Illuminating the Use of the Specificity Principle to Go Inside the Black Box of Programs

By Jonathan M. Tirrell, Patricia K. Gansert, Elizabeth M. Dowling, G. John Geldhof, Jacqueline V. Lerner, Pamela E. King, Guillermo Iraheta, Kate Williams, Alistair T.R. Sim, and Richard M. Lerner



The UN 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for disaggregating results of program effectiveness within subgroups. Using the Bornstein (2017) specificity principle, involving within-group assessments regarding what specific youth prosper in what specific ways in what specific programs, we analyzed data from 888 Salvadoran youth (50% female), aged 9–15 years (M = 11.60 years, SD = 1.7), participating in the Compassion International (CI) Study of Positive Youth Development (PYD). We compared CI-supported youth with non-CI-supported youth on nine variables related to PYD, intentional self-regulation, hopeful future expectations, and spirituality. Whereas tests of group averages indicated no meaningful differences, disaggregated results across 20 program sites indicated that 2 sites showed no group differences, 7 sites showed better CI-supported youth performance, 3 sites showed better non-CI-supported youth performance, and 8 sites showed a mixed pattern. We discuss the use of the specificity principle in future assessments of SDG indicators.


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Tirrell, J. M., Gansert, P. K., Dowling, E. M., Geldhof, G. J., Lerner, J. V., King, P.E., Iraheta, G., Williams, K., Sim, A., & Lerner, R.M. (2019). Illuminating the use of the specificity principle to go inside the black box of programs: The sample case of an El Salvador positive youth development program. In S. Verna, A. Petersen, & J. Lansford (Eds.), Sustainable Human Development: Challenges and Solutions for Implementing the United Nations’ GoalsZeitschrift Fur Psychologie227(2), 121–128.