Long-term effects of psychological interventions: explanations and examples

Much research has been done into which interventions help students learn and perform well. Until now, emphasis has mainly been on examining short-term effects of interventions. Understandable, because you want to do things that help students quickly when they have difficulties in learning and performing. But what do we know about the long-term effects of interventions?

What are the long-term effects of interventions and how do they come about?

The long-term effects of interventions are often unknown. There are various possibilities. An intervention that works in the short term could lose its effect in the longer term. It is also possible that an intervention not only has a positive effect in the short term, but that this effect will last in the longer term. And it is also possible that the positive effect of an intervention not only lasts but even becomes stronger over time.

Framework for explaining long-term effects

Over the years, various interventions have also been identified that have positive effects not only in the short term, but also in the long term. Intervention scientists, however, have few ideas about how these long-term effects come about. In a recent publication by Hecht et al. (2019), a framework is presented on the basis of which long-term effects of interventions can be explained. Hecht et al. describe three types of processes that can explain long-term effects:

Process 1: Recursive Effects (Feedback Loops)

Recursive effects are feedback loops in which two or more variables influence each other back and forth. An example of this: letting students reflect on what is valuable in the teaching material can lead to them seeing the material as more valuable. This increases the chance that they will spend more time on the material. This in turn can lead to them discovering new things in the material they find valuable. The picture below (from Hecht et al.) summarizes this recursive process:

Process 2: non-recursive effects (domino effects)

Non-recursive effects are domino effects: a first effect leads to a second effect and that in turn leads to a third effect. These kind of domino effects can occur on an intrapersonal level as well as through the social system. Here are two examples.

An example of a domino effect on an intrapersonal level: an intervention can cause a student to spend more time studying. This can lead to better results and thus more self-confidence to also take the next challenging course. An example of a domino effect via the social system: an intervention that leads a student to see biology as more valuable opens up possibilities to choose from many different biology courses and eventually to major in biology. The picture below (from Hecht et al.) visualizes domino effects.

Process 3: Latent Intrapersonal Effects

Latent intrapersonal effects are permanent changes within the person. Examples include: developing new habits, seeing things very differently, learning new strategies. An example of this could be that a student learns to always reflect on the value of the material from now on. The picture below (from Hecht et al.) visualizes these kinds of permanent changes in the person.

Three interventions with proven long-term effects

The authors also describe three interventions in the educational setting with not only short-term effects but also proven long-term effects: Values ​​affirmation (VA), Utility value (UV) and Social belonging (SB). They describe what these interventions entail and, based on the three processes described above, also suggest explanations for their long-term effectiveness.

1. Values ​​affirmation

The Values ​​affirmation (VA) intervention emerged from the stereotype threat research. The intervention invites the student to focus on personal values ​​outside the field to which the stereotyping relates (from a list of values) and to write an essay about this. Both short and long term effects have been demonstrated with this intervention (see, among others, Cohen et al. 2006 and 2009, Sherman et al., 2013).

As the main explanation for the effectiveness of this intervention, the authors cite that VA interrupts a feedback loop between stereotype threat and performance. So this is a recursive effect (process 1). In addition, VA interventions also seem to bring about a lasting change within the person (process 3) and also have no recursive effects (process 2).

2. Utility value

The utility value (UV) intervention stems from the expectancy value theory. Utility value is the perception that curriculum will be useful in achieving the student's short and long term goals. An example of such an intervention: write about how this material can be useful to you or relevant to your life.

Not only short-term effects but also long-term effects have been demonstrated with this intervention (Hulleman & Harackiewicz, 2009; Harackiewicz et al., 2016; Canning et al., 2017). UV is mainly assumed to work via non-recursive effects (process 2), but recursive processes (process 1) and latent intrapersonal effects (process 3) may also play a role.

3. Social belonging

The social belonging (SB) intervention was designed to combat the feeling of not belonging in the academic setting (Walton & Cohen, 2007). This feeling can occur, for example, in students from ethnic minority communities or from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Both short and long term effects have been shown (Walton & Cohen, 2011).

The main explanation seems to be: intrapersonal effects (process 3 and recursive processes (process 1; the intervention helps to break through a negative recursive process of feeling out of place, withdrawal and negative performance).

Multiple processes occur simultaneously

As these examples show, the three processes that explain long-term effects may very well occur simultaneously. The picture below (after Hecht et al.) visualizes that:


It is important to pay much more attention to the long-term effects of our interventions. The fact that an intervention appears to work well in the short term does not mean that it will also have a positive effect in the long term. Perhaps something will work well initially and even backfire in the long term.

The framework of Hecht et al. seems to me to be a good step to gain more insight into the way in which some interventions work not only directly but also over time. By understanding the underlying processes better, our interventions can become more sustainable.