Harnessing the Power of Recursive Processes – Part I

Updated: Apr 19

In this three-part series, we'll explore what recursive psychological processes are, how they lead to big effects, and what educators can do to leverage them to support their students’ motivation, engagement and human thriving. Additional resources are provided at the end of each post for those wishing to dive deeper into this fascinating topic.

PART I: What are recursive processes and why do they matter?

Even before the pandemic of 2020, student engagement has been a perennial challenge; national data shows that beginning in 6th grade, engagement steadily declines through 12th grade (1) and even into college (2). For students who belong to historically marginalized and oppressed groups, this number is even lower (3,4). Why? One factor is that there are key moments on the journey through school when students’ motivation, trust in their teachers or school, or their self-confidence can be fragile. In these moments something that may seem small from the outside can feel much bigger to a student. So big, in fact, that it can trigger a downward spiral of lost confidence and disengagement.

The good news is that educators can take simple steps to harness these very same moments to reinforce an upward spiral in engagement. How? By learning to recognize when motivation and confidence can be vulnerable, by becoming attuned to what concerns and doubts faculty and their students may be experiencing and learning effective strategies for preemptively intervene in ways that can instill more positive meaning-making processes that build trust, confidence and resilience. This is how educators can harness the power of self-reinforcing loops, called recursive processes. That is, “processes that recur because they feed off their own consequences” (5).

Before we dive in, I want to be clear that leveraging recursive psychological processes is not meant to be a panacea that will magically solve all motivational challenges. There are many factors influencing student motivation that require more intensive solutions such as addressing the impact of trauma which can make it difficult for students to focus, teacher burnout which can make it hard for educators to emotionally connect with their students, teacher bias, and structural factors that can systematically alienate students from marginalized communities. For example, both teacher bias and school policies can contribute to the systemic disproportionality in exclusionary discipline. However, leveraging the psychology of recursive processes can be powerful, especially when you consider that their self-reinforcing nature can, over time, actually lower the burden on teachers for keeping students engaged.

The Role of Ambiguity

Humans are meaning-making machines. We all seek to explain the meaning of events so that we can decide how to respond and so that we can make better predictions about the likely outcome of those choices. Moments when there is ambiguity about the cause or meaning of challenging or negative events can create fertile ground in which seeds of doubt or mistrust can take root and undermine motivation and trust. We are all vulnerable in such moments. Without even realizing we’re doing so we might make assumptions that are not accurate or particularly helpful. Consider this scenario:

After spending hours grading her students’ essays, Ms. Thorton used to feel demoralized when many students, particularly her students of color, didn’t use her feedback to revise and resubmit their essays for a higher grade. Over time, seeing her efforts go to waste led her to invest less and less in students who didn’t use her feedback because she concluded that they just didn’t care about doing well. She thought, “why not focus on the students who are engaged and willing to put in the effort?”

Then she learned that, as a White teacher, her students of color may not initially trust her due to having previously experienced subtle, or maybe even overt, messages from adults that they are not expected to do well; that these experiences can lead them to misinterpret her feedback as criticism and a signal that she, too, doesn’t believe they are capable of doing well. Now she makes an effort to remove any ambiguity about her intentions early on in the school year so that all her students know she is there to support their development as learners. For example, before handing students back their first major essay, she attaches a handwritten post-it that says, “I’m giving you these comments because I have high standards and I know you can reach them.” Now, instead of triggering a downward cycle of amplified mistrust between herself and her students of color, she sees far more staying engaged and using her feedback to improve and grow.

Does this seem far-fetched? It’s not. In 2014, researchers tested the effect of this very message. Graded essays from 7th grade students who had a white teacher were randomly assigned to have a post-it attached that, for the treatment group students, included the words highlighted in bold above–a message referred to as the high standards with reassurance message. The control group post-its simply said, “I’m giving you these comments so you have feedback on your essay.” Seventy two percent of Black students who got the high standards with reassurance message resubmitted a revised essay compared to only 17% of Black students in the control group, and their resubmitted papers received higher quality ratings from third party reviewers who were blind to condition. Black treatment group students also reported higher levels of trust in their teachers, received fewer discipline citations in the following year and enrolled in a four-year college at higher rates six years later (6,7). A follow up study with ninth grade students showed that directly training students to reattribute critical feedback from teachers as intended to help them had a significant positive impact on Black students’ end of year grades (6).

It may seem hard to believe that such a simple shift in meaning-making could have such powerful, long-lasting effects. Yet, over and over, and in a variety of contexts, helping people adopt more positive narratives has been shown to unleash recursive processes whose impact grows over time. What this and many other rigorously tested interventions have demonstrated is that intervening in moments when people are asking themselves questions to assess the situation and decide how to respond can be powerful. Other example that have been studied include:

● [TEACHER] Does this student’s misbehavior mean they are “a troublemaker” and that I should discipline them more harshly now to curb future incidents? (8)

● [STUDENT] Does this bad grade mean I’m not smart enough to succeed? Should I just give up now? (9–11)

● [STUDENT] Does this negative social interaction at the start of the year in a new school mean I don’t belong here? Should I bother trying to connect with people here? (12,13)

All of these are real life situations that have been studied. We know that negative answers in these moments can trigger a downward spiral of eroding trust, withdrawn support (teacher) or effort (student) and less help-seeking which, in turn, can lead to worsening outcomes over time that further reinforces the original negative interpretation. By intervening to provide more helpful interpretations using carefully designed and timed messages such as the one described in the scenario above, educators can not only thwart negative cycles from beginning, they can set more positive recursive cycles in motion. These kinds of interventions are often described as “wise” because, as Quay describes, they are,

attuned to how people make sense of themselves, others, and social situations; they understand how socio-cultural contexts prompt specific psychological questions; and they use effective techniques to lead people to adopt answers that help them succeed in their goals and flourish (14).

To be clear, wise interventions are not rah rah, “You can do this!” kinds of messages. They are targeted messages that, “...help people answer specific questions in ways that are relevant and authentic to them and their context.”(14) In other words, it’s not about telling people how to think, it’s about creating the conditions that support their own, more adaptive meaning-making. Telling people how they should think or feel doesn’t work and can even backfire. Any parent of a teenager can back me up on this one.

To Recap:

  • Recursive psychological processes are self-reinforcing loops that feed off their own consequences.

  • Motivation can become fragile when people are asking themselves questions about the meaning of negative events or situations.

  • Ambiguity about the meaning of negative events increases vulnerability to drawing negative conclusions that can trigger a negative recursive cycle.

  • Motivation of marginalized groups can be especially vulnerable due to negative past experiences, societal stereotypes and prejudice.

  • Affirming (self or situation) answers to questions can avert a downward cycle from beginning and even trigger an upward cycle towards higher engagement.

  • Intervening must support autonomy––successful interventions support people to arrive at alternative interpretations on their own. Telling people how to think or feel is usually ineffective and can even backfire.

  • Affirming messages must be authentic and psychologically attuned to peoples’ subjective experience and the context.

In Part II we’ll explore how it’s possible for seemingly small changes to have a big impact over time and we’ll look at a few examples from the field of intervention research.

Below are additional resources for diving deeper:

Relevant Resources

RESEARCH SUMMARY (Student Experience Research Network): The science of “wise interventions”: Applying a social psychological perspective to address problems and help people flourish (Quay, 2018). This research summary brief provides an overview of a paper by Greg Walton and Tim Wilson, exploring how wise interventions can improve outcomes and implications for policy and practice across a broad range of domains. The brief shares a background on what wise interventions are, how they work, and the ways they can be used to improve outcomes.

JOURNAL ARTICLE: (Psychological Review) Wise Interventions: Psychological Remedies for Social and Personal Problems. (Walton & Wilson, 2018) This is the full journal article summarized by Quay 2018, linked to above.

SURVEY TOOL (PERTS): Copilot-Elevate (Grades 6-12) and Copilot-Ascend (College) are free professional learning programs that use student experience surveys to help educators learn about how their students are experiencing the learning environment. By elevating student voice, and pairing automated reports with evidence-based recommendations, educators can equitably create experiences that support academic and social-emotional learning and engagement.

VIDEO (Behavior Change For Good): Beliefs Count Twice: How to Harness the Human Stress Response to Promote Well-being (Dec 3, 2020) David Yeager Ph.D. and guests discuss recent research on combining a reappraisal intervention with a growth mindset intervention. Note that some Q&A’s discuss complex research methods that may not be of interest to practitioners. However, there are important insights shared in this section on, for example, how best to leverage recursive processes. (45 min)

BOOK: The Handbook of Wise Interventions: How Social Psychology Can Help People Change (Walton & Crum, 2020) A comprehensive review of social-psychology interventions and the core beliefs they target.

PODCAST (Hidden Brain): March 18: The Story of Stories Part I of a three part series on how meaning-making and explanatory frameworks play a foundational role in our lives. “Some researchers think the drive to explain the world is a basic human impulse, similar to thirst or hunger. This week on Hidden Brain, we begin a three part series on why we tell stories. Psychologist Tania Lombrozo discusses how explanations can lead to discovery, delight, and disaster.” Host and Executive Editor Shankar Vedantam.


​1. Gallup. 2015 Gallup student poll: Engaged today—ready for tomorrow. https://news.gallup.com/reports/189926/student-poll-2015-results.aspx (2015).

2. Silva, E. & White, T. Pathways to Improvement: Using Psychological Strategies to Help College Students Master Developmental Math. (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2013).

3. Steele, C. M. A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist 52, 613 (1997).

4. Aronson, J., Fried, C. B. & Good, C. Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38, 113–125 (2002).

5. Walton, G. M. & Crum, A. J. Handbook of wise interventions: How social psychology can help people change. Guilford Press https://www.guilford.com/books/Handbook-of-Wise-Interventions/Walton-Crum/9781462543830 (2019).

6. Yeager, D. S. et al. Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143, 804–824 (2014).

7. Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Greenaway, V., Yang Hooper, S. & Cohen, G. Loss of Institutional Trust Among Racial and Ethnic Minority Adolescents: A Consequence of Procedural Injustice and a Cause of Life-Span Outcomes. Child Development 88, (2017).

8. Okonofua, J. A., Paunesku, D. & Walton, G. M. Brief intervention to encourage empathic discipline cuts suspension rates in half among adolescents. PNAS 113, 5221–5226 (2016).

9. Paunesku, D. et al. Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological Science 26, 784–793 (2015).

10. Yeager, D. S. et al. A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature 1–6 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1466-y.

11. Dweck, C. S. Mindset: The new psychology of success. (Random House Publishing Group, 2006).

12. Walton, G. M. & Brady, S. T. The many questions of belonging. in Handbook of competence and motivation: Theory and application 227–293 (Builford Press, 2017).

13. Walton, G. M. & Cohen, G. L. A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science 331, 1447–1451 (2011).

14. Quay, L. The science of “wise interventions”: Applying a social psychological perspective to address problems and help people flourish. https://studentexperiencenetwork.org/research_library/science-wise-interventions-applying-social-psychological-perspective-address-problems-help-people-flourish/ (2018).

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