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Why Hopefulness Is a Greater Predictor of Academic Success than Intelligence

A growing body of scientific investigation now supports the conclusion that being hopeful has a distinctly positive effect on academic performance.

U.S. Naval Academy graduates throw their hats in the air during graduation ceremonies at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

This article is part of the Hope and Optimism initiative which explores the theoretical, empirical, and practical dimensions of hope, optimism, and related states.

Succeeding at school or university is about more than memorizing vast amounts of information and impressing professors with ingenious ideas. A growing body of scientific investigation now supports the conclusion that being hopeful has a distinctly positive effect on academic performance.

One paper from the University of Kansas looked at how the presence of hope boosted college achievement over a 6-year period, finding that 'high-hope' students had higher GPAs, and were more likely to graduate than 'low-hope' students.

A separate 3-year study by a team of British researchers has shown that hope is not only related to academic success, but is a greater predictor of success than intelligence tests, personality, or whether individuals previously did well in academic environments.

But what is hope? Recent studies have based their definition on positive psychologist Rick Snyder's theory developed in the 1990s. Snyder saw hope as a “cognitive process allowing individuals to plan for and execute the pursuit of goals."

Snyder's separate “hope theory" offers more insight on the concept of hope.


Students study with their laptop computers in the Pedagogical Library at the Freie Universitaet university on September 20, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In a 1991 paper, Snyder outlined his theory as “a cognitive set that is based on a reciprocally-derived sense of successful agency (goal-directed determination) and pathways (planning to meet goals)". In other words, it is essential for hope that a person feels he or she has agency — an ability to effectuate change — and pathways to achieve that change. If those conditions are met, motivation will drive a person to achieve set goals.

Thinking of hope in this way is important. Wanting to accomplish something is not enough. Goals must be pursued, and a sense of getting closer to them is crucial. Hope is preserves a goal-oriented approaches amid the vicissitudes of life.

According to researchers, if you don't have hope, you are more likely to employ “mastery goals," i.e. choosing simple, attainable tasks that aren't challenging and don't help you grow. Accomplishing mastery goals implies a lack of control over one's environment, therefore making it easier to give up.

Even with these definitions, hope can be a somewhat fuzzy concept. For this reason, Snyder developed a “hope scale" to measure it in individuals, making it easier to conduct research into the subject.


Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1991, Vol. 60, No. 4, 570-585E

A 2014 study by researchers at Santa Clara University, led by David B. Feldman, built on Snyder's work by looking to distinguish between the role of hope and optimism on academic achievement. The paper concludes by saying that higher hope predicts a higher GPA. In fact, scientists found hope to be the most consistent predictor of GPA, beating out optimism. Why? It seems that being optimistic is general in nature. Optimism is an attitude towards life — present-oriented belief that everything will be okay — but not a specific goal-oriented approach.

Snyder understood optimism as the expectation of a positive outcome without regard for one's own actions. Hope, on the other hand, assumes active participation in achieving goals through planning and motivation.

In an environment where you need to go after many objectives like writing papers, taking notes, preparing for tests, and putting plans into motion, being hopeful is a better bet for securing good grades than being merely optimistic.

The results of the Feldman study corroborates previous research by Indiana University scientists that showed hope was a better predictor of success, compared to optimism, among law school students.

On the other hand, there are certain ways that optimism can help students overall. The Indiana University researchers did find that optimism contributed towards greater life satisfaction at the end of the first semester.

Another study realized that optimism was directly related to social support in the first year of college. In this case, optimistic students were found to have larger friend networks, which provided them greater social support in a stressful environment.

One final positive effect of being optimistic in school is that it can help you stay there. This study from the University of Kentucky has shown a positive correlation between academic optimism and retention.

Because optimistic people tend to finish what they've started, rather than drop out, scientists are advocating the teaching of hope as an academic intervention.

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Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

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An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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