Greg Walton, Stanford University Department of Psychology

Lifting the Bar: Developing Relationships - Orienting 'Wise' Interventions to Make Schools Better for Students
Greg Walton


Winter 2021
Lecture Time: 
Friday, March 19, 2021 - 1:30pm to 3:00pm
Lecture Location: 


Abstract: Much of my past research has tested brief, psychologically “wise” interventions that mitigate students’ worries about belonging in a new school environment. Such interventions can be delivered to tens-of-thousands of students and raise achievement and reduce racial, gender, and social-class inequalities. Yet it can also be necessary to make school more supportive for students. How can we intervene on educators to promote equity, particularly when negative stereotypes and bias are prominent? In contrast to efforts to reduce bias, I will describe interventions that aim to sideline bias—to reduce the hold that bias can have on behavior, by elevating positive professional roles and goals in teachers. One intervention aimed to support an empathic mindset in teachers about misbehaving students; this cut suspension rates among students they taught by half. Another focused on students reentering school from juvenile detention, one of the most stigmatized groups in school. An intervention that oriented students in reentry and an educator in their school toward positive relationships with each other cut rates of recidivism to juvenile detention among students through the next academic term from 69% to 29%.

Recording & Additional Notes

Greg Walton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Much of his research investigates psychological processes that contribute to major social problems and how “wise” interventions that target these processes can address such problems and help people flourish, even over long periods of time.
• One intervention he developed with Geoff Cohen to bolster students’ feelings of social belonging in the transition to college raised the academic achievement of ethnic-minority students over 3 years, and cut by half the achievement gap with white students (for more, see below)
• Another developed with Jason Okonofua and Dave Paunesku helped middle school teachers adapt an empathic mindset toward misbehaving students, and cut by half student suspension rates over an academic year.
• Other interventions aim to reduce intergroup prejudice, to promote environmental behaviors, to increase voter turnout, and to improve marriages.
In all these cases, Dr. Walton focuses on fundamental ways in which people make sense of themselves, other people, and social situations, how meanings people draw can be counterproductive and self-reinforcing (e.g., “People like me don’t belong here”) and how they can be altered to cause lasting benefits to individuals and to society.
Dr. Walton’s research has been covered in major media outlets including the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, NPR, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, and The Onion.
He has received awards from numerous organizations including the American Education Research Association, American Psychological Association, Society for Experimental Social Psychology, and the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and was identified as a “Rising Star” by the American Psychological Society in 2011.
He has presented at major universities and to educators and policymakers including at the White House.
His research has been supported by the Institute for Education Sciences, the National Institute of Health, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Jeff and Tricia Raikes Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and Character Lab.
In addition to his scholarship, Dr. Walton is a committed teacher and mentor. At Stanford, he teaches courses on psychology and social problems, including one entitled “Wise Interventions.”
Dr. Walton earned his A.B. in Philosophy from Stanford in 2000 and a PhD in Psychology from Yale University in 2005. After graduate school, he worked for a year as a fellow in the Office of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Waterloo before joining the Stanford faculty in 2008.

The social belonging intervention:
In basic research, Dr. Walton and his collaborators have shown that one of the most powerful sources of influence on students’ motivation is their sense of belonging: their feeling of membership in the social community and belief that they are valued and respected. However, this sense of belonging is at risk for students from groups that are negatively stereotyped and/or underrepresented in an academic environment. They reasonably worry about whether they—or people “like me”—will belong.
This insight led Dr. Walton to develop the social-belonging intervention. This intervention uses information and stories from older students to help students entering a new school see that common challenges—like getting criticized, or feeling lonely—are normal experiences that improve with time, not necessarily evidence that “I don’t belong.” This helps students see belonging as a process, not a fixed quality.
In multiple trials with thousands of students, this intervention has raised achievement for students facing disadvantage in school settings (e.g., Walton & Cohen, 2011; Walton, Logel, Peach, Spencer, & Zanna, 2015; Yeager, Walton, et al., 2016).