Inferences from Task Difficulty: Metacognition and Identity Based Motivation

Monday, April 18, 2017

Daphna Oyserman

Dean’s Professor of Psychology, Education, and Communication
University of Southern California

People procrastinate, start too late, invest too little and give up too quickly to attain important self-goals. In the current talk I focus on identity-based motivation to understand why that might be, focusing on what people infer about the relevance of their future self to their current choices and what people infer from task difficulty. One possibility is that the future is not relevant to current choices and that difficulty suggests that task related to that future are not for them. The alternative is that the future feels relevant to current choices and experienced difficulty suggests that they should try harder. What determines which interpretation is chosen and what are the behavioral consequences, including for health and healthy choices? I review a program of research that highlights the role of the identity relevance of the task in this context. When success at a task is identity-congruent, the future feels close, the task seems important and worth the effort. When success at a task is identity-incongruent, the future feels far, task seems essentially impossible for people like oneself and hence not worth the effort. Contextual cues influence which interpretation of experienced difficulty is accessible at the moment, and this contextual sensitivity renders the interpretation of difficulty highly malleable. Because people differ in the likelihood of being in contexts that cue one or the other interpretation, contextual influences can result in apparently stable between-group differences. I present experiments from this ongoing line of research, highlighting both the malleability of interpretation and the possibility that effects are in part culture- and social identity-bound, in that some cultures and social identities may reinforce one interpretation over the other.


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