete and turn in an assignment.

Messages and identity

Can recognizing strengths reinforce a child’s identity and motivation to work toward a long-term goal?

The message: A teacher discusses identities, focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses. For example, people from low-income backgrounds or who are seen as “having less” may gain specific advantages from their experiences. These skills and perspectives can be key to contributing to school and society.

Destin’s findings: Hearing that their identity offers special skills or traits can boost youths’ self-esteem and increase their persistence. For example, juggling a job with caring for a younger sibling while a single mom works can help a child build time-managements skills. Just knowing this fact is beneficial. Children getting this message are almost 10 percent more likely to continue working amid school or homework challenges compared with those who didn’t get that message, according to “From Deficit to Benefit: Highlighting Lower-SES Students’ Background-Specific Strengths,” a 2021 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Messages and relationships

Can young adults improve their physical health by forming bonds with people who may share some of their identities, experiences, and backgrounds or by staying connected to home, family, and culture?

The message: In collaboration with health research labs, Destin’s team randomly provided young people with an encouraging message showing how to cultivate and maintain relationships while pursuing their goals. Others in the study received a message focused only on achievement.

Destin’s findings: Over the course of a year, an increased emphasis on connection and relationships led to a 25 percent decrease in inflammation, according to a 2021 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. As Destin notes, “Expanding identities and keeping them connected to close relationships can help young people find achievement and health at the same time.”