Psych Experiment Tricks Students Into Believing in Non-Existent Career

Confused FelipeBy Heather Callaghan

How career dreams are born, and then evaporated. Study shows how to convince those with low self-confidence to pursue their career choice – by first crushing their self-esteem….

What does it take to convince a person that they are qualified to achieve the career of their dreams? Researchers found that it’s not enough to tell people they have the skills or the grades to make their goal a reality. No, why stop there?

Instead, many people need a more vivid and detailed description of just how pursuing their dream career will help make them successful.

What better way to do that than to make one up and motivate graduates to apply for said non-existent career program?

This [belief, study] is especially important for people who have the skills and potential to pursue a particular career, but lack the self-confidence, said Patrick Carroll, author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at The Ohio State University’s Lima campus.

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Carroll said:

Students who have chronic self-doubt may need an extra boost to pursue the dreams they are certainly able to achieve. 

This study finds that what they really need is a vivid picture of what will happen if they succeed.

The study was published online this week in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology. It involved 67 undergraduate business and psychology students at Ohio State.

The students signed up to meet with a career adviser to learn about a supposedly new master’s degree program in business psychology that would train them for “high-paying consulting positions as business psychologists.”

However, the program didn’t actually exist. The goal was to get the students interested in the program, and see how they reacted when faced with varying levels of validation to their new dreams of becoming a business psychologist.

All the students read a brochure about the program and then filled out several questionnaires. They were asked to rate their self-confidence that they could become a business psychologist, whether they were excited about the possibility of becoming a business psychologist, whether they thought they could be admitted to the business psychology program and whether they intended to apply. They also reported their overall GPA.

Basically, they were put into separate groups, where some were simply told their GPA exceeded the program requirements.

In another group, the validation was raised slightly: The adviser told the participants that they were exactly what the program was looking for and that it was unlikely they would be rejected if they applied.

The last group received the strongest validation to their hopes of becoming a business psychologist: They were also told they were qualified and were unlikely to be rejected if they applied. But the adviser added that it was likely that the student would be accepted with full funding and excel in the program and would graduate with numerous job offers in business psychology.

(That certainly helps – who wouldn’t apply for that?)

Afterward, the participants once again filled out forms asking how confident and excited they were about becoming a business psychologist and whether they expected they would be admitted. In addition, the students were given the opportunity to actually apply to the program.

To the researchers, the results were striking. The students in the control group and those who were simply told their GPA exceeded the program requirements didn’t embrace the possible new goal of becoming a business psychologist.

These participants did not show any elevations in self-confidence related to becoming a business psychologist and were unlikely to apply to the program or even ask for more information.

“Even when students learn that they exceed some external admissions requirement to become a business psychologist, they still have to decide whether that means they should pursue that career dream instead of any others,” Carroll said.

“They may need more validation than that to pursue this career goal.”

However, when the adviser clearly detailed the vivid prospect of success, the students were willing to embrace the pursuit of that new business psychology goal.

Specifically, students given the most vivid validation had higher levels of self-confidence immediately after meeting with the adviser and were more likely to actually apply to the business psychology program. (And undoubtedly, the highest levels of disappointment.)

“Self-confidence played a key role here. Students felt more confident that they could really be successful as a business psychologist when they received a detailed picture from their adviser,” Carroll said. (And then immediately plunged into the depths of low self-esteem.)

Following the study, the researchers thoroughly debriefed all participants on why it was necessary to use deception to study how students, like them, naturally respond to social validation to pursue new career goals. But they never debrief readers on why this set-up was necessary….

In addition, researchers provided all participants with detailed information on career counseling services that they could utilize on campus for help in making future career choices. This extensive debriefing was designed to remove any adverse influence of the study feedback on participants before they left, Carroll said. (Right, because disillusionment doesn’t bode well for the hopeful psychology graduate.)

After the purpose of the study was explained to them, many participants were enthusiastic about the research and its relevance in revealing how others can shape their own career decisions, he said. (Um, sure…)

Carroll said:

Sometimes students have the grades, the motivation and the ability but simply lack the necessary self-confidence to whole-heartedly invest in the pursuit of a realistic new goal. 

This work shows how parents, teachers and counselors can steer students into the right direction to achieve their dreams.

Certainly, but could this not have been discovered by the use of an already existing program? Or does such a program simply not exist? Meaning a program with legitimate job openings in the current economic state of affairs.

The findings are especially relevant now as students prepare for an uncertain job market and they, along with their teachers and guidance counselors, try to find the best career choices for them – by inducing grave uncertainty.

“Educators are trying to lead students to the most realistic career options,” Carroll said. Again, the career market in the study was…unreal.

This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. (The researchers followed a protocol to help students who may have been disappointed that there wasn’t a real program.)

What was the real point of this study – does it border on sadism to you?

Heather Callaghan is a natural health blogger and food freedom activist. You can see her work at and Like at Facebook.

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