Reactivity, rationality, emotion and self-protection: Critical reflections on the use and potential of diaries in research on higher education choice and decision-making

Zoe Baker


Drawing on data from an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded study on Further Education (FE) students' higher education (HE) decision-making and choice trajectories, this chapter critically reflects on the use of event-based diary methods in this context. Over the past 10 years, there has been increased political attention paid to students’ HE choices in England. The release of the ‘Students at the Heart of the System White Paper’ (BIS, 2011) by the Coalition government not only trebled the tuition fee cap to £9000, but also heightened attention to the types of information available to prospective students to aid them in making their HE choices and decisions. This brought about the introduction of Key Information Sets (KIS) (HEFCE, 2012) - information documents made available online for each HE course (, 20121); these provide statistical information on student satisfaction, the destinations of graduates and expected future salaries. Commentators have suggested that these developments frame students as rational ‘consumers’ (Hart, 2013; Molesworth et al., 2011), who are expected to make their HE decisions and choices based on this information alone. This chapter shows how this political context shaped participants’ diary entries, with instances of ‘reactivity’ emerging in how they presented their choice and decision making processes, framing these as ‘rational’ in line with political representations of the ‘student chooser’.

The chapter also considers that such demonstrations of reactivity in participant diaries appeared to overshadow the role of ‘emotion’ in their HE choices and decision-making. This is particularly important, as emotional responses to HE institutions have been noted to play an important role in these processes; they can aid prospective students to understand whether they ‘fit’ into an institutional environment (Allen, 2002; Diamond et al., 2012), which can subsequently reduce the risk of drop-out later (Thomas, 2002). Moreover, one commonly cited strength of the diary method is its ability to incite more emotive accounts from participants than what may be shared in interview (Braun et al., 2017; Day & Thatcher, 2009). Yet, reactivity may negate this strength.

Finally, the chapter considers the ethical implications of tracking decisions and choices over time using the event-based diary method, particularly when emotional investment in HE plans increased over time. Recording HE decisions and choices over time in a format where prior hopes and plans can be revisited and reflected upon at will led some participants to demonstrate psychosocial processes of self-protection when these were later not realised (Alicke and Sedikides, 2009). The relationship between the diary method and such psychosocial responses is relatively under researched; this is reflected upon at the end of the chapter when considering the potential value of the diary method in other areas of HE research.

Recording HE decision-making and choice processes: reflecting on ‘reactivity’, emotion and ethics in diary methods

Before critically reflecting on the event-based diary' method in the context of this research, it is important to consider how ‘reactivity’ may occur, how this has implications for the presentation of emotion in diary' entries, and finally, how emotional responses raise questions around research ethics, with reference to the literature. Reactivity' involves participants ‘doing what they' think the researcher expects them to do or what will please the researcher’ (Given, 2008, p. 730). While the research itself did not provide analytical attention to ‘reactivity'’, it is notable to discuss whether requesting participants to focus on, and record decisions and choices in a diary', could in itself influence such processes. This could potentially affect their decisions and choices in unique ways that may' not have occurred if participants were experiencing these processes ‘organically’ (i.e. not keeping a continuous account of each decision and choice that could then be revisited and reflected on at will).

There has been relatively little work on the reactive impacts on individuals documented in diary' research. Yet, levels of impact may be associated with the amount of structure provided to participants in diary' keeping. In literature reviewed by Reis and Gosling (2010), they conclude that diary’ methods pose little to no risk of reactivity' arising. However, the highly structured format of the diaries in the studies they' reviewed may have dampened the effects of reactivity; these consisted of quantitative mood rating forms (Thomas & Diener, 1990), and structured ‘logs’ to record alcohol addiction relapse (Litt et al., 1998). Hence, these studies employed a highly' structured diary' format; ‘logging’ or ‘rating’ rather than reflecting may decrease the intensity' of reactivity, as there is less space to contemplate events and experiences along with their implications and impacts.

Reactivity' in terms of participant perceptions, and positive behaviour change is evident in some studies adopting more ‘open’ diary' formats which encourage reflection. For example, in Merrilees et al.’s (2008) study on marital conflict which involved participants completing event-based diaries - requiring ‘participants to provide reports at every' instance that meets the researcher’s pre-established definition’ (Bolger et al., 2003, 590) - they' identified changes in husbands’ perceptions of marital quality over time. Furthermore, Stopka et al.’s (2004) study of syringe access and HIV risk among drug users resulted in positive behaviour changes among participants, with a reduction in drug use being noted alongside their daily, qualitative diary-keeping. Therefore, there is an apparent link between diaries that encourage reflection via more unstructured formats, and changes in behaviour as a result of this reflection (Reid et al., 2011).

Reflecting on the above literature and considering the use of qualitative eventbased diaries (Bolger et al., 2003; Chapter 2, this volume) in the context of HE decision-making and choice research, there may be greater potential for reactivity to be initiated due to the level of reflection required. Documenting decisions and choices involves recounting reflexive processes (Archer, 2003) which can lead to (a) more questioning of them, and (b) attempts to adhere to ‘rational1 decision-making processes which can subsequently suppress the role of emotion and affective ‘gut1 feelings. Additionally, the process of diarising decisions and choices is likely to create more ‘awareness1 of these among participants (Merrilees et al., 2008) which could lead to changes in behaviour (Reid et al., 2011). In asking that participants record events, experiences and thoughts related to their decision-making in a space that is (for the duration of the research) private to them, and able to be reflected on and revisited at will, this may work to shape decisions in a way that may not have occurred had the diary method not been adopted.

In providing increased attention and focus to their HE choice and decision-making processes, as well as attempting to articulate these in diary form, it is possible that participants may represent these as more ‘rational1. Consequently, as noted above, this could result in emotional aspects of these processes being downplayed. This is necessary to consider for a number of reasons. First, a frequently reported strength of the diary method in qualitative inquiry’ is that this can elicit more emotional accounts from participants (Braun et al., 2017; Day, 2016); this is thought to be a result of the sense of ‘privacy’1 that diaries can create, meaning that participants feel more comfortable recording feelings and experiences that they could find difficult to disclose in interview (Day & Thatcher, 2009; Chapter 11, this volume). Second, research into HE decision-making and choice has highlighted that this process is strongly influenced by’ emotion. To briefly summarise, scholars have found that emotional investment in particular HE institutions is necessary' for prospective students to understand how likely' they are to ‘fit1 in to these environments before committing to apply (Allen, 2002; Diamond et al., 2012). The way' that reactivity could potentially overshadow emotion in choice and decision-making processes could therefore negate the strengths of the diary' method, and reduce opportunities for the multifaceted nature of these processes to be captured.

It is also essential to consider the potential negative impacts of documenting emotions in diaries from an ethical standpoint. Literature has reported that diarising emotions in research can lead to positive outcomes, such as changes in behaviour and benefits to physical and mental health (Stopka et al., 2004). Others, however, have found that writing about emotions can cause distress, though, this is shortlived (Smyth, 1998). Yet, in considering the diary' method in the context of choice and decision-making research, a more specific ethical concern is the potential negative emotional consequences of being able to reflect on intended decisions and choices that were ultimately not realised. This is possibly a more pronounced risk in research utilising the diary method, as participants have the ability to easily access their past accounts and reflect on these. There are limited insights into this idea in the methods literature. Though drawing on concepts from the field of social psychology, specifically those exploring psychological ‘self-defence’ processes (Alicke & Sedikides, 2009; Schiiz & Schiiz, 2017), is particularly fruitful in exploring how being able to revisit unfulfilled plans can affect participants’ well-being and perceptions of the self (Sherman & Cohen, 2006; Steele, 1988).

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