The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

NPR calls Jordan Peterson’s self-authoring the writing assignment that changes lives:

Experiments going back to the 1980s have shown that “therapeutic” or “expressive” writing can reduce depression, increase productivity and even cut down on visits to the doctor.

“The act of writing is more powerful than people think,” Peterson says.


Recently, researchers have been getting more and more interested in the role that mental motivation plays in academic achievement — sometimes conceptualized as “grit” or “growth mindset” or “executive functioning.”

Peterson wondered whether writing could be shown to affect student motivation. He created an undergraduate course called Maps of Meaning. In it, students complete a set of writing exercises that combine expressive writing with goal-setting.

Students reflect on important moments in their past, identify key personal motivations and create plans for the future, including specific goals and strategies to overcome obstacles. Peterson calls the two parts “past authoring” and “future authoring.”

“It completely turned my life around,” says Christine Brophy, who, as an undergraduate several years ago, was battling drug abuse and health problems and was on the verge of dropping out. After taking Peterson’s course at the University of Toronto, she changed her major. Today she is a doctoral student and one of Peterson’s main research assistants.

In an early study at McGill University in Montreal, the course showed a powerful positive effect with at-risk students, reducing the dropout rate and increasing academic achievement.

Peterson is seeking a larger audience for what he has dubbed “self-authoring.” He started a for-profit company and is selling a version of the curriculum online. Brophy and Peterson have found a receptive audience in the Netherlands.

At the Rotterdam School of Management, a shortened version of self-authoring has been mandatory for all first-year students since 2011. (These are undergraduates — they choose majors early in Europe).

The latest paper, published in June, compares the performance of the first complete class of freshmen to use self-authoring with that of the three previous classes.

Overall, the “self-authoring” students greatly improved the number of credits earned and their likelihood of staying in school. And after two years, ethnic and gender-group differences in performance among the students had all but disappeared.

The ethnic minorities in question made up about one-fifth of the students. They are first- and second-generation immigrants from non-Western backgrounds — Africa, Asia and the Middle East.


  1. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    Positive thinkers have been extolling written affirmations and success journals and gratitude journals since the 19th century.

    Positive thinkers are not always happy with the results of positive thinking diaries.

    If this research adds anything new, I know a whole lot of less-than-enthusiastic positive thinkers who will be willing to put a lot of effort into this.

  2. James James says:

    He’s an interesting guy. I’ve been watching his Maps of Meaning lectures on Youtube. Very good. Some people say they learned a lot or it changed their lives. I’m not learning a huge amount new but the new stuff is very high quality.

    His new year’s message contains a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t normally take too seriously, but since it’s coming from him I give it more consideration. Same goes for this “Authoring” suite. I’d want to see more before I paid for it though.

  3. Random Gamer says:

    The writing assignment costs $30, and it’s basically a self-help book with less information. It gives you a bunch of quizzes and lets you pick 2 to 10 interesting items. And then it gives you the same three questions for each item:
    1 – What happened to cause a crisis?
    2 – What could you have done different in that specific crisis?
    3 – In general, how can you be better?

    There’s no analysis, no answers other than the answers you provide for yourself.

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