Department of Psychology
Department of Psychology

Fall 2016 Newsletter — Faculty Spotlight: Dr. David Yeager

Thu, December 15, 2016
Fall 2016 Newsletter — Faculty Spotlight: Dr. David Yeager
Dr. David Yeager

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. David Yeager


Psychology Assistant Professor David Yeager has been making a big splash in the field of Developmental Psychology. His studies have been featured not only in major scientific journals, but also in The New York Times and popular publications, like The Huffington Post, USA Today and The Guardian. With research on such widely appealing ideas as, for example, that teaching teens people can change and improve themselves can help them cope with stress, and that the adolescent values of autonomy and social justice can be channeled to promote more positive behaviors ("Harnessing Adolescent Values to Motivate Healthier Eating"), his work has garnered a lot of attention, including from the White House.

The Obama administration recently invited Dr. Yeager to be a featured panelist at the "White House Convening on Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education". He was also asked to advise the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on how "growth mindset" messages can be used to help youth and families in Flint, Michigan, where lead exposure has young people, teachers, and parents feeling that the intelligence levels of children have become "stuck". Children are hearing this message and feeling like there is no hope for growth and no reason to try hard in school.

A major focus of Dr. Yeager's research is understanding the forces that shape adolescent development, particularly when looking at how adolescents interpret social events and academic setbacks, and how their beliefs—or mindsets—about these events can contribute to either positive or negative outcomes.

Toward this effort, he thinks a lot about: “How do we move this amazing science of motivation and learning, this science of mindsets, into practice? How do we help teachers, parents, and policy makers have a better sense of what’s possible, and then how can we work with them to implement these ideas effectively?” And, “How do we get wiser about helping adolescents make choices that are good for them?”

Dr. Yeager and his team of graduate students apply the theories of adolescent mindsets to search for psychological ways to improve behavior. Using the concepts of growth mindset—the idea that one’s personal traits, such as intelligence or personality, are malleable and can be improved through effort and strategy—versus fixed mindset—the view that one’s personal characteristics and possibilities in life will remain the same no matter one’s efforts—the team creates interventions in schools that can foster growth mindset and improve short-term and long-term academic outcomes, as well as make adolescents feel better equipped to face social challenges.

One of the primary social problems that Dr. Yeager’s research is trying to address is adolescent bullying and social stress. “Adolescents are very focused on peer social hierarchy and status, and when they transition into high school, they are put into a situation where they have to figure out where they stand,” says Professor Yeager. “Often, teenagers think if it’s hard now, it’s going to be hard forever. That’s stressful for them.”

Dr. Yeager argues that adolescents with fixed mindsets about bullying and social exclusion tend to believe that bullies, bully victims, and the socially excluded will always have those roles and nothing can be done to change them. However, following interventions that teach adolescents that people and social roles can change, students responded less negatively to social exclusion, reported less stress and better physical health (when tested eight months later), and attained higher grades than students in a control group.

Along these lines, Yeager has conducted several studies over the past few years, discovering that, “Teaching Teens That Bullies Can Change Reduces Aggression in School,” “Depression Lowers When Teens Learn They Can Change,” and “Teaching teens that personality traits can change helps mitigate stress from social challenges and improve academic performance,” among others.

Locally, the Yeager team had students in two Austin high schools complete online interventions that prompted them to adopt a growth mindset of personality. As part of these interventions,  participants read letters from older students about how difficult school was at first (socially), but that it got better. Then, the students wrote a letter to a future 9th-grader to teach them more about the ideas they had just learned. By teaching these ideas to younger students, the participants themselves were better able to internalize the message they just received. Yeager’s research team then took salivary hormone samples from all of the participating students to measure how their stress levels might have been influenced by the intervention message they received.

Students also reported on their daily activities and feelings twice a day over the course of two weeks, allowing researchers to examine how the growth mindset intervention influenced their daily thoughts and feelings. Dr. Yeager’s research team then created reports for each participating student to show them how their daily thoughts and feelings fluctuated over the two-week period. This was a fun way for students to visualize how their emotions change every day. The participating schools also benefited by learning about what stresses are affecting their students. Next year the research team hopes to scale up this intervention with approximately 25 high schools.

Yeager’s National Study of Learning Mindsets is another intervention experiment that prompts ninth-grade students across the country to adopt a growth mindset of intelligence. Students are randomly assigned to receive either an online learning mindset treatment or a control exercise. Yeager says the study is “particularly notable because it's conducted with a nationally representative sample of US public high schools. It’s not just the kinds of schools who want to be in our mindset studies, or the kinds of schools where they desperately need to benefit from mindsets—it’s a broad swath of schools nationwide chosen at random. And the reason that’s so exciting is that those 76 high schools and over 15,000 young people in the study will enable us to finally test under what conditions, and in what types of schools, does a change in students' mindsets translate into an improvement in achievement.”

These growth mindset of intelligence interventions have already proven very effective among incoming students at UT Austin, as well. In 2012, Dr. Yeager worked with the UT administration to incorporate growth mindset of intelligence interventions into freshman online pre-orientation materials that every freshman was required to complete before arriving on campus (about 8,000 students).  The intervention proved particularly helpful for first-generation college students and ethnic minority students. Typically, 81 or 82% of these “disadvantaged” students complete their 12-hour course load after their first semester at college, compared to 90% for the more advantaged students. Among the disadvantaged students who completed the intervention, 86% were still enrolled in a full course load after their first semester, effectively halving the usual achievement gap between the two groups. The intervention is ongoing, with the administration encouraged and hopeful that their goals to keep more first-generation and ethnic minority students enrolled through graduation will become a reality. (Read more: “Who Gets to Graduate?The New York Times Magazine, May 15, 2014)

Overall, Dr. Yeager’s exciting line of research shows that seemingly “small” psychological interventions with adolescents can lead to large gains in academic achievement, stress reduction, physical health and reduced aggression even months later. These interventions are helping to motivate adolescents at a critical time in their lives to make choices today that will set them on a path to lead physically and mentally healthier and more academically engaged lives.



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