Experiential learning builds social capital: Here’s how

October 10, 2014 at 5:01 PM
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Experiential learning builds social capital: Here’s how

by Anna Luerssen

Assistant Professor of Psychology, Lehman College, CUNY

 

Introduction

Although the classroom is the epicenter of learning in the American education system, much can be gained by students if they leave the confines of the classroom behind. Learning by doing, by getting out into the world and gaining experience through internships or part-time jobs, offers tangible benefits to students that are lacking in traditional education settings. Most noticeably, these positions provide students with first-hand opportunities to cultivate skills required in their chosen fields.

Consider my career trajectory in the field of social psychology as an example. I took advantage of experiential opportunities by volunteering as a research assistant in psychology laboratories both during and following my undergraduate years. These positions served as an invaluable supplement to my coursework as a psychology major. For example, I learned about experimental design, practiced statistical analyses using the software packages dominant in my field, and received feedback on my writing from expert faculty. These skills were, of course, necessary requisites for admission to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, the point of entry for my career in social psychology.

In the current article, I will argue, however, that the benefits of experiential learning go well beyond the development of abilities. In fact, one of the most critical benefits involves the accumulation of social capital. Here, I refer to social capital as the opportunity to forge social connections and networks in a field of interest that are likely to produce tangible career opportunities in the future. For example, it was the development of strong mentor-mentee relationships with my primary research supervisors that helped make me stand out as an applicant for graduate school. As a trusted member of the laboratory, someone who demonstrated her worth through hard and thoughtful work, my supervisors gave me the chance to co-author scholarly articles, provided one-on-one training, and wrote strong recommendation letters on my behalf. In fact, these relationships have continued to flourish throughout my schooling and into my first professorship. Correspondingly, they continue to bestow benefits and positively contribute to my ability to get tenure and my overall success in the field. Now in the role of the mentor, I too offer social capital to my research assistants and honors students, particularly those who demonstrate a strong work ethic, reliability, and critical reasoning potential.

Making use of my degree in social psychology, in the current article I will evaluate the psychological processes involved in translating experiential opportunities into social capital. How and why do we go from an unknown intern or research assistant into a member of the team? Why do supervisors feel the need to give back and how can students help to make that happen? More specifically, I will explore three social psychological processes that contribute to the development of social capital when a student connects with colleagues and mentors in an experiential setting.

First, I will describe the psychological process of becoming part of an ingroup, such as a company, team, or network, and the benefits that are offered to members (e.g., Tajfel & Billig, 1974). Second, I will discuss norms of reciprocity, which dictate that you should provide benefits to those that have benefited you (e.g., Gouldner, 1960), such as giving back to an intern that provided good work. Third, I will consider the role of emotion in this reciprocal exchange, focusing in on gratitude and its contribution to the development of social capital (e.g., Algoe, 2012). Where possible, I will also consider how these processes manifest in the brain. At a neural level, how do people respond to others that have provided a benefit or have become part the ingroup? The ability to establish bonds, and to look out for you and yours, is so fundamental to human beings that it likely involves important changes in the brain.

With this psychological research and theory as my support, and supplemented by anecdotes about my own experiences as a research assistant and as a mentor, I will argue that forging social connections through experiential opportunities is hugely important to students just beginning their professional lives, and offers an important complement to traditional classroom learning.

 

Ingroup Favoritism

Experiential opportunities involve meeting, interacting, and collaborating with a whole new set of people. There are your supervisors, or mentors, who will tell you where to go, assign you tasks, and follow up on your work. There will likely be other interns or research assistants at your level – peers you can navigate this new social landscape with. There is also the company or laboratory as a whole, a group of people largely working together toward a common goal. In this way, experiential opportunities involve becoming part of a team, or in social psychological terms, an ingroup. As further described below, people respond preferentially toward ingroup members.

Research on ingroups grew out of the need to understand and explain why people engage in stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. According to this work, it is human nature to sort stimuli into categories. To categorize helps us to process, organize, and make sense of the huge amount of information we are bombarded with on a daily basis. One set of categories we readily employ are those of the ingroup and outgroup. With great ease we tend to sort people as “us” versus “them,” and then discriminate against those that are categorized as “them.” According to social identity theory (e.g., Tajfel, 1970), we engage in such discriminatory behavior because part of our self-esteem is tied to group membership. When our groups succeed (at the expense of other groups) we tend to feel good about ourselves too. Not the most flattering portrait of humanity, but one that has been supported with data (Oakes & Turner, 1980).

You may be wondering why I am writing about such work in this discussion of experiential learning and social capital. Well, from one angle, this research shows that we discriminate against people who are outgroup members. From another angle, this same research demonstrates that we show preference for, or favor, those that are categorized as “us.” Psychologists call this ingroup favoritism. Interestingly, ingroup status, though often based on important social categories like culture, ethnicity, or even university affiliation, may also be based on superficial factors. That is, we are ready to apply the “us” versus “them” labels on a moment’s notice. This point has been driven home using a classic social psychological procedure called the minimal groups paradigm (e.g., Tajfel, Billig, & Bundy, 1971).

In this paradigm, participants are divided into groups on the basis of a very arbitrary factor. For example, in one instantiation participants are asked to estimate how many dots there are in a series of images (e.g., Tajfel et al., 1971). Participants are then told that some people overestimate the number of dots and other people underestimate the number of dots, and moreover, the set of participants present for the experiment that day are going to be divided into groups accordingly. The main participant then learns that he or she is part of either the group of overestimators or underestimators. In the second part of the experiment, the participant is given the task of allocating points to the ostensible other participants (not including him or herself). The researchers find that participants allocate more points to members of their ingroup than members of the outgroup – showing ingroup favoritism. Additionally, it turns out that participants not only favor their ingroup, they favor their ingroup at the expense of the outgroup, maximizing the difference in points between the two groups, even if that means their group gets fewer points overall.

Although these results may not seem surprising, please consider these additional points. First, remember, group membership is based on a completely arbitrary, and bogus, variable – overestimating versus underestimating the number of dots on a screen. Why should participants favor members of an ingroup based on such a ridiculous factor? Second, throughout the experiment participants do not meet or interact with members of their ostensible ingroup or members of the outgroup. That is, participants do not know a single person in either group and will not meet them in the future. Third, participants do not benefit from favoring their ingroup; they are given the task of allocating points not receiving any. Yet they still show this ingroup favoritism.

What does research on the minimal groups paradigm tell us? Namely, that as humans we are inclined to categorize others as “us” and “them,” and that we do so on the basis of even minimally important variables. So, why am I bringing all of this up? If participants feel inclined to favor their fellow “underestimators,” it seems reasonable to infer that in an experiential setting students have the opportunity to become part of ingroups too, the company as a whole, the team that they work with, even their cohort of summer interns.

Once becoming part of these ingroups a host of benefits are likely to follow, as research with the minimal groups paradigm has shown. For example, people cognitively process information related to the ingroup in a preferential way. In one study, participants were faster to recognize the faces of ingroup members than outgroup members, taking notice of them more quickly and efficiently (Bernstein, Young, & Hugenberg, 2007). In another study, participants remembered the faces of ingroup members more than outgroup members (Van Bavel & Cunningham, 2012). People also show affective or emotional preference for ingroup members. For example, after going through the minimal groups paradigm, participants associated their ingroup with pleasant words and the outgroup with unpleasant words, even without being aware they were doing so (Ashburn-Nardo, Voils, & Monteith, 2001). Importantly, research has also shown that becoming part of an ingroup has the potential to transcend other social identities, such as gender or race. In one study, white participants that became part of a mixed-race ingroup showed diminished automatic racial bias against black ingroup members (Van Bavel & Cunningham, 2009).

During the last ten years this behavioral research has been supplemented by neuroimaging studies, which have provided interesting insights into the ways ingroup favoritism operates at the level of the brain. Two points are worth considering. First, at a neural level, we tend to respond to information about ingroup members similarly to information about ourselves. Participants in one study went through the minimal groups paradigm and then evaluated stimuli as relevant to their ingroup versus the outgroup while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner (Molenberghs & Morrison, 2010). Processing information relevant to the ingroup, as compared to the outgroup, was associated with increased activation in the medial prefrontal cortex. This is a brain region that has been implicated in self-referential processing – when we think about ourselves (e.g., Gusnard, Akbudak, Shulman, & Raichle, 2001). These results may suggest that members of the ingroup are closer to the self than outgroup members, and may even be included as part of the self.

Other studies have suggested that it is rewarding to interact with ingroup members. Participants in one study were assigned to a group, memorized the faces of ingroup and outgroup members, and rated how much they liked each face (Van Bavel, Packer, & Cunningham, 2008). Additionally, they categorized the faces as ingroup or outgroup while lying in the fMRI. Not surprisingly, participants reported liking the faces of ingroup members more than outgroup members. Participants also evidenced greater orbitofrontal cortex activation (among a few other regions) to ingroup faces. This region has been shown to activate to various types of rewards – suggesting that exposure to ingroup members is rewarding too (e.g., Kringelbach, 2005). Moreover, the more participants demonstrated ingroup favoritism, the greater the activation they experienced in the orbitofrontal cortex, regardless of whether the ingroup face was black or white (all participants were white in this study).

Overall, these results suggest that a departure from the classroom presents students with the chance to become part of a new ingroup, and to reap the benefits of being a member, to be noticed, remembered, and associated with good things. This rings true with respect to my role as the supervisor of a research laboratory. When I see a research assistant’s name in my email inbox I am likely to respond more quickly to their inquiry than other messages. Even if distracted, I tend to notice my research assistants faces as they walk down the hall, and then stop them to say hello. Such automatic preferences reinforce my relationship with them, and this reinforcement will serve them well once it comes time to write their recommendation letters for graduate school, or network with collaborators to find them work opportunities. This is not to say, of course, that once you are hired you can do a crummy job and still be treated in a privileged way. It is a start, however, and one students will miss out on if they stick to traditional classroom learning.

 

Norms of Reciprocity

As a research assistant, I did more than become part of an ingroup. I became a participating and active member. My responsibilities were extensive. I coordinated laboratory space and supplies. I ran participants through many experimental paradigms. I conducted literature reviews. I cleaned and coded data. And for an entire year, I did this as a volunteer (i.e., for free). As previously mentioned, however, I received so much from my supervisors in return. My training was extensive, and it was one-on-one. I was given the opportunity to co-author my first academic article. I was encouraged to develop my own research program and ran my first study. In their recommendation letters, my supervisors vouched for me, and this greatly helped me to get into graduate school. At the end of the day, this was an equitable exchange, and nicely demonstrates norms of reciprocity at work.

In societies throughout the world, there is a powerful social imperative to give to those that have given to you. To help those who have helped you. Even to buy a birthday present for those that have bought one for you. In his canonical essay on the subject, Gouldner (1960) argued that norms of reciprocity are universal and for a good reason. According to his perspective, one that has been supported by countless sociologists and psychologists, norms of reciprocity help to main social stability and contribute to economic growth. People are willing to offer benefits and cooperate with others because they know such benefits will be repaid. For example, it is not a huge risk for a farmer to step away from his fields to help a neighbor in need, for he knows this neighbor will drop everything to return the favor. Likewise, the summer intern that provides needed support and services (perhaps for poor pay) is likely to be offered social capital as part of this reciprocal exchange.

One of the most well-studied methods used to evaluate norms of reciprocity involves sending participants surveys under various conditions and then evaluating response rates (see Church, 1993 for review). For example, researchers have tested whether a participant is more likely to complete a survey if a reward is given after the survey has been returned or if the reward is sent directly with the survey. Church (1993) conducted a meta-analysis (a big review) of 38 studies attempting to answer this question and found that survey response rates greatly increase if the reward is delivered with the survey, regardless of whether it was monetary or even just a small gift such as stickers or pens. In fact, response rates do not increase over no-reward control conditions when the reward is contingent on first completing the survey.

Why this pattern and why do we care? Well, having that reward in hand is presumed to activate norms of reciprocity. I just received a Starbucks gift card in the mail as thanks for completing this survey. I would rather not do it, but if someone gives to me I know I must give back to them. If I want to use the card to buy a latte or a cappuccino, I must fill out the survey. To do otherwise would violate a social code and would therefore make me feel bad about myself. This same effect emerges with respect to charitable giving. Ever get a request for a charitable donation along with a roll of stickers with your name and address printed on them to use in your correspondence? This seeming act of generosity has been done for a good reason. Sending incentives like these stickers directly with the request activates norms of reciprocity and thus the likelihood and amount people are willing to give.

Other researchers study norms of reciprocity (along with cooperation, rationality, self-interest, etc.) using economic games such as the prisoner’s dilemma or the sequential dictator game. For example, in the sequential dictator game, player 1, the dictator, is given money or goods and decides how much to share with player 2. In the second round, the roles reverse. Player 2, the new dictator, is given money or goods, and decides how much to share with player 1. The game ends after these two rounds. Using this task, and others like it, complex social interactions can be studied in their simplest instantiation. For example, if player 1 is selfish and keeps the reward for him or herself during round 1, player 2 can do the same in round 2. If player 1 is generous in round 1, player 2 still has the option to keep the rewards for him or herself in round 2. Does player 1 trust that player 2 will reciprocate? Does player 2 reciprocate or keep the money?

In one nice demonstration of norms of reciprocity, Diekmann (2004) had participants complete this sequential dictator game, but all participants were assigned to the role of player 2. They believed player 1 was in another room when, in fact, player 1’s response was programed by a computer. The researcher found that the majority of participants’ responses in round 2 mirrored whatever was done by their “partner” in round 1. For example, when the computer shared 50% of the money in round 1, a relative majority of participants shared 50% of their money in round 2. When the computer was overly generous, sharing 60% in round 1, the majority of participants reciprocated by sharing 60% in round 2. In fact, only 10% of participants played the game in a selfish way. These results were found even though participants did not know their partner (which was really the computer), and made their decision in round 2 anonymously. Even the experimenters were blind to their decision. Here we see norms of reciprocity at work. Do unto others as others do unto you.

There are a few other useful points about norms of reciprocity for the intern or research assistant to consider (Gouldner, 1960; Pruitt, 1968). Gouldner (1960) hypothesized, for example, that the level of reward you provide a person is a direct function of the reward he or she provided to you – exactly what we saw in Diekmann’s (2004) study. So, the more you put into your work experience, the more you are likely to get back from your supervisors and the company in return. Additionally, it turns out that a greater obligation will be felt toward those that provide a benefit if they have smaller resources to start with (Gouldner, 1960; Pruitt, 1968). For example, the intern who comes from financial hardship may be seen as more deserving in return. Moreover, reciprocity will be stronger to the degree that the person who provided the initial benefit is expected to have greater future resources or potential (Gouldner, 1960; Pruitt, 1968). That is to say, the intern who shows great promise will likely receive more social capital in exchange for his or her services. An additional reason why you should work hard and prove your potential. Bottom line – the more you give to your experience, the more reciprocity norms will be activated, and the more social capital you are likely to get in return. These interchanges can be experienced in the classroom, but they are better experienced in the real world where they matter to the chosen profession. Of course, that is where the social capital will do you some good.

 

Gratitude

According to research on norms of reciprocity, we engage in reciprocal exchange because of our cognitive understanding of a social norm. This perspective assumes that a supervisor provides social capital in response to an intern’s good work because it is an appropriate response, a response that the supervisor has learned through socialization processes. An alternative explanation, or perhaps a complementary one, argues that reciprocal exchange occurs as a function of emotional, not just cognitive, processes. This affective perspective asserts that receiving a benefit from another engenders an emotion, gratitude, and it is the feeling of gratitude that catalyzes reciprocity. So, it is not just knowledge of the norm that leads a supervisor to return the favor, but additionally, their experience of gratitude in response to the intern’s efforts.

Research on the affective underpinnings of reciprocal exchange is based on a functionalist perspective on emotion (e.g., Keltner & Haidt, 1999), which argues that we have evolved emotions because they help key us into important stimuli, and mobilize us to respond accordingly. For example, the emotion of fear directs our attention toward environmental threats and summons a coordinated response across various channels including behavior (e.g., fight-or-flight) and physiology (e.g., sympathetic nervous system activation). According to this framework, and as neatly outlined in Sara Algoe’s (2012) review, gratitude alerts us to high quality others among the plethora of people we encounter in daily life, and coordinates a variety of responses to aid in the development and maintenance of a relationship with them. More simply, it is evolutionarily adaptive to both notice and forge bonds with high quality others, and gratitude is a mechanism that helps us to do so.

Many studies have found support for this perspective, showing that the experience of gratitude in response to a benefit is associated with behavioral indicators of relationship maintenance and growth, such as increased motivation to repay the benefit, likelihood of helping the benefactor (i.e., the one who provided the benefit) in the future, cooperation with the benefactor, and distribution of resources to them (see Algoe, 2012 for review). For example, in one study, a participant and a confederate were assigned to complete an aversive computer task (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006). In the gratitude condition, the true participant’s computer ostensibly failed. Although finished, the confederate stayed behind to help the participant fix the computer, allowing the participant to wrap up the aversive task swiftly rather than having to start over. Participants in this condition, as compared to those in a neutral condition, which did not involve a helpful act, experienced stronger feelings of gratitude. Moreover, when the confederate later approached the participant and asked them if they would be willing to complete some surveys, participants in the gratitude condition were more likely to do so.

This same team of researchers has used the latter paradigm to investigate other behavioral responses to gratitude. For example, in another iteration, participants in the gratitude condition reported a greater desire to work with the confederate on a future task than those in the neutral condition (Bartlett, Condon, Cruz, Baumann, & DeSteno, 2010). That is, the experience of gratitude motivated participants to seek further contact with the benefactor. These researchers have also shown that gratitude can explain patterns of cooperation in economic games (DeSteno, Bartlett, Baumann, Williams, & Dickens, 2010). Participants in the gratitude (vs. neutral) condition were more likely to cooperate, rather than behave in a self-interested way, in a modified prisoner’s dilemma game (similar to the aforementioned sequential dictator game). Even more, the experience of gratitude was associated with a willingness to sacrifice on behalf of the benefactor (Bartlett et al., 2012). Participants in the gratitude condition were less likely to exclude the confederate during a subsequent computer game, even if they were offered a financial incentive to do so.

In each of these studies, gratitude mediated the relationship between condition (gratitude vs. neutral) and affiliative responses (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006; Bartlett et al., 2010; DeSteno et al., 2010). This seems to suggest that emotion is a critical mechanism linking the receipt of a benefit to reciprocal and prosocial responses on behalf of the benefactor. There is an alternative explanation for these findings, however. It is possible that participants in the gratitude condition were motivated to reciprocate, not because of the emotion, but rather because of their knowledge of reciprocity norms. The confederate did something on their behalf, and they believed they needed to return the favor.

To evaluate this alternative explanation, the researchers capitalized on the fact that when an emotion is experienced, it can have carry over effects in other circumstances that are unrelated to the source of the emotion (e.g., Schwarz & Clore, 1996). In this assessment, the researchers employed the same gratitude and neutral conditions previously described. Subsequently, the participant was asked for help completing surveys, with the request coming from the confederate who they had previously interacted with or from a stranger (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006). If norms of reciprocity were solely at work, participants in the gratitude condition, who received help from the confederate, would be more likely to offer help to this confederate than to the stranger (who never helped them). This is not what the researchers found. Participants in the gratitude condition, who were in a grateful mood, were also willing to help the stranger with their surveys. That is, the emotion of gratitude carried over, and motivated helping, even when the person requesting the help was not the source of the original grateful feelings.

Altogether, the latter research suggests that when a person receives a benefit from another, such as a supervisor receiving the good work of an intern, they are likely to experience feelings of gratitude, and that this emotion motivates reciprocity. An important caveat to these results, however, is that people indeed vary in their propensity to experience the emotion of gratitude (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002). Not every supervisor will take notice of your good work, and if they do, they may take it as a given, not something to be particularly grateful for. Although you typically cannot choose your supervisors, research does suggest that gratitude is most likely to be experienced under conditions in which the benefit provided is tailored or responsive to the recipient’s needs (Algoe, 2012). For example, in one study, new members of a sorority were given gifts by an anonymous sorority sister for one week (Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008). The more they rated the gifts as being chosen specifically for them, the more grateful they felt toward the benefactor. This suggests that high quality work in experiential settings is more likely to extract grateful feelings from supervisors. Moreover, it behooves you to take time to get to know what your supervisor values in an employee, and tailor your behavior and work accordingly.

It is also wise to remember that you are receiving something from your internship – a chance to see how a field functions in real life, to try it on for size, to get feedback, and mentoring etc. This is not something to scoff at, even if you also spend time getting coffee or making copies. Research suggests that expressing gratitude for benefits bestowed on you can catalyze a positive cycle of reciprocal exchange. More specifically, people who say thank you for a benefit, are more likely to be treated in prosocial ways again in the future (Grant & Gino, 2010). I did my best to live by this mantra as a research assistant and a graduate student. I was able to foster a close connection with my graduate mentor, and I very much believe that my vocal expressions of gratitude for all my mentor did on my behalf positively contributed to this development.

Although the social norms and gratitude perspectives diverge, in all likelihood both of these factors contribute to reciprocal exchange, to the cultivation of social capital in experiential settings. A research supervisor is likely to provide connections and opportunities to their assistants or honors students because they know they should (i.e., norms of reciprocity) and because they are grateful for the work their mentees have done.

 

Reciprocity and Cooperation in the Brain

Whatever the mechanism (i.e., norms of reciprocity and/or gratitude), we do know that people are inclined to reciprocate helpful and cooperative behavior, and that to do so feels good. For example, in my own experience, sitting down to write a recommendation letter for a stellar research assistant is among the most gratifying experiences I have had in academia. It is immensely rewarding to pay it forward – to see your students thrive and to play a tiny part in their ability to do. This idea, that cooperation and reciprocity feels good, is supported by neuroimaging research which shows that these behaviors activate reward centers in the brain.

For example, in one study a participant played a prisoner’s dilemma game with another participant while lying in an fMRI scanner (Rilling et al., 2002). Mutually cooperative interactions with their partner were associated with increased activation in a network of regions regularly implicated in reward processing, including the ventral striatum, anterior cingulate cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex. In other studies these same regions have been shown to activate in anticipating pleasant tastes (O’Doherty, Deichmann, Critchley, & Dolan, 2002), in response to monetary rewards (O’Doherty, Kringelbach, Rolls, Hornak, & Andrews, 2001) and even when hearing pleasant music (Blood & Zatorre, 2001).

In another study, participants played a computer game with a confederate while being scanned (Decety, Jackson, Sommerville, Chaminade, & Meltzoff, 2004). The participant believed that he or she was playing the game either independently from the partner, in competition, or in cooperation. Cooperation, as compared to competition, was associated with activation in the left medial orbitofrontal cortex, again, a region part of this ostensible reward network (e.g., Kringelbach, 2005). So, it might just be that when I see my research assistants behave as hard working team players, or when I sit down to write my recommendation letters, these regions are activated and, correspondingly, I feel good.

Other imaging studies have evaluated what happens in the brain when a partner does not reciprocate or behaves uncooperatively. In one study, participants played a prisoner’s dilemma game with two ostensible partners (actually the computer) (Rilling et al., 2008). Participants felt anger, irritation, and disappointment when they behaved cooperatively with their partner and the partner failed to reciprocate this cooperation. Moreover, uncooperative behavior by the partner was associated with activation in the anterior insula and hippocampus. Activation in the anterior insula has also been found during aversive social situations and is associated with negative emotion (e.g., Sanfey, Rilling, Aronson, Nystrom, & Cohen, 2003), while activation in the hippocampus is associated with long-term memory (e.g., Squire, 1992). Correspondingly, the researchers argued that perhaps the anterior insula serves as a signal to alert an individual when they have encountered an uncooperative person, while the hippocampus stores that information in long-term memory so that the untrustworthy person will be avoided again in the future.

These studies suggest that cooperating feels good while interacting with selfish others feels bad. Collectively, these results may even imply that we have evolved hard-wired signals to identify those cooperative folks we should develop relationships with (e.g., activation in reward centers) and signals to identify selfish, untrustworthy others we should take care to avoid (e.g., activation in the insula). During the times when humans first evolved those individuals that were part of a cooperative social group were more likely to survive and reproduce. As such, this ability to discriminate “good” people from “bad” people would be adaptive, and thus perhaps became ingrained in our DNA.

 

Conclusions

As a collective, the latter research points to the fact that experiential opportunities are worthwhile and provide students with both skills and social capital that will contribute to their career trajectories. By interning, students have the chance to become part of an ingroup, with members treated in privileged ways. Outstanding work is likely to activate norms of reciprocity with benefits to follow, particularly to the degree that a supervisor feels gratitude for the intern’s contribution. These benefits are likely to include letters of recommendation. Although my experience is limited to academia, I cannot stress enough how important these letters are to graduate admission. A good letter turns a bunch of grades, a GPA, and lines on a resume into a real person. Moreover, knowing that respected colleagues were impressed by this person makes an admissions committee much more willing to give him or her a chance.

This certainly was my experience, although I know that I was very lucky and that it does not always go this way. Accordingly, I encourage students to be proactive about seeking out ethical companies and strong, prosocial supervisors, and, most importantly, catalyzing these psychological processes by working hard and proving that you are deserving. Most importantly, it is critical to remember that none of these processes will take place unless you step outside of the classroom and into the lab, the corporation, the community service project, or the start-up. It is absolutely worth giving experiential learning a try.

 

 

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