Feeling stuck? New study reveals decline in confidence, optimism, and imagination over the past 30 years

A new study has found that people feel they are less capable of making a difference in the world than they did 30 years ago.

A new study has found that people in the United States feel they are less capable of making a difference in the world than they did 30 years ago.

This decline in what psychologists call “agency” is linked to a feeling that society is not making as much progress as it used to.

Introduction to the Study

The research was based on a model of agency that includes three key parts: self-efficacy (believing in your own ability to achieve goals), future-minded planning (being optimistic about the future), and imagination (being able to think of new possibilities).

The study, titled “Has human progress stagnated in recent decades?” was conducted by P. F. Jonah Li and Angela Chow and published on February 4, 2024 in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

The data came from the MIDUS study (Midlife in the United States), which followed a group of adults over three periods: 1994-1996, 2004-2006, and 2013-2014.

This allowed researchers to see how agency and the feeling of progress have changed over time.

Methodology and Approach

To measure agency, the researchers created a 10-question survey that looked at self-efficacy, future-minded planning, and imagination.

Here are some example questions from the survey:

  • Self-efficacy: “When I really want to do something, I usually find a way to succeed at it.”
  • Future-minded planning: “I like to make plans for the future.”
  • Imagination: “How well does ‘imaginative’ describe you?”

They used data from 2,717 adults who answered these questions in all three periods.

The participants’ average age was 46 years old, and the group was 55% female and 45% male.

Most participants (95%) were White, with 3% identifying as Black and 2% as Asian or other racial identities.

The study also included people from different religious backgrounds: 19% Evangelical Protestants, 13% Catholics, 7% Mainline Protestants, 4.8% Agnostics or Atheists, and 3.9% from other religious groups.

Key Findings and Insights

The study found that all three parts of agency — self-efficacy, future-minded planning, and imagination — have decreased over the past 30 years.

People are less confident in their abilities, less hopeful about the future, and less imaginative.

This decline in agency was linked to a feeling that society is not progressing as much.

For example, self-efficacy scores dropped by an average of 14%, future-minded planning decreased by 11%, and imagination declined by 11%.

The decline in agency was generally consistent across different demographics, although women reported a slightly larger decrease in self-efficacy.

Likewise, older participants showed a more significant decline in future-minded planning compared to younger participants.

And people with a lower degree of religious identification reported a greater decrease in self-efficacy and future-minded planning compared to those with higher religious identification.

The study also found that people who had higher scores in these three parts of agency were more likely to try hard, stick with their goals, and create positive changes.

For example, people who believed in their abilities (self-efficacy) put in more effort, those who were optimistic (future-minded planning) were more persistent, and those who were imaginative were more likely to come up with new ideas.

Implications and Future Directions

These findings underscore the significance of fostering self-efficacy, future-minded planning, and imagination in people to promote their sense of agency and perceived societal progress.

But how? Schools and universities, they suggest, can implement initiatives that focus on building students’ confidence in their abilities.

Likewise, encouraging people to set long-term goals and make concrete plans for achieving them can enhance their optimism about the future.

This can be supported for example through career counseling and life coaching programs.

And creating environments that encourage creative thinking and innovation can help individuals feel more imaginative, providing opportunities for creative expression in both educational and workplace settings.

These strategies, mentioned in the study, highlight the importance of helping people feel empowered and capable of making a difference in their lives and society.

The decline in agency suggests that while technology has advanced, it might also make people feel less in control of their lives.

Future research could look at these trends in different cultures and explore how agency works in different areas, like online environments or specific jobs.

Study Details

  • Title: “Has human progress stagnated in recent decades? Evaluating Seligman’s (2021) model of agency and its correlates using the MIDUS three-wave longitudinal study”
  • Authors: P. F. Jonah Li, Angela Chow
  • Publication Date: February 5, 2024
  • Journal: The Journal of Positive Psychology
  • DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2024.2314288