Can Your Values Motivate You?

Author:  Jennifer Charlicki

Institution:  University of Alberta


Are you a student stressed about upcoming final exams? Is your motivation slowly decreasing with every textbook chapter you read? Well, you’re not alone. Identifying stress doesn’t seem to be the issue for students; “I’m so stressed out” is a common response to many questions. The issue is identifying ways to attack this stress in a sustainable manner. Recent research suggests that our inner mechanisms can help us alter the way we view stress and negative situations. Instead of feeling inadequate because of our ever-growing workload, we can identify resources that foster self-affirming thoughts.

Shannon Brady from Stanford University and colleagues from other various institutions tackled this big question: How can we stay motivated when we encounter stress and adversity? They asked minority students in their first or second year of university to rank the importance of eleven different values, including religion, relationships, and sense of humor. The students then completed one of two different tasks, an affirmation intervention or a control exercise. The affirmation intervention instructed students to write about their most important value and why it was important to them. The control exercise asked students to write about the value that they ranked as ninth and explain why it might be important to someone else. Brady’s group hypothesized that students in the affirmation condition would acquire the ability to not only reduce stress, but also maintain the ability to alleviate stress. They expected students in the affirmation condition to see an increase in their GPAs and engage in positive self-affirming thoughts.

Why is this? By writing about their own values, students could focus on what makes that value important to them and what positive aspects the value provides. According to Brady, “understanding the mechanisms that ‘hold’ motivation and performance will help us understand how to foster student success in ways that will persist,” and in fact, Brady’s group was able to verify that hypothesis. When students are presented with academic stress, they would be able to fall back on these psychological resources and view this adversity in a less damaging way. Students could engage in more self-affirming thoughts by telling themselves “I’ve overcome problems in the past, I can do it again,” or “there are many positive things in my life.” An important concept that plays into this affirmation is self efficacy, which refers to how capable a person views themselves of being able to face a situation. As a result, self efficacy can largely affect how we approach goals. If we can recall values that are important to us, we can remind ourselves of the positive aspects of our lives, which in turn improves our ability to take on a challenge and thus enhances our self efficacy. Brady’s group stated that individuals who are more affirmed, pay more attention to their errors, and are more interested in feedback, thus they have a higher chance of success in terms of their academic career, for example how their GPA fluctuated, and how they perceived academic stress.

Students’ GPAs and psychology were assessed over the following two years. Brady’s researchers tracked how their GPA fluctuated and how students encountered psychological threats, such as the stressors they encounter at the end of the semester. The results suggest that those who had completed the affirmation intervention had improved their GPA over two years and engaged in more self-affirming thoughts and less self-threatening thoughts. Brady’s group suggests that the affirmation intervention altered the way that students responded to stress, which ultimately made them feel more adequate. The affirmation intervention served as a reminder to the students that they were more than capable to take on a challenge, and that they had resources to draw from in order to help them.

Why is this important and what does it tell us? The word “stress” is far too integrated into students’ vocabulary, and seems to naturally fit into every sentence. It’s no surprise that students have a hard time motivating themselves and seeing themselves as adequate when they’re constantly being tested and do not always get the results they want. The findings from this study provide students with an alternative method to reach goals and stay motivated, other than the oh-so-popular caffeine. This research helps us understand a new approach to nurturing students’ success in a way that has long-term benefits and does not disappear at the end of the semester.

Brady, J.T., et al. (2016). The psychology of the affirmed leader: Spontaneous self-affirmation in the face of stress. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108, 353-373.