Mesmin Destin

Associate Professor of Psychology and Human Development and Social Policy | Chair of IPR's Program on Child, Adolescent, and Family Studies


Social psychologist Mesmin Destin studies how socioeconomic circumstances influence individual thoughts, identities, and behaviors. Building upon theories of identity and motivation, his research investigates social and psychological factors that contribute to disparities in educational outcomes from middle school through early adulthood. He employs a combination of secondary data analysis, laboratory experiments, and field experiments to uncover effective interventions that guide young people’s perceptions of self, society, and opportunities to enhance motivation.

Destin’s research has been published in scholarly journals including Psychological Science, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Perspectives on Psychological Science, the Journal of Adolescence, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Destin’s work has been supported by the Character Lab, the Mindset Scholars Network, the National Science Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the William T. Grant Foundation. 

Current Research

Perceptions of Higher Education and Current Educational Motivation. This project aims to uncover effective methods for enhancing academic motivation and outcomes of youth in low- to moderate-income communities. Middle school and high school students are randomly assigned to encounter several experimental manipulations that strategically provide small pieces of information conveying different types of messages about society and opportunities: An open-path manipulation encourages the mindset that the path to college feels financially available through need-based financial aid; an education-dependent identity manipulation encourages the mindset that higher education is linked to individual- or social-oriented life goals like earning a high income or giving back to society; a multiple pathways manipulation encourages the mindset that education can open the door to success in life that might or might not include a traditional four-year college; a redemptive narrative manipulation leads students to find meaning in difficult experiences; and a socioeconomic mobility manipulation encourages the belief that one can climb the socioeconomic ladder. In comparison with various control conditions, these identity-based mindsets increase momentary and sometimes lasting academic motivation, especially for students from low socioeconomic-status (SES) backgrounds.

Supporting Student Motivation. In addition to one’s own individual psychological resources, regular sources of outside social support can also increase the likelihood that young students remain academically motivated. This project investigates theory-based strategies to help adults and near peers effectively support adolescents' goal-driven school motivation. A series of short training modules guide parents and mentors to foster student identities that can help to sustain school motivation. For example, some middle school parents are randomly assigned to observe a guided discussion of alumni parents, providing strategies to help their children maintain academic-oriented identities, now and in the future, when confronted with difficult schoolwork. Similar randomized-controlled interventions are conducted with students in enrichment and mentoring programs, and effects on parent/mentor behaviors and student outcomes are evaluated over time.

Socioeconomic Status and Success in College. Though a growing number of low-SES and first-generation students are admitted to college, they remain less likely to graduate than their high-SES peers who are not the first in their families to attend college. Several lab experiments and interventions investigate specific social psychological factors that might impair academic motivation and outcomes for lower-status students. Experiments that lead students to consider their university's financial diversity, consider social status as malleable, or think about their own successful future identity all improve their immediate outcomes, such as academic identities, motivation, and performance, as well as bodily responses. Furthermore, a larger-scale intervention that leads students to consider their own diverse background as an asset—rather than a deficit—shapes how they respond to difficult academic experiences and eliminates the achievement gap between first- and continuing-generation college students. These and other studies contribute to an expanded understanding of how people understand their own socioeconomic status, or status-based identity, especially during periods of social mobility.

Selected Publications

Destin, M., M. Rheinschmidt-Same, and J. Richeson. 2017. Status-based identity: A conceptual framework integrating the social psychological study of socioeconomic status and identityPerspectives on Psychological Science 12(2): 270–89.

Destin, M., and R. C. Svoboda. 2017. A brief randomized controlled intervention targeting parents improves grades during middle school. Journal of Adolescence 56: 157–61.

Browman, A., and M. Destin. 2016. The effects of a warm or chilly climate toward socioeconomic diversity on academic motivation and self-conceptPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin 42: 172-187.

Stephens, N. M., M. G. Hamedani, and M. Destin. 2014. Closing the social class achievement gap: A diversity education intervention improves first-generation students’ academic performance and all students’ college transition. Psychological Science 25: 943–53.

Destin, M. 2013. Integrating resource-based and person-based approaches to understanding wealth effects on school achievementEconomics of Education Review 33: 171-178.

Destin, M., S. Richman, F. Varner, and J. Mandara. 2012. “Feeling” hierarchy: The pathway from subjective social status to achievementJournal of Adolescence 35: 1571-1579.

Elliott, W., M. Destin, and T. Friedline. 2011. Taking stock of ten years of research on the relationship between assets and children’s educational outcomes: Implications for theory, policy, and interventionChildren and Youth Services Review 33: 2312-2328.

Destin, M., and D. Oyserman. 2010. Incentivizing education: Seeing schoolwork as an investment, not a choreJournal of Experimental Social Psychology 46: 846-849.

Destin, M., and D. Oyserman. 2009. From assets to school outcomes: How finances shape children’s perceived possibilities and intentionsPsychological Science 20: 414-418.