Gregory Walton on Social Connectedness and Motivation

By Mark Mabry, Head Teacher

At Bing’s 2009 fall staff development day, teachers and staff learned about how social belonging affects motivation from a leading researcher on the topic. Gregory Walton, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, spoke about his research on social belonging and achievement motivation at the October 10, 2009, workshop.

Walton is interested in the notion of social identity: people’s sense of their connections and relationships to others, and the social groups with which they identify themselves. He believes that social identity is a powerful source of motivation, especially as it influences achievement. He also posits that people’s interest, engagement and motivation derive from their social identity. For example, people are often motivated to go to work when they may not be feeling well, primarily because of their affiliation with their work community. Membership in a social group appears to greatly influence persistence in pursuing tasks and goals that are seen as important to the group.

Walton believes that the desire to be connected to others is adaptive: Goals cannot be accomplished alone, but only within a collective of people. People in social groups develop shared motivations that might not even be noticeable to them. Their shared interests and goals affirm social relationships and solidify membership in their community. Walton’s research has been looking at how even small social cues might have an impact on social motivation.

Past research on motivation has emphasized the role of individuals’ perceptions of their abilities and autonomy. However, Walton believes that social context provides important information about a person’s identity and helps define these perceptions. A reason social belonging might help motivation is that people tend to develop their interests and motivation collectively with others. For example, simply participating in a task with others may lead to an individual’s increased interest and engagement with the task.

Walton’s research focuses on three areas of social motivation: mere belonging, sociality and motivation, and group differences in academic achievement. While most of his research has been with college-age subjects, he began work at Bing this past winter, looking at the effects of social motivation with young children and focusing on mere belonging and sociality.

The question posed in looking at the notion of “mere belonging” is whether minimal social connections to others engaged in an achievement domain increase individual motivation. In one study Walton has conducted in this area, college students were shown a newspaper article highlighting a former math major at their school. The only variable manipulated in this study was that of the math major’s birth date published in the article; in the experimental group, the date matched the participants’, in the control group, it did not. Those who were told that they shared a common birthday persisted 60 percent longer when presented with an insoluble math puzzle. In addition, these students also reported greater interest in the math department and their sense of potential “fit” for themselves in that department. Even this very arbitrary social link with another person seemed to have a positive effect on a person’s motivation.

In a related study, another way of creating social linkage was examined. College students were arbitrarily identified by the researchers as either being a “numbers person” or as a member of a “numbers group” and then given an insoluble math puzzle. In this “minimal group” study, the students who were identified as belonging to the group persisted at the task for 50 percent longer than those who were given an individual identity. Though the assignment as part of a group or as an individual was not tied to actual math ability, the social link seemed to affect motivation.

Walton’s “mere belonging” research is currently being investigated at Bing by Allison Master, a graduate student in Stanford’s psychology department. Her study compares interest in doing a task as an individual to doing a task as a member of the group. In this study, children are presented with a challenging puzzle to complete. Some children are told that they are part of a group of other children working on the same task, and will wear a group T-shirt while completing the puzzle. Other children are told that they are working as an individual and wear an individual T-shirt. A third group simply works on the puzzle with no specific instructions. The researchers will measure how long children choose to persist at the task and how much they appear to enjoy it. Preliminary data indicate that the children assigned the group identity persist at the task longer than those working as individuals or those with no instructions.

In a series of related studies conducted with Stanford graduate student Priyanka Carr, Walton investigated if the sense of working together with others in a task would increase motivation. In these studies, college students were assigned individual tasks to work on as their sense of belonging to a social group was manipulated. While attempting to complete a challenging puzzle, a note was given to the students providing some helpful hint. This note was identified as coming either from another student participant or from the researcher, that is, either someone who was perceived as engaged in same task or someone who knew about the task but was not participating in the shared goal. Findings indicated that the students who felt that they were working together with others persisted longer at the task. In addition, these students also tended to underestimate the amount of time that they were working on the task, which was seen as an indicator of their enjoyment of the task. Participants also felt less tired and made fewer mistakes in the psychologically “together” condition.

Similar sociality studies are being conducted at Bing by psychology graduate student Lucas Butler. These studies look at how the feeling of “working together” affects young children’s motivation to participate in a task. In these studies, Butler presents children with a difficult puzzle to complete. Some children work on this task alone, but other children are given a sense that they are working with others together at the same task. This sense of social connection is conveyed through pictures or videos of other children working on the same puzzle. Butler assesses children’s motivation on a task by measuring how long they persist in working on the puzzle. Preliminary data from this study indicate that the notion of working together at a task leads children to be more motivated and to persist longer on average.

Walton’s research into social connectedness and motivation research demonstrates that a person’s individual interests and motivation are inextricably woven into a social context. Those things that one identifies as personal interests and motivations and the things that bring pleasure and joy are derived from a sense of belonging to communities that share common interests, goals and aspirations.