PRYDE Organizes Youth Purpose Symposium

PRYDE postdoc Rachel Sumner presenting

PRYDE postdoc Rachel Sumner presenting

The Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA) is a biannual, nation-wide academic conference. At SRA, scholars interested in every imaginable topic related to adolescence have the opportunity to gather and share their ideas with colleagues. Conferences are typically a wonderful way to forge new connections with other professionals in the field, and brainstorm future research collaborations.

SRA convened for their 17th meeting in Minneapolis, MN from April 12th – 14th, 2018. On the very first day of the conference, several PRYDE affiliates showcased their work in a symposium, “The Ecology of Youth Purpose: Contextualizing Purpose within the Immediate Environment.” Four invited speakers discussed their research regarding how youth purpose development actively shapes, and takes shape within, the environment that surrounds adolescents most closely.

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model

Kaylin Ratner, chair of the symposium and PRYDE-affiliated graduate student, kicked off the session with a short introduction to orient the audience to the concepts of purpose and human ecology. As she explained, several definitions of purpose have been put forth in the literature; however, a consensus has formed around the notion that purpose serves as an overarching life aim that stimulates and directs goals and everyday behaviors (e.g., McKnight & Kashdan, 2009). Further, researchers tend to agree that purpose is a mechanism for optimal youth functioning (e.g., Bronk, 2014). Ecology, on the other hand, describes the social, physical, and structural contexts where human development takes place (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Of particular interest to the symposium’s topic, the microsystem describes one’s immediate environment, and is characterized by direct, transactional relationships between a person and their surroundings.

Dr. Kendall Cotton Bronk, from Claremont Graduate University, presented first with her talk, “Fostering Purpose among Adolescents.” Highlighting the microsystem at youth fingertips, Dr. Bronk introduced the audience to two online toolkits aimed at fostering either purpose or, a related character strength, gratitude. Dr. Bronk and her team developed a 6-day intervention where over 1,000 adolescents spent 15 minutes a day accessing these toolkits via their cellphones, tablets, and computers. Adolescents in the purpose-fostering group spent the study engaging in activities relevant to goal setting, identity development, and locating their values. Adolescents in the gratitude-fostering group focused on counting their blessings and writing letters of gratitude to influential adults. At the end of their study, both gratitude- and purpose-fostering toolkits were related to significant increases in searching for, and identified, purpose in life relative to adolescents in a control group. These gains sustained at a follow-up observation later in time.

Rosario Majano, current PRYDE scholar, stood in for PRYDE co-director, Dr. Anthony Burrow, presenting, “Purpose and Moral Licensing.” Under moral licensing theory (Merritt, Effron, & Monin, 2010; Sachdeva, Iliev, & Medin, 2009), people who engage in or witness moral behavior are hypothesized to be more likely (i.e., “licensed”) to engage in subsequent immoral behavior. While it was found that individuals reporting at least one moral act were nearly two times more likely to report an immoral act later, exploratory analyses demonstrated that disagreeing with the statement, “There is not enough purpose in my life,” acted as a moderator of this effect. That is, for people who felt that their life indeed had enough purpose, the association between reporting at least one moral act and subsequent reporting of immoral acts no longer existed. In summary, these results hint at a trend for purposeful individuals to not fall victim to the quid pro quo effects observed under moral licensing theory.

Leah Schultz, graduate student from Washington University in St. Louis, spoke third with her talk, “Early Child-Parent Conflict as a Predictor of Sense of Purpose in Late Adolescence.” Utilizing parent and child data from over 1,000 adolescents participating in the Oregon Youth Substance Use Program (Andrews, Tildesley, Hops, Duncan, & Severson, 2003), Leah investigated how parent-child conflict between grades 1-5 related to felt purpose in life 9-15 years later. Conflict with mother or father, as reported by the child, was associated with significantly less purpose in adolescence, even after controlling for the sex of the child and parental education. However, parent reports of conflict during childhood were unassociated with the child’s sense of purpose at follow up. These findings highlight the highly subjective nature of human experiences, and the downstream importance of fostering healthy parent-child relationships early in the lifespan.

Finally, Dr. Rachel Sumner, PRYDE post-doctoral researcher, anchored the session with her presentation, “Cultivating Purpose in a Youth Development Program Context.” In this study, Dr. Sumner investigated how 4-H functions as a purpose-promoting context for youth, and shared facilitators’ beliefs about how their programs contribute to purpose formation. In her interviews with sixty-two 4-H educators and volunteers from New York State, Dr. Sumner found that 4-H’s focus on fostering emotional support (with friends, family, and program leaders), goal-setting, and identity development were the most common themes believed to help youth find purpose. Further, facilitators nominated 4-H’s unique opportunities for long-term engagement, exploration of new hobbies and interests, and flexibility as programmatic aspects that encourage purpose development above and beyond typical school experiences. In addition to being the first to suggest specific aspects of 4-H that may be most influential to helping youth locate their purpose in life, Dr. Sumner’s presentation lent the session one-of-a-kind insight into perspectives on purpose development from the microsystem itself.

Clear from many of the talks presented is that caring, supportive adults play an indispensable role in positioning youth for long-term success, positive development, and gaining the putative benefits associated with finding a sense of purpose. Furthermore, indirect efforts at increasing purpose (e.g., by supporting youth through their successes and failures, promoting gratitude, encouraging youth to take on opportunities to discover who they are) may be viable targets for researchers and 4-H practitioners to pursue. By welcoming conference goers to take part in this discussion about how purpose forms and functions in relation to the structures, people, and opportunities that surround youth, PRYDE affiliates and the invited speakers helped pave the way for scholars and practitioners to appropriately consider how contextual forces shape purpose development.

By Kaylin Ratner

Kaylin RatnerComment