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Mesmin Destin: Messages That Can Change a Child’s Life

January 19, 2023
Mesmin Destin
Mesmin Destin: "Can messages change people's lives by expanding their identities?"

Whether the timing is intentional or serendipitous, hearing certain messages at critical moments can offer hope and keep people inspired to work towards their goals, Northwestern University’s Mesmin Destin said during a TEDxChicago talk at the Harris Theater.

Destin, a social psychologist and professor of human development and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy, has long been fascinated by the kinds of messages that can influence the lives and paths of young people, for better or for worse. His powerful experiments over the last 15 years have asked, “can messages change people’s lives by expanding their identities, rather than shrinking them?”

His TEDxChicago talk, "How Our Interactions with People can Shape Their Futures," took listeners through the life of a fictitious person named Reggie to illustrate what happens when people receive messages of possibility from individuals, institutions, and society.

Reggie, age 11

His situation: Reggie has good friends loves his family. He is growing up in a modest apartment, but he appreciates beautiful homes and has an eye for how they're designed and constructed. And he likes math. He sees himself becoming an architect and designing homes all over the world. At the same time, he's starting to understand that if this is his path, it will take a lot of money to get there.

The research question: Will a message that instills a sense of opportunity change how Reggie responds when asked “What do you see yourself doing in life?”

The message: A teacher or counselor says something that opens possibilities, such as “yeah, college can cost a lot of money. But there's this thing out there called need-based financial aid. There are these 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.

Results: If Reggie hears a message of opportunity, he becomes 30% more likely to believe he could get to college compared to a message saying, “here's the cost of college, end of story,” according to Destin’s research. This type of statement also changes what Reggie does to get there. Destin’s work shows that after getting that message, he is seven times more likely to complete and turn in an assignment.

Supporting research

Reggie, age 15

His situation: A high schooler, Reggie is still excited about architecture because he understands it’s a possibility and, feeling hopeful, he’s working hard. He’s more in tune with status and notices who seems to have more stuff, nicer clothes, more expensive homes. 

The research question: How are Reggie’s identities changing based on the messages he’s getting? Is it affecting his motivation to work toward his long-term goal?

The message: A counselor or teacher talks about identities and focuses on strengths instead of weaknesses. People who come from low-income background or who are seen as “having less,” for example, can acquire specific advantages because of their experiences. These skills and perspectives are key to contributing to school and society.

Destin’s findings: When Reggie hears that he might have special strengths because of his identity, he feels better about who he is and his chances in life. He realizes that he has developed important time management skills while juggling a job and taking care of his younger brother while his mom works – this insight boosts his self-esteem. He also becomes almost 10% more likely to continue working and persisting when he has challenges with school or homework, compared to if he didn't get that message, according to Destin’s research.

“That increasing persistence pays off over time,” Destin said. “It's connected to his grade staying high or improving throughout high school, which is a very different from the normal trajectory of most students’ grades slowly going down a little bit as high school goes on. So that shift keeps his goals within reach for longer.”

Supporting research

Reggie, age 19

His situation: Reggie is in the exciting and scary new world of college. He’s hearing other students talk about their family trips to Europe or other experiences he hasn’t had and wondering how he’s perceived in this environment.

The research question: How do cues about how his identity is valued by peers affect Reggie’s trajectory or achievement in school?

The message: In the dining hall, Reggie overhears a group of older students from diverse backgrounds talking about the financial aid they’re receiving and how they feel supported at the university. While these students come from different homes and neighborhoods than wealthier students, they realize their backgrounds are an asset and they bring important issues and topics into the classroom and to the campus.

Destin’s findings: Again, the messaging focuses on seeing one’s background as a strength rather than deficit, or what researchers call an “asset-based approach.” When a student gets the message that his identity is valued, it significantly bolsters his grades in the first year, reducing the disparity between low-income students and those from wealthier backgrounds by more than 60 percent. The effects are robust in experiments where students are randomly assigned to receive the message or not. But it comes with a cost.

Supporting research

Reggie, adulthood

His situation: Reggie has spent his life persisting, overcoming barriers, and facing discrimination in settings that aren’t used to seeing someone like him succeed. He lands his dream job at a top architecture firm but feels stressed and gets physically ill more often than some of his colleagues.

The research question: Can forming bonds with people who may have some shared identities, experiences and backgrounds or staying connected to home, family and culture help Reggie improve his physical health?

The message: Destin’s team, in collaboration with health research labs, randomly assigned young people to get an encouraging message that shows them how to cultivate and maintain these types of relationships while they’re striving for their goals, compared to a message only focused on achievement.

Destin’s findings: Over the course of a year, an increased emphasis on connection and relationships led to a decrease in inflammation of 25%. “Expanding Reggie’s identities and keeping them connected to close relationships can help him find achievement and health at the same time,” Destin said.

Supporting research: Effects of social support in an academic context on low-grade inflammation in high school students

Destin own brother–Reggie–had a very different life path than the fictitious budding young architect. Ten years ago, he was  was killed by a drunk driver, cutting short “a life full of joy and community and success doing what he loved," Destin said.

But Destin's brother had to find his way without receiving any of these messages Destin had described, statements that might have built up his identity or opened doors.

“What if these schools and systems that we're in as we're growing up supported everyone's vision and potential? he asked. “What if they encouraged people to see that there is a path to the goals that they're working towards?

“These types of messages can be embedded in the ways that we teach important and challenging topics in areas like science, language, math, the arts, history. They can be central to out of school activities like mentoring programs and enrichment programs.” 

Individuals also have power, Destin said. “I'm thinking about you as parents, as coworkers, as leaders as friends. Taking the time to show someone that you see who they are, you see who they could be, and that there is a path to the life that they're imagining for themselves. That message from you could lead someone to hold on to what keeps them going for just one more day.”