How one hour changed the lives of a group of college students

1: Many people believe they are the only ones who feel like they don’t fit in. 

“Feeling like you don’t belong can change how you interpret everything you experience,” writes Kelly McGonigal in her powerful book The Upside of Stress.  “Conversations, setbacks, misunderstandings—almost anything can be viewed as evidence that, in fact, you don’t belong. 

“The belief that you don’t belong also feeds into many destructive states of mind, from impostor syndrome (I’m a fraud and everyone will find out) to stereotype threat (everyone expects to me to fail) and self-handicapping (why bother trying?). 

“These states of mind can lead to self-destructive behaviors like avoiding challenges, hiding your problems, ignoring feedback, and not forming supportive relationships. Such behaviors, in turn, increase the risk of failure and isolation, which are taken as proof that you didn’t belong after all,” notes Kelly.  

2: Greg Walton is a psychologist at Stanford University who has spent more than ten years perfecting the art of changing minds with brief, one-dose interventions which last only one hour.  These sessions generate improvement in everything from marital satisfaction to GPAs, physical health, and even willpower.  Often, these results persist years after the intervention.

In his all-time favorite study, Greg delivers a simple message: “If you feel like you don’t belong, you aren’t alone.  Most people feel that way in a new environment.  Over time, this will change.”

Greg gathers together a group of college freshman.  He begins by having them read excerpts written by juniors and seniors which communicate the message everyone struggles with fitting in, but this feeling changes with time. 

For example, one senior wrote: “When I first got here, I worried that I was different from other students. I wasn’t sure I fit in. Sometime after my first year, I came to realize that many people come here uncertain whether they fit in or not. Now it seems ironic.  Everybody feels they are different freshman year from everybody else, when really in at least some ways we are all the same.”

Next, Greg asks the freshman to write an essay about how their own experiences at college were similar to those described by the seniors and juniors.  

Lastly, he explains the school is creating an infomercial to show during next year’s freshman orientation.  The video is intended to help the arriving students understand what to expect in college.  Would they be willing to read their essays in front of a video camera and be included in the infomercial? 

“As you probably know, it can be difficult to come into a new situation not knowing what to expect, and you, as an older student who has just gone through the same experience, are in a great position to help these freshmen out,” he explains.  “Do you think you would be able to do this?”

That’s the entire intervention.  Students read exerts from upperclassmen, write an essay, and give a message of social belonging to following year’s freshmen.

3: The first time this intervention was offered, Greg tracked the impact on African American students, who had struggled the most with feelings of not belonging at the university.  

“The results were astonishing. The onetime intervention improved the students’ academic performance, physical health, and happiness over the next three years, compared with students who had not been randomly selected to receive the intervention.  By graduation, their GPAs were significantly higher than the GPAs of African American students who hadn’t participated.  In fact, their GPAs were so high that they had completely closed the typical GPA gap between minority and non-minority students at the school,” Kelly writes.

Greg and his colleagues have delivered the belonging intervention in many settings.  “In one study, it boosted college retention rates more than giving students a $3,500 scholarship did,” notes Kelly.  “In another, it reduced college dropout rates by half.  When female engineering students received the intervention, they started to perceive the engineering department as more welcoming. They went on to develop more friendships with male engineers, and even reported hearing fewer sexist jokes.” 

Greg believes the intervention works for two reasons.  First, it encourages people to see problems as short-lived and part of the overall college experience.  Second, students who received the mindset intervention were more likely to form more close friendships and to find a mentor.  

The most remarkable thing about this type of mindset intervention?

People typically forget it happened.  

At graduation, Greg surveyed the students who had participated.  While 79% remembered participating in some study their freshman year, only 8 percent remembered what it was all about.  “The new mindset had become part of how they thought about themselves, and about the school.  They forgot the intervention, but they internalized the message,” Kelly writes.

Greg acknowledges these results sound more like “science fiction than science.”  But mindset interventions are not miracles or magic, Kelly observes. “They are best thought of as catalysts.  Changing your mindset puts into motion processes that perpetuate positive change over time.

“I think this is one of the most promising aspects of mindset science.  Once an idea takes root, you don’t have to work so hard at it.  It’s not a conscious strategy you need to employ or an inner debate you need to have every day,” writes Kelly.  “After an initial introduction to a new mindset, it can take hold and flourish.” 

More tomorrow.
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Reflection:  What surprises me about the impact of a short, one-hour mindset intervention?  Consider a current challenge.  What assumptions am I making?  What assumptions might I challenge?

Action: Journal about my answers to the questions above.

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