By Raffaella Dimastrochicco
There is large evidence in the literature that low aspirations are a common issue among people coming from fragile socio-economic backgrounds. This tendency to under-aspire is detrimental for poor people, as it prevents them from investing in education and ultimately condemns them to lower wages, thereby reinforcing their poverty status (Appadurai, 2004; Ray, 2006; La Ferrara, 2019).
Several interventions have been tested and implemented to break this vicious circle – known as “aspiration trap” – and increase aspirations, which range from organizing tutoring programs and academic counselling (Carlana et al., 2017) to institutional changes in the political rules (Beaman, 2012) and the provision of statistical information on the benefits of investing in education (Nguyen, 2008). One further option involves the exposure of children to role models, with both in-person interventions (Porter and Serra, 2019) and showcasing inspirational movies (Riley, 2017). This latest option, in particular, is a cheap and easy to replicate treatment. To which extent can the length and complexity of the video be reduced while still generating a significant treatment effect?
To answer this question, we conducted a RCT in Naples (Italy) in May 2021, on a sample of 295 primary and secondary school students from fragile families. We showed a very short (1 minute) self-recorded motivational video, in which a young immigrant adult who grew up in Naples told the story of how, starting from a situation of difficulty, they eventually managed to find their passion and this led to happiness and satisfaction with their lives, against all odds. The video was shown on a tablet during face-to-face interviews conducted by trained enumerators. The main goal of the video is to boost self-confidence and encourage students to find their passion, by aiming at what they really wanted to do in life regardless of their precarious conditions.
Aspirations were measured by asking the students two open questions: “Which school, if any, would you like to attend when you grow up?” and “What would you like to become when you grow up”. Self-confidence was measured through a series of closed questions on a 4-level agreement scale. Data on students’ self-confidence and school and career aspirations were collected right after they watched the video.
Results from the experiment are promising: we detect a significant increase in the self-confidence measure among the treated students by 29% s.d.. When looking at school aspirations, the video treatment increases the likelihood the respondent chooses the “academic track” by 28.5% a s.d., as hoped for. At the same time, there is also a positive effect of the video on career aspirations: among treated students, significantly more children aspire to the most prestigious of the 7 categories of jobs we identified; this category includes jobs as sportsmen, politicians, artists, etc. These results are robust to controls on gender, school level, and nationality.
Limitations and conclusion
There are two main limitations. First, by design, collected data allow us to measure only the short-term effects of the treatment; it would be interesting to measure whether these effects persist over the medium- to long-term.
Second, there may be a form of Hawthorne effect. One other interpretation suggests that children update their aspirations based on the role model experience, without tailoring it to their own situation and passion. Both qualitative and quantitative data collected during the interviews point out in this direction: children seem to lack information to make informative choices, and when provided with an example of a career path that goes beyond their everyday experience, they tend to follow it. In light of these results, it emerges the importance of providing children with a variety of examples about available career paths that are not those they can encounter in their everyday life.
Nonetheless, results suggest that the treatment is effective in boosting aspirations and self-confidence.
I am a MSc student in Economic and Social Sciences, and this article draws from a larger study constitutes my master thesis. If interested in the topic, do not hesitate to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org, I will be happy to have an exchange with you.
Appadurai, A. (2004). “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition” . Culture and Public Action, edited by V. Rao and M. Walton. World Bank, pp. 59-84.
Beaman, L., E. Duflo, R. Pande, and P. Topalova (2012). “Female Leadership Raises Aspirations and Educational Attainment for Girls: A Policy Experiment in India.” Science, 335, 582–586.
La Ferrara, E. (2019). “Aspirations, Social Norms and Development”. European Economic Association Presidential Address. Cologne.
Nguyen, T. (2008). “Information, Role Models and Perceived Returns to Education: Experimental Evidence from Madagascar”. MIT Job Market Paper.
Porter, C. and D. Serra (2019). “Gender Differences in the Choice of Major: The Importance of Female Role Models”. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 12(3): 226-54, 2020
Ray, D. (2006). “Aspirations, Poverty and Economic Change”. Understanding Poverty, edited by A. Banerjee, R. Benabou, and D. Mookherjee. Oxford University Press.
Riley, E. (2017). “Increasing students’ aspirations: the impact of Queen of Katwe on students’ educational attainment”. In CSAE Working Paper WPS/2017-13.