The University Network

Visualizing Successful Futures Can Help Students ‘Navigate Everyday Stressors’

Researchers at Northwestern University have found that identity-based motivation, or the practice of imagining a successful future for oneself, can help students get past their everyday challenges and stresses.

The study was led by Mesmin Destin, associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy and the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, and published in the Springer’s journal Motivation and Emotion.

The strategy used in the research proved to be most effective amongst female students of a relatively low socioeconomic (SES) background.

“Identity-based motivation often matters most in situations where people face a situation that makes them uncomfortable or uncertain,” said Destin.

Often, students from a lower SES background encounter greater financial and psychological stress than other students, which can lead to hesitation or withdrawl from difficult collegiate situations, such as interacting with faculty members or taking tests and exams.  

Additionally, prior research shows that both female students and students of a lower SES background tend to feel more anxious about interacting with academic faculty than other students.  

With that information, Destin and his team sought to find if using the strategy of identity-based motivation would improve students’ responses to challenging academic situations.

“This provided us with an opportunity to evaluate strategies that students use to momentarily feel more confident and powerful going into the interaction by bringing to mind their own imagined successful future,” said Destin. “We found that by reducing the perceived status disparity between students and faculty members, students gained confidence in the interaction and in a subsequent academic task.”

In two nearly identical laboratory experiments — one involving 93 female students and the other involving 183 students (including 101 female students) — students were asked to write about their past or future success. After doing this, participants were filmed in a mock interview with a “so-called” lecturer and then had to complete a difficult academic test. The researchers then evaluated if the students’ body language was bold or confident and measured the effort they put into the test.


The researchers found the results to be in line with identity-based motivation, as the study showed that picturing a successful future identity helped female students from a lower SES background during challenging academic situations. In particular, female students from a lower SES background who wrote about their future identities showed greater action readiness than those who just wrote about their past. They also displayed more confident body language, which helped them put forth more effort into the test and indirectly influenced their performance.

“Activating imagined successful future identities appears to provide a potential pathway to enable vulnerable students to effectively navigate everyday stressors,” Destin said in a statement. “The findings therefore suggest that certain students may benefit from strategies that remind them to visualize their successful futures prior to any difficult and important task that they might otherwise be likely to avoid.”

While this research proved most effective on a specific group of people, Destin warned against over-generalizing the results.

“Colleges and universities run the risk of stigmatizing students if they specifically target them without extensive consideration of how they will experience any particular programming,” he said. “Many psychological approaches can be applied universally to improve the experience of all students without singling out particular types of students who might benefit the most. At the same time, some students may benefit from carefully designed opportunities to connect with others from similar backgrounds and to form genuine networks of support.”

With that in mind, Destin and his team will continue to investigate how the various aspects of the college environment and experience influence the identities, motivation, and achievement of students from under-represented backgrounds.

“We hope that this research helps universities and faculty members to engage with students thoughtfully and in ways that allow them to demonstrate their full potential, which is sometimes unnecessarily inhibited by aspects of the college environment,” said Destin.



Natalie Colarossi is a journalism major and global studies minor working toward her bachelor’s degree at Ohio University. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has covered a number of topics including art, culture, politics, music, and travel. Her greatest passion and priority is to travel, and she hopes to experience as many places and cultures as possible.