The Possible Selves of Dr. Daphna Oyserman


Does culture influence how we think? Dr. Daphna Oyserman has been researching culture, identity and the interaction of these constructs as they impact social and psychological development of children and families across three continents during her career. While she is currently the Dean’s Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Dornsife Center for Mind and Society (with Dr. Norbert Schwarz — I spoke with him, as well, and am preparing a post) at the University of Southern California, it feels appropriate to be writing about her from my current travels in Israel. It was here, at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and later at the University of Michigan where she completed  her academic training and later developed her professional career. Her influence and importance for this project has been as an impactful researcher with a very scalable model for helping students — especially those at high risk to drop out of school or worse — to find a pathway to success.

Dr. Oyserman introduces herself:

In an effort to increase the emphasis on Dr. Oyserman without my filter, I’m going to present her audio in a more podcast style. In this first excerpt she reflects on how her Israeli parents met in the United States, raised her in Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, and how that led her to be a 16-year old undergraduate at Hebrew University of Jersusalem!

Excerpt 1: Dr. Oyserman’s parents and eventual degree (~3:30):

As  she recalls, her parents were both children of families that had fled Europe as refugees and eventually resettled. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they were educated and found the means to achieve advanced degrees. Eventually her mother completed her education in Sociology and I/O Psychology and her father became a professor and theoretical Physicist at Penn State.

Excerpt 2: Why Psychology? (~4:00)

As Dr. Oyserman says, eventually she went on to complete her MA and PhD in Psychology but with many different possible lives and careers on her horizon. With better night vision perhaps astronaut would have been her top choice. Through the guidance of her dreams — quite literally in her anecdote from  this excerpt — she realized some topics (physics and chemistry) may have been her homework,  but not her passion.  Then there is her father who advised young Daphna against the potential ennui of being a physician. In his thoughts, why would she want to just be a physician when there is science and creative exploration to be done?  Her explorations in three different majors eventually meant that Daphna finished her undergrad degree in social work. From  that she eventually would become a Psychologist. She had a lot of potential selves to consider.

Excerpt 3: Dissertation and forming her unique perspective on research (~3:15)

Dr. Oyserman had a much varied set of training because of her dissertation research with children in Detroit serving  in juvenile detention, in Attention schools, and in typical, but high risk schools. She integrated this training with clinical work at hospitals thinking about her role and anticipatory services of the people she would tend, and, subsequently with families and children involved  with foster care in Israel. Identity issues were paramount because they were important for finding the right approach for that person and informed the best practices for a clinician.

From this we get to the heart of Dr. Oyserman’s research on possible selves.

In Excerpt 4 she describes the model  she developed and the possible selves approach that has been so critical to her understanding and the interventions that followed (~3:45):

Dreams and aspirations are wonderful, but (and as determined with quite a bit of research) they are rarely transformative to a person’s life. Having a dream,  especially if that dream is far from one’s current reality, is unlikely to transfer into strategy and habitual change to service that possibility. In asking students to consider their possible selves, Dr. Oyserman listened to student’s aspirations but also asked them to consider their likely futures. How did they see themselves? If they had to bet money, where would they be and what would they be doing in a year?

The idea of the possible selves was intended to help these very at-risk students to understand the very real choices and possible lives that they might see for themselves. As a research tool it was helpful to Dr. Oyserman and colleagues to understand some  of the barriers and ideas that the students might have been internalizing that might prohibit their successes. For the students, this was transformative. Not only could they envision the very real positive and negative selves of their future, but also the kinds of activities, habits, and practical strategies that might produce that future.

At the start, I noted the scalability of this approach. Getting people to recognize and strategize for their possible selves isn’t expensive or resource intensive. Teachers and others can be trained to guide students and others to use this technique.  What it requires is a willingness to reflect on oneself.

What am I doing now? What am I being encouraged to do and what will I be doing next year? Who are  my possible selves for the year ahead? What would I need to do to help myself realize the self I want and avoid the outcomes that won’t get me there?

Through this reflection one can recognize the very real choices in front of us and where they might lead. Good for students at-risk, good for those contemplating retirement, good for those who recognize that they need a new plan because spy and space astronaut aren’t likely to work out.

That’s a little from Dr. Oyserman, but there is so much more. The scholarship of Dr. Oyserman and colleagues have been critical to Psychology’s advancements in the understanding of culture and how it shapes identity and behavior. And her interventions have directly and indirectly impacted current psychological theories and best practices for educational interventions. I look forward to bringing you much more about Dr. Oyserman in the book!


For now, you can access many of her publications, more about her Pathway’s intervention, and other fun tidbits about Dr. Oyserman at her website:

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