High attrition from educational programs is a major obstacle to social mobility and a persistent source of economic inefficiency. Over two-thirds of students entering a 2-y institution fail to earn a credential in the United States. In online courses, attrition rates are even higher. In two large field experiments, we tested the conditions under which a writing activity that facilitates goal commitment and goal-directed behavior reduces attrition in online courses. The activity raised completion rates by up to 78% for members of individualist cultures and primarily for those who contended with predictable and surmountable obstacles in the form of everyday obligations, but it was ineffective in collectivist cultures and for people contending with other types of obstacles.
Academic credentials open up a wealth of opportunities. However, many people drop out of educational programs, such as community college and online courses. Prior research found that a brief self-regulation strategy can improve self-discipline and academic outcomes. Could this strategy support learners at large scale? Mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII) involves writing about positive outcomes associated with a goal, the obstacles to achieving it, and concrete if–then plans to overcome them. The strategy was developed in Western countries (United States, Germany) and appeals to individualist tendencies, which may reduce its efficacy in collectivist cultures such as India or China. We tested this hypothesis in two randomized controlled experiments in online courses ( n = 17,963). Learners in individualist cultures were 32% (first experiment) and 15% (second experiment) more likely to complete the course following the MCII intervention than a control activity. In contrast, learners in collectivist cultures were unaffected by MCII. Natural language processing of written responses revealed that MCII was effective when a learner’s primary obstacle was predictable and surmountable, such as everyday work or family obligations but not a practical constraint (e.g., Internet access) or a lack of time. By revealing heterogeneity in MCII’s effectiveness, this research advances theory on self-regulation and illuminates how even highly efficacious interventions may be culturally bounded in their effects.