One of the best studies I’ve ever seen on behavior change was run by Tim Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia. He took a group of first-year college students who were struggling—they weren’t doing well in school and were worried about their future—and randomly assigned the students into one of two groups: one group received a short, 30-minute intervention; the other received nothing special.
Wilson was concerned that the students saw themselves as failures. His intervention entailed giving the students information about potential interpretations of their bad performance in school:
We gave them some facts and some testimonials from other students that suggested that their problems might have a different cause…namely, that it’s hard to learn the ropes in college at first, but that people do better as the college years go on, when they learn to adjust and to study differently than they did in high school… (Gilbert and Wilson 2011)
The randomly selected group that reinterpreted their bad grades got better grades in the future. They got better grades all the way to their final year in college; they also were less likely to drop out of college. While the study did not track their full academic performance over time, we can posit that the effects were not immediate. Rather, it appears that students would have slowly changed how they saw themselves and gradually changed the amount of effort they put into their studying, after this initial ...