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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Adolescents are most motivated by encouragement from someone who knows their abilities and the domain


Parents and teachers often encourage students (e.g., "You can do it!") when they encounter challenges, but these messages are not always effective. Whose encouragement motivates students the most, and why? Here we tested the hypothesis that others’ domain knowledge (e.g., knowledge about course materials) and ability knowledge (e.g., knowledge about students’ abilities in the course) each inform how students evaluate their encouragement. In a large-scale survey, we find that middle school students (n=288) and high school students (n=425) are most likely to seek out and be motivated by encouragement from someone with both domain and ability knowledge, rather than only one or the other. This effect emerged both when students reasoned about hypothetical classmates (Study 1a) and real people in their lives (Study 1b). Moreover, we find that confidence in others' performance estimates linearly increases when they have greater ability and domain knowledge (Study 1c). Collectively, this work suggests that students do not find all encouragement equally motivating. Rather, students find encouragement most motivating when the speaker has knowledge of their abilities and the domain.

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