Articles and chapters describing current and future identities (current and possible self). Papers are intended for educational use.


Albarracin, D., Oyserman, D., & Schwarz, N. (2024). Health Communication and Behavioral Change During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Abstract: The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the public health system to respond to an emerging, difficult-to-understand pathogen through demanding behaviors, including staying at home, masking for long periods, and vaccinating multiple times. We discuss key challenges of the pandemic health communication efforts deployed in the United States from 2020 to 2022 and identify research priorities. One priority is communicating about uncertainty in ways that prepare the public for disagreement and likely changes in recommendations as scientific understanding advances: How can changes in understanding and recommendations foster a sense that “science works as intended” rather than “the experts are clueless” and prevent creating a void to be filled by misinformation? A second priority concerns creating a culturally fluent framework for asking people to engage in difficult and novel actions: How can health messages foster the perception that difficulties of behavior change signal that the change is important rather than that the change “is not for people like me?” A third priority entails a shift from communication strategies that focus on knowledge and attitudes to interventions that focus on norms, policy, communication about policy, and channel factors that impair behavior change: How can we move beyond educating and correcting misinformation to achieving desired actions?

Kiper, G., Oyserman, D., & Yan, V. (2024). I’ll take the high road: Paths to goal pursuit and identity-based interpretations of difficulty. Self & Identity. 

Abstract: When people imagine their futures, they can prioritize getting there the easy way, prefer more demanding paths, or be indifferent to means and focus only on making progress. Identity-based motivation theory predicts that difficulty mindsets—what people infer about themselves from experiencing difficulty thinking about or working on tasks or goals and facing life difficulties—shape action. When thinking or doing feels hard, people vary in how much they infer that the hard thing is not for them (difficulty-as-impossibility) or is valuable for them (difficulty-as-importance). When life feels hard, people vary in how much they infer that enduring difficulty can be character-building (difficulty-as-improvement). We predict, and mixed effect regressions reveal, that difficulty mindsets shape the means people prefer to reach their goals (N = 537 undergraduates, three studies). People who endorse difficulty-as-impossibility choose ease. In contrast, people who endorse difficulty-as-improvement disdain ease and prefer the effortful way. [Supplemental]


Oyserman, D. & Horowitz, E. (2023). From possible selves and future selves to current action: An integrative review and identity-based motivation synthesis. Advances in Motivation Science, 10, 73-147.

Abstract: We comprehensively reviewed and organized the literature examining the relationship between future selves and current action. We distinguish studies focused on possible selves, self-gap, and self-continuity, which focus on different aspects of the future self, make distinct predictions and provide conflicting results. We use the dynamic construction, action-readiness, and procedural-readiness components of identity-based motivation (IBM) theory to make sense of these findings. In doing so, we shift focus from what future me is—positive or negative, close or distant, continuous or discontinuous with current me—to what future me does. We make three predictions regarding when people maintain present-focused action and when they switch to future-focused action. People maintain present-focused action if (1) future me is not on the mind or feels irrelevant to current choices or (2) they understand difficulties taking future-focused action as low value or low odds of success. (3) In contrast, they shift to future-focused action if future me feels relevant to current choices and difficulties taking future-focused action seem to imply the value of doing so.

Yan, V. X., Oyserman, D., Kiper, G., Atari, M. (2023). Difficulty-as-improvement: The courage to keep going in the face of life’s difficulties. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Abstract: When a task or goal is hard to think about or do, people can infer that it is a waste of their time (difficulty-as-impossibility) or valuable to them (difficulty-as-importance). Separate from chosen tasks and goals, life can present unchosen difficulties. Building on identity-based motivation theory, people can see these as opportunities for self-betterment (difficulty-as-improvement). People use this language when they recall or communicate difficulties (autobiographical memories, Study 1; “Common Crawl” corpus, Study 2). Our difficulty mindset measures are culture-general (Australia, Canada, China, India, Iran, New Zealand, Turkey, the U.S., Studies 3-15, N=3,532). People in WEIRD-er countries slightly agree with difficulty-as-improvement. Religious, spiritual, and conservative people, believers in karma and a just world, and people from less-WEIRD countries score higher. People who endorse difficulty-as-importance see themselves as conscientious, virtuous, and leading lives of purpose. So do endorsers of difficulty-as-improvement –who also see themselves as optimists (all scores lower for difficulty-as-impossibility endorsers).


O’Donnell, S. C., & Oyserman, D. (2022). Apt and actionable possible identities matter: The case of academic outcomes. Journal of Adolescence. 

Abstract: Introduction: We review the longitudinal evidence documenting that middle and high school students with school-focused possible future identities subsequently attain better school outcomes. Consistent results across operationalizations of possible identities and academic outcomes imply that results are robust. However, variability in study designs means that the existing literature cannot explain the process from possible identity to academic outcomes. We draw on identity-based motivation theory to address this gap. We predict that imagining a possible school-focused future drives school engagement to the extent that students repeatedly experience their school-focused future identities as apt (relevant) and actionable (linked to strategies they can use now). Methods: We operationalize aptness as having pairs of positive and negative school-focused possible identities (balance) and actionability as having a roadmap of concrete, linked strategies for school-focused possible selves (plausibility). We use machine learning to capture features of possible identities that predict academic outcomes and network analyses to examine these features (Training Sample USA 47% female, Mage=14 N1=602, N2=540. Test Sample USA 55% female, Mage=13 N=247). Results: We report regression analyses showing that balance, plausibility, and our machine algorithm predict better end-of-school-year grades (GPA). We use network analysis to show that our machine algorithm is associated with structural features of possible identities and balance and plausibility scores. Conclusions: Our results support the inference student academic outcomes are improved when they experience their school-focused possible identities as apt and actionable.

Kiper, G., Atari, M., Yan, V., & Oyserman, D. (2022). The upside: How people make sense of difficulty matters during a crisis. Self and Identity. 

Abstract: We tested the prediction that how people respond to all-encompassing life difficulties that may require taking on novel difficult tasks or goals is a function of what they infer about their identities from these experiences of difficulty. We focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and identity-based motivation theory to test our predictions (N=698 U.S. adults, three datasets). People were more likely to see silver linings if they endorsed difficulty-as-importance (experienced difficulties with a task/goal as implying its importance) and difficulty-as-improvement (experienced life difficulties as possibly making them better people). Our structural equation models revealed that people who endorsed difficulty-as-importance were more likely to mask, distance, and wash hands in large part because they saw a silver lining for themselves in the pandemic; for difficulty-as-improvement, effects on action were fully mediated by seeing silver linings. Taken together, our results suggest that people apply their difficulty-as-importance and difficulty-as-improvement mindsets to cope with novel life difficulties.


O’Donnell, S. C., Yan, V., Bi, C., & Oyserman, D. (2021). Is difficulty mostly about impossibility?: What difficulty implies may be culturally variant. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

Abstract: Difficulty can signal low odds (impossibility) and high value (importance). We build on culture-as-situated cognition theory’s description of culture-based fluency and disfluency to predict that the culturally fluent meaning of difficulty is culture-bound. For Americans, the culturally fluent understanding of ability is success-with-ease-not-effort, hence difficulty implies low odds of ability. This may disadvantage American institutions and practices—learning requires gaining competence and proficiency through effortful engagement. Indeed, Americans (Studies 1, 3–8; N = 4,141; Study 2, the corpus of English language) associate difficulty with impossibility more than importance. This tendency is not universal. Indian and Chinese cultures imply that difficulty can equally signal low odds and value. Indeed, people from India and China (Studies 9–11, N = 762) are as likely to understand difficulty as being about both. Effects are culture-based; how much people endorse difficulty-as-importance and difficulty-as-impossibility in their own lives did not affect results.

Oyserman, D., O’Donnell, S. C., Sorensen, N., & Wingert, K. M. (2021). Process matters: Teachers benefit their classrooms and students when they deliver an identity-based motivation intervention with fidelity. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 66.

Abstract: Students value school success but often experience classroom norms implying that learning is easy and suc-ceeding in  school is  not  difficult. Applying an  identity-based motivation (IBM) lens  highlights three ways succeed-with-ease-not-effort norms can undermine students’ grades and increase their risk of course failure. Succeed-with-ease-not-effort norms reduce the likelihood that students experience school as relevant to their future goals, experience right now as the time to get going, and difficulties as signals of schoolwork’s importance, not its impossibility. To support student academic outcomes, we examine Pathways-to-Success, a classroom-level intervention operationalizing IBM theory in a 3-cycle, 3-year development design (N =1142 8th-graders, 87% low-income families, 64% Latinx, 20% African American). We document that Pathways-to-Success can be sus-tainable; our middle school teachers implemented and taught other teachers to implement Pathways-to-Success. We use structural equation models to show that effects are due to the theorized process; teachers who imple-mented with more signal clarity supported academic success by bolstering their students’ identity-based moti-vation. We operationalized signal clarity as a mean of five fidelity components (dosage, adherence, quality, responsiveness, receipt). Signal clarity matters; students experiencing Pathways-to-Success with a clearer signal have a higher identity-based motivation score. Higher identity-based motivation yields better school outcomes.

Oyserman, D. & Dawson, A. (2021). Successful learning environments support and harness students’ identity-based motivation: a primer. Journal of Experimental Education, Special Issue: Learning and Identity in Virtual Learning Environments

Abstract: We build on identity-based motivation theory to integrate research on in-person and virtual learning environments to articulate which features of virtual learning environments are likely to support or impede learning and identity exploration. Although students experience their identities as stable anchors for meaning-making and action, they construct what their identities mean in contexts. How students respond to the difficulties they encounter in their learning environment depends on whether they see engaging with schoolwork as an identity-congruent “us” or “me” thing to do. When engagement feels identity-congruent, students interpret the difficulties they encounter as signs of task importance. This interpretation fosters further engagement. When engagement does not feel identity-congruent, students interpret their difficulties as meaning that the task is not for them and disengage. Accessible norms about how learning works further influence these interpretations. Learning takes time and requires opportunities for active retrieval and use in novel settings, making learning often feel difficult. Unfortunately, learning environments often convey that learning should feel easy and happen quickly. Learning environments conveying learn-through-difficulty norms support difficulty-as-importance interpretations. In contrast, learn-with-ease norms foster difficulty-as-impossibility interpretations. We discuss implications for learning, identity exploration, and the design of learning environments of taking an identity-based motivation perspective.


Oyserman, D., & Schwarz, N. (2020). Identity‐based motivation and the logic of conversations obfuscate loss of online privacy and what policy‐makers can do about it. Journal of Consumer Psychology30(4), 759-766.

Abstract: People care about their privacy, but when they are online, they do not act as if they do. We apply the psychology of meaning-making to shed light on why that is. Acquisti, Loewenstein, and Brandimarte’s (2021) review of factors relevant to gaps between privacy attitudes and behaviors highlights both the importance of the problem of online privacy and its intractability, given current thinking about what can be done. Connecting their discussion with the psychology of meaning-making, operationalized by integrating identity-based motivation theory with the logic of communication and anthropomorphizing, this commentary addresses why people narrowly conceptualize what privacy they are losing and fail to act as if privacy matters, as well as what can be done about it at a policy level.

Bi, C., Oyserman, D., Lin, Y., Zhang, J., Chu, B., & Yang, H. (2020). Left behind, not alone: Feeling, function, and neurophysiological markers of self-expansion among left-behind children and not left-behind peers. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 15(4), 467-478.

Abstract: Four in ten young rural Chinese children are “left behind” by parents migrating for economic opportunities. Left-behind children do as well academically and imagine as many possible futures for themselves as their peers, implying that they must compensate in some ways for loss of everyday contact with their parents. Three studies test and find support for the prediction that compensation entails self-expansion to include a caregiving grandmother rather than one’s mother in self-concept, as is typical in Chinese culture. We measured self-expansion with feeling, function, and neurophysiological variables. Twelve-year-old middle school left-behind children (Study 1, N=66) and 20-year-old formerly left-behind children (now in college, Studies 2, 3, = 162) felt closer to their grandmothers and not as close to their mothers as their peers. Self-expansion had functional consequence (spontaneous depth-of-processing) and a left a neurophysiological trace (event-related potential, Study 3). Left-behind participants had enhanced recall for information incidentally connected to grandmothers (Studies 1 and 3, not Study 2). Our results provide important insights into how left-behind children cope with the loss of parental presence: they include their grandmother in their sense of self. Future studies are needed to test downstream consequences for emotional and motivational resilience.

Horowitz, E., Oyserman, D., Dehghani, M. & Sorensen, N. (2020). Do you need a roadmap or can someone give you directions: When school-focused possible identities change so do academic trajectories. Journal of Adolescence79, 26-38. (Supplemental Materials)

Abstract: Despite the assumed importance of school-focused possible identities for academic motivation and outcomes, interventions rarely assess the effect of intervention on possible identities. This may be due to difficulty coding open-ended text at scale but leaves open a number of questions: 1) how do school-focused possible identities change over the course of the school year, 2) whether these changes are associated with changes in school outcomes, and 3) whether a machine coding approach is viable. In Study 1 (=247 Chicago 8th-graders) we assessed fall-to-spring change in school-focused possible identities. We tested whether change in school-focused possible identities predicts 8th-grade academic outcomes. We included robustness checks. Then we examined school context effects. In Study 2 (=1006 Chicago 8th-graders) we addressed the problem of coding at scale, using a separate data set to train a machine-learning algorithm. On average, school-focused possible identities declined over the school year. But nearly a third of students had increasing school-focused possible identity scores. Increase was associated with improved grades. School context influenced whether linked strategies matter. Our machine-learning algorithm accurately classifies school-focused possible identities in our original sample and this school-focused classification reliably predicts academic trajectories. We conclude from our results that change in school-focused possible identities is normative over the course of the school year, interventions should take this into account. On average, students have fewer school-focused possible identities by spring. This decline is associated with declining academic trajectories. However, when school-focused possible identities increase, so do grades. Whether strategies matter is context dependent.

Oyserman, D. & Dawson, A. (2020). Your fake news, our facts: Identity-based motivation shapes what we believe, share, and accept. To appear in: Greifeneder, R., Jaffé, M., Newman, E.J., & Schwarz, N. (Eds.). The psychology of fake news: Accepting, sharing, and correcting misinformation. London, UK: Psychology Press.

Abstract: In making sense of experience and choosing a course of action, identities matter. People are more likely to accept and share messages that fit the way they make sense of themselves and their world. Messages that fit are more likely to stick and are less likely to be counterargued. One way to create this “fit” is to frame persuasion attempts in culturally fluent terms and yoke a call to action to the social categories people experience as ‘true’ and ‘natural.’ This two-step process (setting a culturally fluent frame and linking action to identity) shifts people from information-based to identity-based processing. Once this occurs, identities shape which facts matter, how much information is enough, how carefully information is scrutinized, and how much people accept, believe, and share rather than reject, disbelieve and counterargue messages regarding these facts and information. We outline how this works, arguing that by combining cultural fluency and identities, disinformation may be more efficient than information or misinformation in rallying people to action and that undoing attempts must address this culture-identity framing.


Oyserman, D., & Dawson, A. (2019). Identity-based motivation and the paradox of the future self: Getting going requires thinking about time (later) in time (now). Brain and Behavioral Sciences.

Abstract: People can imagine their future selves without taking future-focused action. Identity-based motivation theory explains why. Hoerl & McCormack (target) outline how. Present-focused action prevails because future “me” feels irrelevant to the choices facing current “me” unless future “me” is experienced as occurring now or as linked to current “me” via if-then simulations. This entails reasoning in time and about time.

Oyserman, D. (2019). The essentialized self: Implications for motivation and self-regulation. Journal of Consumer Psychology 29(2), 336-343.

Abstract: Persuasion attempts are more likely to stick and less likely to be counterargued if they fit the ways people naturally make sense of themselves and their world. One way to do that is to yoke persuasion to the social categories people experience as ‘true’ and ‘natural.’ Gelman and Echelbarger’s (2018, this issue) integrative review of essentialism outlines the emergence of essentialism in children’s reasoning. Connecting their discussion with identity-based motivation theory (Oyserman, 2015) and a culture-as-situated cognition (Oyserman, 2017) perspective, this commentary addresses how an essentialized self can facilitate or impair motivation and self-regulation.


Nurra, C., & Oyserman, D. (2018). From future self to current action: An identity-based motivation perspective. Self and Identity, 17(3), 343-364.

Abstract: Adults ask children what they want to be when they grow up, hoping that this will motivate children to focus on their schoolwork- this does not necessarily happen. Identity-based motivation theory predicts that one way to increase the odds is for children to experience their adult future self as connected to their current self. Five studies test this prediction (N=641). We find that children can be guided to experience connection between their current and adult future self. Children guided to experience high connection work more and attain better school grades than children guided to experience low connection. Experienced connection works by moderating the effect of seeing school as the path to one’s adult future self.

Horowitz, E., Sorensen, N., Yoder, N., & Oyserman, D. (2018). Teachers can do it: Scalable identity-based motivation intervention in the classroom. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 54, 12-28. (Supplemental Materials)

Abstract: Classroom activities aimed at changing students’ identity-based motivation (IBM) improve student outcomes by helping students experience school as the path to their adult future identities and their difficulties along the way as signals of the importance of schoolwork. One way to scale these effects would be to have teachers deliver IBM activities. Hence, we asked if, after a brief two-day training, teacher-delivered IBM intervention could meet fidelity standards and if attaining more fidelity matters. We trained all eighth grade teachers in two middle schools (N=211 students). We compared attained fidelity (dosage, adherence, quality of delivery, student responsiveness, fidelity of receipt) to Durlak and DuPre’s (2008) empirically derived standard for fidelity. We found that most classrooms (88%) and students (89%) received IBM intervention at-or-above threshold standard, implying that teacher-based IBM delivery is viable. Moreover, investing in improving fidelity is worthwhile; above-threshold fidelity improved core grade-point-average and reduced risk of course failure.

Oyserman, D., Elmore, K., Novin, S., Fisher, O., & Smith, G. C. (2018). Guiding people to interpret experienced difficulty as importance highlights their academic possibilities and improves their academic performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1-13.

Abstract: Does experiencing difficulty bolster or undermine future self-images, strategies to get there and actual performance? We build on four insights from prior research to predict that accessible interpretation-of-experienced-difficulty mindset shapes identity and performance. First, people have two different interpretation-of-experienced-difficulty mindsets available in memory; their difficulty-as-impossibility mindset focuses attention on difficulty as implying low odds and their difficulty-as-importance mindset focuses attention on difficulty as implying high value. Second, people are sensitive to contextual cues as to which mindset to apply to understand their experienced difficulty. Third, people apply the mindset that comes to mind unless they have reason to question why it is “on-the-mind.” Fourth, social class can be thought of as a chronic context influencing how much people endorse each interpretation-of-experienced-difficulty mindset. We used subtle primes to guide participants’ attention toward either a difficulty-as- importance or a difficulty-as-impossibility mindset (N = 591). Participants guided toward a difficulty-as-importance mindset performed better on difficult academic tasks (Studies 1, 2) than participants guided toward a difficulty-as-impossibility mindset; whether they had more school-focused possible identities and linked strategies depended on sample (Studies 3, 4). For college students, the effect of guided interpretation-of- experienced-difficulty mindset was not moderated by how much participants agreed with that mindset (Studies 1, 3, 4). College students mostly disagreed with a difficulty-as-impossibility mindset, but making that mindset accessible undermined their performance and sometimes their possible identities anyway. In contrast, middle school students (a younger and lower social class sample) were more likely to agree with a difficulty-as-impossibility mindset. In this sample (Study 2), we found an effect of mindset endorsement: agreeing that difficulty implies importance and disagreeing that difficulty implies impossibility improved performance. This study had a control group. Control group participants not guided to use a particular interpretation-of- experienced-difficulty mindset performed no differently than participants guided toward a difficulty-as-impossibility mindset. Results suggest that people may chronically act as if they are using a difficulty-as-impossibility mindset and may benefit from being guided to consider that experienced difficulty might imply task importance. Effect of accessible mindset on salience of academic possible selves was not stable, accessible mindset mattered in one university sample but not the other.


Oyserman, D., & Schwarz, N. (2017). Conservatism as a situated identity: Implications for consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 27, 532-536.

Abstract: Insufficient attention to political ideology as an organizing axis reduces predictive power. Jost (2017) makes a significant contribution by outlining and documenting a set of relationships among personality factors, attitudes, values, and conservatism. The value of this approach is highlighting the possibility that ideology sticks when it fits features of the individual and hence has an enduring quality. This approach needs to be balanced by consideration of the power of the immediate situation to define what an identity means and the potential universality of many features associated with conservatism. We discuss both issues using identity-based motivation theory as our organizing framework.

Oyserman, D. & Fisher, O. (2017). Social Stigma and Health: An Identity-Based Motivation Perspective. Chapter 17 In B. Major, J. F. Dovidio, and B. G. Link. The Oxford Handbook of Discrimination, Stigma and Health, (pp 317-334). NY: Oxford University Press.

Abstract: American culture highlights the power of individuals to steer their own course and be masters of their own destiny. In American cultural context, low place in social hierarchy due to low socio- economic status is taken to imply some deficiency in the persons who occupy this place –lack of prestige, power, status, or success is negatively marked, stigmatizing. The association between low place and stigma seems bidirectional, low place is stigmatizing and membership in a negatively marked or stigmatized group – e.g., social class, racial-ethnic, or sexual orientation, implies low place in social hierarchy. Low place in social hierarchy matters; it limits individuals’ choice and experienced control. In this chapter, we use identity-based motivation theory to examine the health consequences of the interplay between the stigmatizing and choice-limiting aspects of place in social hierarchy. We use health behavior and health outcomes research to articulate the three components of identity-based motivation (dynamic construction of identity, action-readiness, and procedural-readiness), concluding with implications for intervention. Dynamic construction of identity refers to the importance of context for which identities come to mind and what these identities imply. Reminders of low place in social hierarchy can bring to mind social identities – e.g., social class, racial-ethnic, or sexual orientation, which can be experienced as including healthy or unhealthy preferences, habits, and behaviors depending on contextual cues. Action- and procedural-readiness highlight the motivational power of accessible identities. As documented in the studies we summarize, accessible identities can elicit health-promoting or health-undermining habits and interpretations of experienced difficulty.

Fisher, O., O’Donnell, S. C., & Oyserman, D. (2017). Social class and identity-based motivation. Current Opinion in Psychology, 18, 61-66. 

Abstract: Attainments often fall short of aspirations to lead lives of meaning, health, happiness and success. Identity-based motivation theory highlights how social class and cultural contexts affect likelihood of shortfalls: Identities influence the strategies people are willing to use to attain their goals and the meaning people make of experienced ease and difficulty. Though sensitive to experienced ease and difficulty, people are not sensitive to the sources of these experiences. Instead, people make culturally-tuned inferences about what their experiences imply for who they are and could become and what to do about it. American culture highlights personal and shadows structural causes of ease and difficulty, success and failure. As a result, people infer that class-based outcomes are deserved reflections of character.

Oyserman, D., Lewis Jr., N. A., Yan,  V. X.,  Fisher, O., O’Donnell,  S. C., & Horowitz, E (2017). An identity-based motivation framework for self-regulation. Psychological Inquiry, 28, 139-147.

Abstract: Will you be going to that networking lunch? Will you be tempted by a donut at 4 pm? If, like many people, your responses are based on your gut sense of who you are –shy or outgoing, a treat lover or a dieter, you made three assumptions about identity– that motivation and behavior are identity-based, that identities are chronically on the mind, and that identities are stable. If identities have worth and value then people should make sense of their experiences through the lens of these identities. If identities are stable and chronically on the mind, then no matter the setting, meaning making will be stable and people should be able to use their identities to control and regulate themselves. Many conceptual models are based on these assumptions. But just because these assumptions are common and useful does not mean they are correct. Identity-based motivation theory predicts that identity stability is a useful illusion but that thinking about the self is for doing –identity accessibility and content is flexibly attuned to contextual constraints and affordances. What is stable is not the content or structure of the self or the accessibility of a particular self-content or self-structure, but rather the motivation to use the self to make meaning. This flexibility is a design feature, not a flaw. Identities orient and focus attention on some features of the immediate context and render other features irrelevant or meaningless. Identity-based motivation theory provides a new way to understand self-regulation by focusing on how immediate context shapes which identities and self-concepts are on the mind what identities imply for meaning making.

Fisher, O. & Oyserman, D. (2017). Assessing Interpretations of Experienced Ease and Difficulty as Motivational Constructs. Motivation Science, 17, 1-31.

Abstract: Are people motivated by ease and sapped by difficulty, or the reverse, does ease undermine motivation while difficulty bolsters it? Following identity-based motivation theory, whether ease or difficulty bolsters or undermines motivation depends on which lay theory of ease or difficulty is accessible in the moment. Experienced ease can imply that something is “possible for me” in part because the odds of success are high, or that something is “not worth my time” in part because the task is of low value. Experienced difficulty can imply that something is “important for me” as the task is valued, or that something is “impossible for me” as odds of success are low for “me” or “us.” We developed ease-as-possibility, ease-as-triviality, difficulty-as-importance, and difficul- ty-as-impossibility measures to assess individual differences in endorsement of these lay theories (N 963). We tested (N 200) convergent and discriminant validity with other measures of motivation: self-efficacy, locus of control, growth, grit, mental toughness, prevention and promotion regulatory focus, and construal level. We docu- mented predictive validity by showing that performance on a cognitive reasoning task correlates with ease-as-possibility, ease-as-triviality, and difficulty-as-impossibility (N 183). Ease-as-possibility, ease-as-triviality, difficulty-as-importance, and diffi- culty-as-impossibility supplement other measures of motivation, yielding new insight into motivational processes. These measures can be used in addition to other tools, including priming and implicit assessment.

Oyserman, D. & Lewis, Jr. N.  (2017) Seeing the destination AND the path: Using identity-based motivation to understand racial disparities in achievement and what we can do about them. Social Issues and Policy Review, 11, 159–194. (Top downloaded paper in 2017/2018)

Abstract: African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans aspire to do well in school but often fall short of this goal. We use identity-based motivation theory (Oyserman, 2007, 2015) as an organizing framework to understand how macro-level social stratification factors including racial-ethnic group membership and socioeconomic position (e.g. parental education, income) and the stigma they carry, matter.  Macro-level social stratification differentially exposes students to contexts in which choice and control are limited and stigma is evoked, shaping identity-based motivation in three ways. Stratification influences which behaviors likely feel congruent with important identities, undermines belief that one’s actions and effort matter, and skews chronic interpretation of one’s experienced difficulties with schoolwork from interpreting experienced difficulty as implying importance (e.g., “it’s for me”) toward implying “impossibility.” Because minority students have high aspirations, policies should invest in de-stigmatizing, scalable, universal, identity-based motivation-bolstering institutions and interventions.

Aelenei, C., Lewis, N., & Oyserman, D. (2017). No pain no gain? Social demographic correlates and identity consequences of interpreting experienced difficulty as importance. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 48, 43-55. 

Abstract: Community college students are less likely to graduate than university students, perhaps because their difficult life circumstances increase their vulnerability to misinterpreting the identity implications of experienced difficulty with schoolwork. Without guidance, they may fail to take a ‘‘no pain, no gain” per- spective in which experienced difficulty with schoolwork implies the importance of succeeding in school. Two studies support this prediction: Study 1 (N = 1035) finds that education is associated with higher likelihood of interpreting experienced difficulty as signaling task importance among adults. This effect is pronounced for racial minorities. Study 2 (n = 293) finds that students who disagreed that experienced difficulty implies impossibility were more certain about attaining their academic possible identities and more willing to sacrifice to attain these identities. Moreover, community college students benefited more than university students from being guided to consider what experienced difficulty might imply or from considering that experienced difficulty implies importance, rather than impossibility.


Lewis, N. A., Jr., & Oyserman, D. (2016). Using identity-based motivation to improve the nation’s health without breaking the bank. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2, 25–38.

Abstract:For the first time in two decades, overall life expectancy in the United States is in decline. This unsettling increase in mortality is largely due to lifestyle associated causes. It is in the national interest to address this decline. This article outlines identity-based motivation theory (IBM), an evidence-based behavioral science theory that provides insight and a behavioral toolset which together may help lower lifestyle-associated mortality and morbidity rates. A key place to start is the health aspiration-attainment gap: Most people aspire to live healthy lives yet often fail to sufficiently engage in behaviors necessary to achieve or maintain good health. This aspiration-attainment gap is particularly prevalent amongst people of lower socioeconomic status. We offer evidentiary insight into how IBM may be deployed by health-care providers, insurers and policymakers to help ameliorate the health aspiration-attainment gap and improve the health status of various demographic groups.

Elmore, K., Oyserman, D., Smith, G., & Novin, S. (2016). When the Going Gets Tough: Implications of Reactance for Interpretations of Experienced Difficulty in the Classroom, AERA Open2(3), 2332858416664714.

Abstract: The motivational impact of messages about how to interpret experienced difficulty with schoolwork was tested in two studies. Students read that experienced difficulty with schoolwork is a signal either of the importance or of the impos- sibility of succeeding in school, rated how much they agreed, and completed a difficult task (Raven’s Progressive Matrices). In the absence of reactance (Study 1, N = 93), students’ performance reflected an assimilation of the interpre- tation of experienced difficulty message to which they were randomly assigned. In the presence of conditions conducive to reactance (Study 2, N = 181), the effect on performance was more complex, reflecting contrast with or assimilation to message content depending on message acceptance. Contrast (rejecting the message) bolstered performance if the mes- sage was that experienced difficulty implies that the task is impossible, whereas assimilation (accepting the message) bolstered performance if the message was that experienced difficulty implies that the task is important.

Oyserman, D. (2016). What does experienced difficulty imply for me? Fostering hope and choice through person-centered care. Psyc Critiques, 61, 2.  A review of: Person-Centered Care for Mental Illness: The Evolution of Adherence and Self-Determination, P. W. Corrigan (Ed.). pp. 251, Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Abstract: Life’s course is uncertain and one’s capacities are not fully known at junctures along the way. Hence, although some things come easy, false starts and failures along the way are normal and so may or may not signify limits of capacity and the need to try something else. Indeed, experienced ease and difficulty engaging in life’s tasks may mean something about the likelihood of succeeding at the tasks at hand or something about oneself. Ease may signify that succeeding at the task is possible, yet at the same time, easy tasks may or may not be the meaningful ones. Experienced difficulty may signify that the odds of succeeding at a task are low but can also be a signal of importance, that engaging in that task facilitates progress toward the self that one aspires to become and away from the self that one fears becoming—“no pain, no gain” (e.g., Oyserman, 2015). Indeed, experiencing difficulties and failures along the way can serve as reminders of the importance of working on possible identities, whether desired ones (e.g., becoming a better parent) or undesired ones (e.g., becoming incapacitated and unable to care for oneself).


Bi, C. & Oyserman, D. (2015) Left behind or moving forward? Effects of possible selves and strategies to attain them among rural Chinese children. Journal of Adolescence.

Abstract:Are possible selves and strategies to attain them universally helpful even among children with few resources? We test this question in rural China. Rural Chinese children are commonly “left behind” (LB) by parents seizing economic opportunities by migrating, hoping the family will “move forward” and their children will attain their predestined better future. Media, teachers, and peers negatively represent LB children as unruly and undisciplined, with negative fates, making LB a negative stereotype that includes the idea of destiny or fate. Indeed, making the idea of LB salient increases children’s fatalism (Study 1 n  144, Study 2 n  124). However, having strategies to attain possible future selves predicts better in-class behavior, fewer depressive symptoms, and better exam perfor- mance even a year later and controlling for prior performance (Study 3 n  176, Study 4 n  145). Possible selves have mixed effects, not always predicting better grades and undermining LB children’s self-control.

Summarized in China Daily Sept 9, 2015,  “Left-behind’ youth can see success: study shows”  (reporter Paul Welitzkin).

Lewis, N. A., & Oyserman, D. (2015). When does the future begin? Time metrics matter, connecting present and future selves. Psychological science, 0956797615572231.

Abstract: People assume they should attend to the present; their future self can handle the future. This seemingly plausible rule of thumb can lead people astray, in part because some future events require current action. To get going, the future must feel imminent, which we manipulate using time metric — the units (e.g., days, years), in which time is considered. People (mis)interpret accessible time metric in two ways: If preparation is underway (Studies 1-2), people (mis)interpret metric as implying when a future event will occur. If preparation is not underway (Studies 3-5), they (mis)interpret metric as implying when it should start (e.g., planning to start saving four times sooner for a retirement in 10,950 days instead of 30 years). In these latter studies, metric matters not by changing how distal or important future events feel (Study 6), but by changing how connected and congruent current and future selves feel (Study 7).

Oyserman, D. (2015) Identity-based motivation. In R. Scott & S. Kosslyn (Eds.) Emerging Trends in the Social Sciences. John Wiley & Sons.

Abstract: People believe that they know who they are and that who they are matters for what they do. These core beliefs seem so inherent to conceptualizations of what it means to have a self as to require no empirical support. After all, what is the point of a concept of self if there is no stable thing to have a concept about, and who would care if that concept was stable if it was not useful in making it through the day? Yet the evidence for action-relevance and stability are surprisingly sparse. This entry outlines identity-based motivation theory that takes a new look at these assumptions and makes three core predictions termed dynamic construction, action-readiness, and interpretation of difficulty. That is, rather than being stable, which identities come to mind and what they mean are dynamically constructed in context. People interpret situations and difficulties in ways that are congruent with currently active identities and prefer identity-congruent to identity-incongruent actions. When action feels identity-congruent, experienced difficulty highlights that the behavior is important and meaningful. When action feels identity-incongruent, the same difficulty suggests that the behavior is pointless and “not for people like me.”

Smith, G. C. & Oyserman, D. (2015). Just not worth my time: Experienced difficulty and time investment. Social Cognition, 33, 86-103

Abstract: Students often fail to devote sufficient time to schoolwork even though they value school success. One reason may be that they (mis)interpret what experienced difficulty with schoolwork implies because they misgauge their experience relative to others. To test this prediction we divided students into four guided-recall groups. Students were guided to recall a time they interpreted experienced difficulty with schoolwork as meaning that succeeding in school was important and ‘for me’ (or impossible and ‘not for me’) then led to believe that they had the guided interpretation more (or less) frequently than others. Students in the ‘for me’ condition led to believe that they had this experience more than others and students in the ‘not for me’ condition led to believe that they had this experience less than others were more engaged with schoolwork (Study 1), invested more time and hence performed better on a test of intelligence (Study 2).

Oyserman, D., Destin, M. & Novin, S. (2015) The context-sensitive future self: possible selves motivate in context, not otherwise. Self and Identity, 14(2), 173-188. DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2014.965733

Abstract: Imagining one’s possible future self can motivate action but whether motivational power resides more in positive or more in negative future identities is not clear. We predicted that motivational power resides not in these positive or negative future identities but in the fit between context and future self. We varied fit in four experiments by having students read about college as a success-likely or failure-likely context and then write about their desired or undesired possible future identities. Which aspect of the future self was motivating depended on context. Motivation was higher in success-likely contexts if desired rather than undesired possible futures came to mind and was higher in failure-likely contexts if undesired rather than desired possible futures come to mind.


Landau, M. J., Oyserman, D., Keefer, L. A., & Smith, G. C. (2014) The College Journey and Academic Engagement: How Metaphor Use Enhances Identity-Based Motivation, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 679-698.

Abstract: People commonly talk about goals metaphorically as destinations on physical paths extending into the future or as contained in future periods. Does metaphor use have consequences for people’s motivation to engage in goal-directed action? Three experiments examine the effect of metaphor use on students’ engagement with their academic possible identity: their image of themselves as academically successful graduates. Students primed to frame their academic possible identity using the goal-as-journey metaphor reported stronger academic intention, and displayed increased effort on academic tasks, compared to students primed with a non-academic possible identity, a different metaphoric framing (goal-as-contained-entity), and past academic achievements (Studies 1-2). This motivating effect persisted up to a week later as reflected in final exam performance (Study 3). Four experiments examine the cognitive processes underlying this effect. Conceptual metaphor theory posits that an accessible metaphor transfers knowledge between dissimilar concepts. As predicted in this paradigm, a journey-metaphoric framing of a possible academic identity transferred confidence in the procedure, or action sequence, required to attain that possible identity, which in turn led participants to perceive that possible identity as more connected to their current identity (Study 4). Drawing on identity-based motivation theory, the authors hypothesized that strengthened current/possible identity connection would mediate the journey framing’s motivating effect. This mediational process predicted students’ academic engagement (Study 5) and an online sample’s engagement with possible identities in other domains (Study 6). Also as predicted, journey framing increased academic engagement particularly among students reporting a weak connection to their academic possible identity (Study 7).

Smith, G. C., James, L. E., Varnum, M. E. W., & Oyserman, D. (2014) Give up or get going? Productive uncertainty in uncertain times. Self and Identity,

Abstract: We live in uncertain times; the path toward attaining important goals is best thought of as probabilistic, not certain. Three studies test the prediction that this ‘world uncertainty’, uncertainty about the path, is motivating if accompanied by certainty that one can have the skills needed to work on one’s goals. Self- and world-certainty were separately manipulated in college students and effect on salience of academic and career possible identities and behaviors was assessed. For students, self-uncertainty reduces salience of academic-career possible identities (Study 1) but self-certainty does not help unless combined with some world-uncertainty (Study 2). This combination also increases planned study hours (Study 2) and actual goal-focused action, working on a resume builder instead of playing games (Study 3).

Oyserman, D., Smith, G. C., Elmore, K. (2014). Identity-based motivation: Implications for health and health disparities, Journal of Social Issues, 70, 206-225. doi: 10.1111/josi.12056

Abstract: People aspire to be healthy but often fall short of this goal. Poor health is associated with macro-level factors — social stratification and low socioeconomic position, including low education, low income, and low status racial-ethnic group membership. These social determinants differentially expose people to health-promoting (or undermining) contexts and to having (not having) choice and control over their lives. But social determinants cannot cause individual action directly. Identity-based motivation theory (Oyserman, 2007, 2009a, 2009b) addresses this gap, articulating how social determinants operate at the micro-level to influence whether or not a behavior or choice feels congruent with important identities and how such identity-congruence, in turn, influences which strategies are chosen and how difficulty is interpreted. Lack of choice and control make an interpretation of difficulty as meaning that effort is pointless and “not for people like me” (rather than important) more likely, reducing belief that one’s action and effort matter.

Zhu, S., Tse, S., Cheung, S. H., & Oyserman, D. (2014). Will I get there? Effects of parental support on children’s possible selves. British Journal of Educational Psychology.

Abstract: Imagining one’s future self is a hallmark of adolescence. But imagining is not enough; adolescents must feel that this future is plausibly likely and take action, which may require pragmatic support from parents. Prior research has examined the effect of parental aspirations and expectations on children’s possible self, not the effect of their support. Aims. Therefore, this study assessed the role of parental support on youths’ possible selves, strategies, and subjective likelihood of attaining possible selves. Sample. A representative sample of Hong Kong Chinese secondary students aged 12–20 (N = 3,078). Methods. Students responded to an in-class questionnaire. Responses were analyzed using generalized linear mixed models and linear mixed models. Results. Content of hoped-for possible selves was mostly about school and career. Content of feared possible selves was more diverse. Girls had more school- and career-focused possible selves and were more likely to have strategies to attain their positive and avoid their negative possible selves. Students reporting more pragmatic support (‘If I need to know something about the world, I can ask my parent about it’) from parents had more school- and career-focused possible selves and were more likely to believe they could attain their hoped-for and avoid their feared possible selves and to report having at least one strategy to do so. Conclusions. Parental pragmatic support provides students a secure base to engage in their future generally and in their school- and career-focused future in particular.


Oyserman, D. (2013). Not just any path: Implications of identity-based motivation for disparities in school outcomes. Economics of Education Review, 33, 179-190. durev.2012.09.002.

Abstract: Low-income and minority children aspire to school success and expect to attend college. Failing to aspire to college pretty much guarantees that one will not go. But aspiring to college alone is not enough. Aspirations do not necessarily result in relevant behavior; many children with high aspirations do not take sufficient action to work toward their school goals. This paper uses identity-based motivation theory (IBM, Oyserman, 2007, 2009a) to predict that school-focused expectations and aspirations predict action if at the moment of judgment, they are accessible (come to mind) and feel relevant. Relevance is operationalized in three ways. (1) Feeling congruent with important social identities (e.g., race-ethnicity, social class), (2) feeling connected with relevant behavioral strategies (studying, asking questions), and (3) providing an interpretation of difficulties along the way as implying task importance, not impossibility. Family assets and child savings are likely to influence each element of identity relevance.


Oyserman, D., Elmore, K., Smith, G. S. (2012). Self, self-concept, and identity. in M.Leary & J. Tangney (Eds). Handbook of self and Identity,2nd Ed (pp69-104). New York, NY: Guilford Press

Abstract: People believe they do not need to seriously weigh the pros and cons of many choices before deciding, that their identities provide a meaning-making anchor. They know who they are and who they are directs their choices. In that sense, choices large and small feel identity-based and identity-congruent. As we will outline in this chapter, this feeling of knowing oneself is important even though the assumptions on which it is based are often faulty. Feeling that one knows oneself facilitates using the self to make sense and make choices, using the self as an important perceptual, motivational and self-regulatory tool. This feeling of knowing oneself is based in part on an assumption of stability which is central to both everyday (lay) theories about the self and more formal (social science) theories about the self. Yet the assumption of stability is belied by the malleability, context-sensitivity, and dynamic construction of the self as a mental construct. Identities are not the fixed markers people assume them to be but instead are dynamically constructed in the moment. Choices that feel identity-congruent in one situation do not necessarily feel identity congruent in another situation. This flexibility is part of what makes the self useful. In the first section (Setting the Stage), we briefly operationalize what is meant by self and identity, drawing on other reviews from both sociological and psychological perspectives In the second section (Understanding Process), we consider what the self is assumed to be – a stable yet malleable mental construct, and what gaps remain in how the self is studied. In the third section (Thinking is For Doing), we address the basis for future research, outline in the fourth section (Dynamic Construction) with predictions about what the pragmatic, situated, experiential and embodied nature of mental processing imply for self and identity. Our final section (Wrapping Up and Moving Forward) provides a bulleted summary and highlights what we see as important new directions.

Oyserman, D. (2012). Working with Culturally/Racially Diverse Studentsto Improve Connection to School and Academic Performance. Chapter 57 In C. Franklin, M. Harris, & P. Allen-Meares (Eds.) The School Services Sourcebook: A Guide for Social Workers, Counselors, and Mental Health Professionals, 2nd edition (pp. 733-746). NY: Oxford University Press. 


Oyserman, D., Johnson, E., & James, L. (2011). Seeing the destination but not the path: Effects of socioeconomic disadvantage on school-focused possible self content and linked behavioral strategies. Self and Identity, 10, 474‐492.

Abstract: Low-income children perform better in school when school-focused future identities are a salient aspect of their possible self for the coming year and these school-focused future identities are linked to behavioral strategies (Oyserman et al., 2006). Hierarchical linear modeling of data from a four-state low-income neighborhood sample of eighth-graders suggests two central consequences of family and neighborhood socioeconomic deprivation on children’s school-focused possible identities and strategies. First, higher neighborhood disadvantage is associated with greater salience of school in children’s possible self for the coming year. Second, disadvantage clouds the path to school-success; controlling for salience of school-focused possible identities, children living in lower socioeconomic status families and boys living in more economically disadvantaged neighborhoods were less likely to have strategies to attain their school-focused possible identities. The influence of family socioeconomic status was seen particularly with regard to strategies to attain academic success and teacher engagement aspects of school-focused identities.

Elmore, K. C., & Oyserman, D. (2011) If ‘we’ can succeed, ‘I’ can too: Identity-based motivation and gender in the classroom. Contemporary Educational Psychology.

Abstract: Gender matters in the classroom, but not in the way people may assume; girls are outperforming boys. Identity-Based Motivation (IBM) theory explains why: People prefer to act in ways that feel in-line with important social identities such as gender. If a behavior feels identity-congruent, difficulty is interpreted as meaning that the behavior is important, not impossible, but what feels identity-congruent is context-dependent. IBM implies that boys (and girls) scan the classroom for clues about how to be male (or female); school effort will feel worthwhile if successful engagement with school feels gender-congruent, not otherwise. A between-subjects experimental design tested this prediction, manipulating whether gender and success felt congruent, incongruent, or not linked (control). Students in the success is gender-congruent condition described more school-focused possible identities, rated their likely future academic and occupational success higher, and tried harder on an academic task (this latter effect was significant only for boys).

Oyserman, D., & James, L. (2011). Possible identities. In S. Schwartz, K. Luyckx, & V. Vignoles (Eds.) Handbook of Identity Theory and Research (pp. 117-148). Springer-Verlag.

Abstract: Possible identities are aspects of the future or possible self; they are the identities one might hold in the future. This chapter reviews what is known about the content and consequences of possible identities. Of particular interest are the implications of possible identities for identity-based motivation, current action in pursuit of identity-based goals. From a theoretical perspective, possible identities are important; they provide a goal post for current action and an interpretive lens for making sense of experience and so should influence both well-being and motivation. Surprisingly little is known about how and under which circumstances these consequences occur. This chapter addresses this gap. Key findings are threefold. First, possible identities differ with life phase, life transition and life circumstance and intersect with other aspects of identity. Second, possible identities, and particularly negative possible identities, sometimes affect well-being. Similarly, possible identities are sometimes, but not always, implicated in current action. Research is beginning to address when and how possible identities matter. As outlined in the identity-based motivation model, connection, congruence and interpretation of difficulty matter. If a possible identity feels connected to the current self and the actions needed to attain the future identity feel congruent with the current self, then people are more likely to interpret difficulties they encounter as meaning that the future identity is important rather than impossible to attain, and consequently to persist in their pursuit of this future identity.


Oyserman,  D. & Destin, M. (2010). Identity-based motivation: Implications for intervention. The Counseling Psychologist, 38, 1001– 1043. 

Abstract: Children want to succeed academically and attend college, but their actual attainment often lags behind; some groups (e.g., boys, low-income children) are particularly likely to experience this gap. Social structural factors matter, influencing this gap in part by affecting children’s perceptions of what is possible for them and people like them in the future. Interventions that focus on this macro-micro interface can boost children’s attainment. We articulate the processes underlying these effects using an integrative culturally sensitive framework entitled identity-based motivation (IBM, Oyserman, 2007, 2009a, 2009b). The IBM model assumes that identities are dynamically constructed in context. People interpret situations and difficulties in ways that are congruent with currently active identities and prefer identity-congruent to identity-incongruent actions. When action feels identity-congruent, experienced difficulty highlights that the behavior is important and meaningful. When action feels identity-incongruent, the same difficulty suggests that the behavior is pointless and “not for people like me.”

Destin,  M. & Oyserman, D. (2010) Incentivizing education: Seeing schoolwork as an investment, not a chore. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 846-849.

Abstract: Most American children expect to attend college but because they do not necessarily spend much time on schoolwork, they may fail to reach their imagined “college-bound” future self. The proposed identity-based motivation model helps explain why this gap occurs: Imagined “college-bound” identities cue school-focused behavior if they are salient and feel relevant to current choice options, not otherwise. Two studies with predominantly low-income and African American middle school students support this prediction. Almost all of the students expect to attend college, but only half describe education-dependent (e.g., law, medicine) adult identities. Having education-dependent rather than education-independent adult identities (e.g., sports, entertainment) predicts better grades over time, controlling for prior grade point average (Study 1). To demonstrate causality, salience of education-dependent versus education-independent adult identities was experimentally manipulated. Children who considered education-dependent adult identities (vs. education-independent ones) were eight times more likely to complete a take-home extra credit assignment (Study 2).


Oyserman, D. (2009). Identity-based motivation: Implications for action-readiness, procedural-readiness, and consumer behavior. Target Article in Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19, 250–260.

Abstract: Choices are often identity-based but the linkage to identity is not necessarily explicit or obvious for a number of reasons. First, identities feel stable but are highly sensitive to situational cues. Second, identities include not only content but also readiness to act and to use procedures congruent with the identity. Third, identities can be subtly cued without conscious awareness. Fourth, what an accessible identity means is dynamically constructed in the particular context in which it is cued. Because identities carry action- and procedural-readiness, the outcome of an identity-based motivation process may be similar to or different from the choices an individual would have made in another setting. Moreover, once an identity is formed, action and procedural readiness can be cued without conscious awareness or systematic processing, resulting in beneficial or iatrogenic outcomes.

Oyserman, D. (2009). Identity-based motivation and consumer behavior. Response to commentary. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 19, 276–279.

Abstract: Choices are often identity-based yet the identity-to-choice link is not necessarily obvious for reasons articulated by the identity-based motivation model (Oyserman, 2009). Specifically, which identities are salient and what identities mean in the moment are highly dependent on situational cues. Though they feel stable, identities are dynamically shaped by situational affordances and constraints and this shaping process can occur without conscious awareness. This implies that product use, including use of utilitarian products, can become identity-based, as can both self-constructive and self-destructive choices. Over time, broader identities are more likely to be cued than more narrow ones, though any identity can be cued in the right circumstances. The commentaries apply the model to culture-contingent effects of power (Shavitt, Torelli, & Wong, 2009), charitable giving (Aaker & Akutsu, 2009), and the consequences of salient identities for self-constructive vs. self-destructive choices (Kirmani, 2009) and this commentary addresses some of the questions they raise.

Destin, M., & Oyserman, D. (2009). From assets to school outcomes. Psychological Science

Abstract: People do not always take action to attain their desired possible selves – after all, whether consciously or nonconsciously, taking current action makes sense if there is an open path toward attaining the desired self, but not if paths are closed. Following this logic, children from low asset families may lower their expectations for school success and plan to engage in less effort in school. To test this hypothesis, two studies examine the impact of experimentally manipulating mindset about college as either “closed” (expensive) or “open” (can be paid for with need-based financial aid) among low-income early adolescents. Adolescents randomly assigned to the open-path condition expected higher grades (predominantly Hispanic/Latino 7th graders, Study 1, n = 48, compared to the closed-path condition) and planned to spend more time on homework (when controlling for current grade point average, predominantly African American 7th graders Study 2, n = 48, compared to no-prime control).

Oyserman, D. & James, L. (2009). Possible selves: From content to process. In K. Markman, W.M.P. Klein, & J.A. Suhr (Eds.). The Handbook of Imagination and Mental Stimulation. (pp373-394). NY: Psychology Press. 

Abstract: Possible selves are visions of the self in a future state; like guideposts, possible selves can orient current choices and behavior. Envisioning ones’ future “healthy self,” the self who can take the stairs without becoming breathless, or ones’ future “unhealthy, smoking self,” the self who no longer can do so, can make current choices — pushing the elevator button, refraining from buying a new package of cigarettes or going to the gym — feel meaningful rather than simply painful. Yet people do not always act in ways that enhance their chances of attaining their positive and avoiding their negative possible selves. Why not? We suggest three factors that may increase likelihood of discrepancy between possible selves and self-regulatory behaviors: (Mis)match, (no) gap, and (mis)interpretation of subjective experience.

Lee, S. J., & Oyserman, D. (2009). Expecting to work, fearing homelessness: The possible selves of low-income mothers. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Abstract: We explored the content of possible selves of low-income mothers and the strategies they have to work on their possible selves. Positive, expected possible selves focused on getting a job, making ends meet and caregiving. Negative, to-be-avoided possible selves focused on failing to make ends meet, losing (or not getting) jobs, and problems with mental health. Immediate social context, rather than demographic (age, education, number of children, current work status, race) or global work-family variables was associated with content of possible selves. Controlling for demographic and work-family variables, job-focused possible selves (and strategies to attain them) were more salient and caregiving and mental health-related possible selves (and relevant strategies) less salient to mothers in job-training programs vs. welfare offices.

Lee, S. J. & Oyserman, D. (2009). Possible selves theory. E. Anderman & L. Anderman (Eds). Psychology of Classroom Learning: An Encyclopedia. Detroit, Michigan: Macmillan Reference USA. 

Abstract: Self-concept is one’s theory about oneself, the person one was in the past, is now, and can become in the future, including social roles and group memberships. A well-functioning self-concept helps make sense of one’s present, preserves positive self-feelings, makes predictions about the future, and guides motivation. The contents of the future-oriented component of self-concept have been termed possible selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Possible selves are the selves one believes one might become in the near and the more distal future and are therefore important in goal setting and motivation (for a review, see Oyserman & James, in press). Possible selves are valenced; that is, each individual has both positive images of the selves he or she desires and expects to become and negative images of the selves he or she wishes to avoid becoming. While current self-concept focuses on who one is now, by focusing on the future, possible selves allow for self-improvement, malleability, and personal growth. They provide a chance to experiment with and try on various potential futures (“Maybe I’ll be a teacher or maybe I’ll be a nurse. What would it be like to become a teacher or a nurse? How would I get there? What are the stages and obstacles along the way?”). The future is the target of much of our efforts as individuals. Homework is done and broccoli is eaten all in pursuit of some future state. As noted by Oyserman & James (in press), doing or not doing homework one night really does not make that much difference, but if each night’s homework is viewed in this way, homework will rarely get done— and that does matter. Whether one eats or does not eat the potato chips with lunch today does not make or break one’s likelihood of being overweight, but, over time, each of these small choices adds up. In this sense, current actions are taken due to individuals’ beliefs about their consequences in the future. Generally speaking, individuals are motivated to reduce the gap between their present and future positive possible selves while increasing the gap between their present and future negative possible selves.


Oyserman, D. (2008). Possible selves: Identity-based motivation and school success. In H. Marsh, R. Craven, & D., McInerney (Eds.), Self-Processes, Learning and Enabling Human Potential Dynamic New Approaches, Vol 3 in International Advances in Self Research. (pp. 269-288). Information Age Press, USA.

Abstract: Possible selves are the future-oriented component of self-concept, but do not always successfully orient persist goal pursuit. This chapter describes when goal pursuit is likely and summarizes relevant correlational, experimental and intervention-based evidence.

Fryberg,  S., Markus, H., Oyserman, D., & Stone, J. (2008). Of warrior chiefs and Indian princesses: The psychological consequences of American Indian mascots. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 30, 208-218. 

Abstract: When primed with images of mascots (e.g. college or professional sports mascots), American Indians generate fewer achievement related possible selves than in either a control condition or an American Indian College Fund prime condition. No difference in these latter two conditions were found.


Oyserman, D. (2007). Social Identity and Self-regulation. In A.W. Kruglanski & E.T. Higgins (Eds.), Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles (second edition). New York: Guilford Press.

Abstract: The basic principles that guide this chapter are first that individuals are influenced by what comes to mind when making a judgment and second that what it is that comes to mind can be contextually or chronically cued. All things being equal, individuals assume that what comes to mind is relevant, in the case of social identity and self-regulation, what comes to mind is assumed relevant to the things ‘we’ do, feel, or believe. What this ‘we’ is, is perceived as stable and even central to identity, but may shift over time. Images of what ‘we’ do provide an outline of one’s possible future, sketching out both the possible selves ‘we’ can become and the kinds of strategies ‘we’ use to attain these self-relevant goals. When possible selves thus articulated are linked with effective strategies they improve self-regulatory success. Conversely, when the possible selves thus articulated are linked with ineffective strategies they undermine self-regulatory success. In this way, social identities provide both reasons to act and not to act and also ways to act or avoid action to attain goals. They not only cue us to try but also suggest standards for what trying looks like – what we do, what constitutes sufficient effort for us, and so on.

Oyserman, D., Fryberg, S. A., & Yoder, N. (2007). Identity-based motivation and health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Abstract: People do not always take action to promote health, engaging instead in unhealthy habits and reporting fatalism about health. One important mechanism underlying these patterns involves identity-based motivation (Oyserman, 2007), the process by which content of social identities influences beliefs about in-group goals and strategies. Seven studies show an effect of identity-based motivation on health. Racial-ethnic minority participants view health promotion behaviors as “White, middle class” and unhealthy behaviors as in-group defining (Studies 1-2). Priming race-ethnicity (and low SES) increases health fatalism and reduces access to health knowledge (Studies 3-4). Perceived efficacy of health-promoting activities is undermined when racial-ethnic minority participants who identify unhealthy behavior as in-group defining are asked to consider their similarities to (middle class) Whites (Studies 5-7).

Oyserman, D., Brickman, D., & Rhodes, M. (2007). School success, possible selves, and parent school-involvement. Family Relations.

Abstract: Increased parent school-involvement is associated with better academic outcomes, yet proximal contributors to this effect remain understudied. We focus on one potential proximal contributor, youth’s positive and negative future self-images or “possible selves,” reasoning that if parent school-involvement fosters possible selves then interventions aimed at enhancing youths’ possible selves should moderate the negative effect of low parent school-involvement. We examine a two-year follow-up of a randomized clinical trial of a possible-self-based intervention (N = 239), demonstrating with regression equations that the intervention moderated the association of low parent school-involvement with worse grades and less school-engaged behavior. Low school-involvement negatively influenced achievement among control, not intervention, youth, suggesting that school-based possible-self-focused interventions can moderate the undermining effect of low parent school-involvement.


Oyserman, D., Bybee, D. & Terry, K. (2006). Possible selves and academic outcomes: How and when possible selves impel action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 188-204.

Abstract: Possible selves are the motivational link between the present and imagined future yet possible selves do not always predict behavior. This article outlines when possible selves are likely to predict behavior, articulates an intervention to create these conditions, and provides 2-year follow-up evidence from a randomized clinical trial supporting this model.

Oyserman, D. & Fryberg, S. A. (2006). The possible selves of diverse adolescents: Content and function across gender, race and national origin. In C. Dunkel & J. Kerpelman (Eds.), Possible selves: Theory, research, and applications (pp. 17-39). Huntington, NY: Nova. 

Abstract: This chapter provides a full review of the literature on possible selves in adolescence, with a focus on minority youth.


Oyserman, D., Bybee, D., Terry, K., & Hart-Johnson, T. (2004). Possible selves as roadmaps. Journal of Research in Personality38(2), 130-149.

Abstract: A series of analyses documenting that possible selves which include concrete strategies do indeed motivate and sustain behavior change over time

Oyserman D., Bybee, D., Mowbray, C. & Kahng, S. (2004). Parenting Self-Construals of Mothers With a Serious Mental Illness: Efficacy, Burden, and Personal Growth. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 2503-2523.

Abstract: We explored parenting self-construals among mothers with serious mental illness (n = 379). Mothers reported feeling moderately positively about themselves as parents, more efficacious than inefficacious, more positive than negative, more valued than disvalued; but also at least somewhat restricted and burdened by motherhood. Factor analyses revealed 3 parenting self-construal factors: Efficacious, burdenered, and parenting as a personal growth experience. In hierarchical regression analyses, parenting self-construal factors significantly added to prediction of parenting behaviors and attitudes (nurturance, explanatory parenting style, and parentingf stress), once demographic, mental health history, and current social context variables (support, stress, and current mental health) were taken into account. Maternal parenting self-efficacy increased (while self-construal of parenting as a burden decreased ) positive parenting style.


Oyserman, D., Terry, K., & Bybee, D. (2002). A possible selves intervention to enhance school involvement. Journal of adolescence25(3), 313-326.

Abstract: We developed a 9-week after-school, small group, activities-based intervention focusedon enhancing youth’s abilities to imagine themselves as successful adults and connecting these future imagines to current school involvement. We describe and evaluate this programme comparing three cohorts of urban African American middle school students (n = 62 experimental, n = 146 control), controlling for sex and previous school involvement. By the end of the school year, intervention youth reported more bonding to school, concern about doing well in school, ‘‘balanced’’ possible selves, plausible strategies to attain these possible selves, better school attendance, and for boys, less trouble at school.


Oyserman, D. (2001). Self-concept and identity. In Tesser, A., & Schwarz, N. (Eds.). (2008). Blackwell handbook of social psychology: Intraindividual processes. John Wiley & Sons.

Abstract: This chapter provides a brief overview of research on self-concept and the interface between self-concept and culture.

Kemmelmeier, M., & Oyserman, D. (2001). Gendered influence of downward social comparisons on current and possible selves. Journal of Social Issues,57(1), 129-148. 

Abstract: Because men and women differ with regard to independent and interdependent self-construals, we propose that downward comparisons are more likely to lower women’s achievement-related self-evaluations compared to men’s. We also hypothesize that gendered self-schemas provide men with advantages in the processing of self-related dispositional information and women with advantages in the processing of self-related social-contextual information. To the extent that a downward social comparison presents a potential threat to the self, men and women differ in how effectively they can fend off the implications of different types of comparisons. Results from three experiments (total N = 393) support these hypotheses, suggesting that gendered responses to downward comparison are at least in part driven by a culturally normative focus on dispositional information prevalent in the West.


Oyserman, D., & Markus, H. R. (1998). Self as social representation. The psychology of the social, 107-125. 

Abstract: This chapter focuses on a formulation of self-concept that focuses explictly on the social construction of identity and draws out implications and gaps in current research focus.


Oyserman, , D. & Packer, M. (1996). Social cognition and self-concept: A socially contextualized model of identity. In J.L. Nye and A.M. Brower (Eds), What’s social about social cognition? (pp. 175-201). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 

Abstract: In this chapter we describe identity construction as a social and intersubjective process. Both identity and the process by which identity is constructed and maintained are social. A sense of self is produced and reproduced in face-to-face and here-and-now contexts embedded in historical epoches.


Oyserman, D., Gant, L., & Ager, J. (1995). A socially contextualized model of racial identity: Possible selves and school persistence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 1216-1232.

Abstract: A series of studies documenting (1) white and black differences in individualism and collectivism, and in the link between their possible selves and strategies to attain them, (2) the promotive effect of racial identity for African American students and (3) gender differences in the tendency for students to assimilate or contrast their possible selves with the outcomes of their failing or succeeding peers, (4) gender differences in the effect of possible selves on academic outcomes. Abstract: Schooling, critical to the transition to adulthood, is particularly problematic for urban and minority youths. To explore predictors of school persistence the authors propose a socially contextualized model of the self. Strategies to attain achievement-related possible selves were differentially predicted for White and Black university students (Study 1, n = 105). For Whites, individualism, the Protestant work ethic, and “balance” in possible selves predicted generation of more achievement-related strategies. For Blacks, collectivism, ethnic identity, and low endorsement of individualism tended to predict strategy generation. In middle school, performance was predicted by “gendered African American identity schema,” particularly for females (Study 2, n = 146), and the effects of social context appeared gendered (Study 3, n = 55). Balance in achievement-related possible selves predicted school achievement, especially for African American males (Study 4, n = 55).


Oyserman, D., & Saltz, E. (1993). Competence, delinquency, and attempts to attain possible selves. Journal of personality and social psychology65(2), 360.

Abstract: The impact of impulsivity, possible selves, and social and communication skills on deliquent involvement in inner-citty high school and incarcerated boys (aged 13-17, N = 230) was explored. Impulsivity, perceived attempts to attain possible selves, and balance in possible selves were hypothesized to directly influence deliquency. Social and Communication skills were hypothesized to influence deliquency. Social and communication skills were hypothesized to influence delinquency directly and indirectly through their effects on impulsivity, balance, and attempts to attain possible selves. These factors disciminated moderately well between high school and incarcerated youths. Impulsivity was an especially powerful predictor of self-reported deliquency among high school youths but not among incarcerated youths. The effects of other variables differed somewhat for different categories of deliquency (aggression, theft, hooliganism, and school truancy).

Oyserman, D. (1993) Adolescent identity and delinquency in interpersonal context. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 23, 203-214.

Abstract: The relationship between delinquent involvement and the perceived importance of a variety of others in influencing, creating, and sustaining identity was explored in four subsamples (n = 238) of teens of varying levels of official delinquency. More delinquent teens were more likely to view conventional peers, delinquent peers and lifestyles, or no one at all as influencing their sense of self and identity. They were less likely to perceive parents and other adults as influential.


Oyserman, D. & Markus, H. R. (1990). Possible selves in balance – Implications for delinquency, Journal of Social Issues, 42, 141-157.

Abstract: The relationship between possible selves and deliquency is explored. In this study, 238 youths between the ages of 13-16 who varied in the degree of their delinquency were asked to describe their possible selves. Although many similarities were found among their hoped-for selves, the groups of youth differed markedly in the nature of their expected and feared selves. The balance between expected possible selves and feared possible selves was the particular focus. Balance is hypothesized to occur when expected possible selves are offset by countervailing feared selves in the same domain (e.g., expecting a job but fearingf being unemployed). It was found that the officially nondeliquent youths were quite likely to display balance between their expectations and fears, unlike the most deliquent youth. In contrast, a conventional measure of self-esteem that indicates how people feel about themselves currently did not predict degree of delinquency.


Markus,  H., & Oyserman, D. (1989). Gender and thought: The role of the self-concept. In Gender and thought: Psychological perspectives (pp. 100-127). Springer New York.