I am now a Postdoctoral Fellow/Research Associate at the University of Washington.
My research examines social-psychological processes that form the foundation of motivation, identity, and achievement in early childhood. How do social cues (such as belonging to a particular group) affect children’s perceptions of themselves and other people? How do such cues shape achievement-related behaviors such as persistence or interpersonal behaviors such as stereotyping? The central goal of my research is to conduct experiments and interventions that extend our theoretical understanding of how to create behavioral and attitudinal change in children, while also improving important real-world outcomes and setting them on a more successful academic trajectory.
My central program of research involves using group and personal identity to increase motivation. I also explore how other cues to personal identity or group membership may affect children’s stereotyping and other social judgments and behaviors.
USING GROUP IDENTITY TO INCREASE MOTIVATION
One line of research has examined how changing young children’s sense of group identity may affect achievement motivation. The sense of belonging to a group that shares common goals can be a powerful source of motivation. When adults think they are part of a group, even a minimal group, they work longer on a task associated with the group (Walton & Cohen, 2011). Minimal groups control for children’s prior experiences and allow us to examine the effects of the minimal instantiation of a sense of group identity. In collaboration with Greg Walton, I found that preschool children who worked on puzzles as part of a minimal puzzles group persisted far longer on a challenging puzzle than children who were assigned an individual identity linked to puzzles or children in a control condition (Master & Walton, under review). In another experiment, children who engaged in a word-learning task as part of a minimal group showed better learning (higher recall) on a difficult memory task. This research suggests that early in development small cues that create a sense of group identity in academic-related settings can increase young children’s motivation and learning even on difficult tasks. These findings provide a novel theoretical base for future early childhood interventions.
USING PERSONAL IDENTITY TO INCREASE MOTIVATION
Using motivationally-themed storybooks to increase children’s motivation. Several lines of my research have examined strategies to change children’s sense of personal identity to increase motivation. If children see themselves as someone who takes on challenging tasks and persists at those tasks, will they show greater motivation? In my dissertation, I increased children’s motivation through storybooks that manipulated the extent to which identity was linked to motivation by means of the main character in the story. Some children heard a motivationally-themed book with someone else as the main character, while other children heard the same story in which they were the main character, which gave them a sense of personal identity linked to taking on challenges and persisting. While both preschoolers and kindergarteners showed increased motivation following motivationally themed books compared to a control condition, I found that preschoolers were more affected by a story in which they were the main character (Master & Dweck, in preparation). This suggests that directly involving personal identity may be more critical for younger children, who may be less able to learn and generalize from the example of others than are older children. These effects changed children’s motivation even several weeks later. In another study, older preschool children continued to show increased motivation several weeks later, regardless of whether or not they had been reminded of the story linking their identity to challenge seeking and persistence. A final experiment examined whether these effects were due to a particular aspect of the books: praise for effort, which sends children a message that their effort and persistence are valued. I found that children who heard a story in which they received effort praise (“You must have worked really hard at the puzzles!”) showed greater challenge seeking and persistence, and after failure showed more positive affect and cognitions. This research lays the foundation for a better understanding of the elements that are most effective in crafting interventions to increase motivation in early childhood.
Affirming valued aspects of personal identity in school. I have also examined how affirming valued aspects of the self can affect motivation and academic achievement. With Geoff Cohen, I investigated whether self-affirming writing exercises could mitigate the burdens of facing negative intellectual stereotypes in school. In several double-blind randomized field experiments, we found that this self-affirmation intervention reduced the achievement gap in overall GPA between Black and White middle school students by more than 30% (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006, Science). This project powerfully demonstrated how seemingly small interventions can have large effects when they target critical psychological processes.
HOW SOCIAL CUES AFFECT SELF AND OTHER PERCEPTION
I am also very interested in how cues about personal identity or group membership shape stereotyping, prejudice, and behavior.
Using category or continuum cues to affect social judgments. Many social dimensions (such as personality traits, ability, or physical attributes) can be conceptualized either categorically or continuously. With Ellen Markman and Carol Dweck, I found that children taught to think of social dimensions in terms of a continuum (from “really nice” to “really mean)—rather than in terms of stable, defining categories (“nice” vs. “mean”)—were less likely to stereotype other individuals (Master, Markman, & Dweck, in press, Child Development). For example, they were less likely to overgeneralize when judging how likely characters would be to share or hit, how many presents each character deserved, and how much they personally liked and would want to play with each character. Children thinking about attributes in terms of a continuum were also less likely to make stable and internal attributions for behavior. These findings suggest a potential way to help children recognize individual differences and avoid stereotyping on the basis of group or category membership, and a potential way to decrease prejudice in our society.
Using linguistic cues to change children’s personal identity and behavior. A second line of research examined the effects of using different linguistic cues to affect behavior by creating a desired personal identity. Different parts of speech can have different implications about the behaviors they describe. Nouns signal who a person is, not just what they do. For example, one study found that adults who were randomly assigned to answer questions about “being a voter” in an upcoming election instead of questions about “voting” were more likely to vote in the election (Bryan, Walton, Dweck, & Rogers, under review). In collaboration with postdoctoral scholar Chris Bryan, I explored the effects of using different parts of speech to affect prosocial motivation in young children. We found that preschool children who responded to questions about “being a helper” (as a noun) were more likely to help in several subsequent situations than children who responded to questions about “helping” (as a verb) or children in a control condition that did not discuss helping (Bryan & Master, in preparation). These results suggest that young children are highly sensitive to the language they hear, and noun labels can motivate children’s behavior to claim a positive personal identity. We are currently looking at whether noun labels also motivate children to show greater persistence at a task, in order to avoid a negative personal identity (e.g., being a “quitter” or a “stopper”).
Overall, in my research I seek to understand how cues about personal identity or group membership shape students’ motivation and behavior. In future research, I hope to continue to deepen our understanding of these factors, as well as to develop and test early-childhood interventions that can have long-term effects on motivation and well-being.
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