This study compared effects of implementing group training programs based on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and Psychoeducation on interpersonal rights, assertiveness, and subjective well-being in university students. The hypothesis was that both programs would promote more flexible ways of thinking and increase assertive skills and well-being, but that the group based on REBT would have better results than the one based on Psychoeducation on interpersonal rights was not confirmed.
However, the high frequency in sessions of both groups (REBT and Psychoeducation) showed the relevance of the interventions. Initial adherence was a challenge, which resulted in the formation of a reduced Control group. The distribution of participants sought to guarantee the number planned for each intervention group at the expense of the number that would constitute the Control group, since dropouts are common, which could compromise the group process.
Another criterion that influenced the distribution between the intervention groups was the availability of the university student in relation to the day of the week on which the group meeting. Some students stated that they preferred not to participate in the study because they were not sure if they should commit to an activity that could take up a lot of their time. This difficulty in having longer commitments, according to Bauman and Raud (2018), may be related to the fear of losing other opportunities. Although extracurricular activities play a central role in the development of professional skills (Ambiel et al., 2019), it is possible that many students did not join the groups because they did not perceive the invitation to participate in the research as an opportunity to acquire or expand important resources for their training. The students who agreed to participate seem to have perceived the meetings as an important part of their training, so much so that in the final evaluation of the meetings, they felt that there was a need for more and longer meetings.
The reduction of irrational beliefs was one of the objectives of this study since they compromise assertiveness and subjective well-being. However, it is not statistically possible to ensure that it resulted only from the interventions. The small number of participants in the groups, especially in the control group, may have interfered with the statistical result.
To understand the way of thinking and acting of university students, it is necessary to know their main beliefs. The three most frequent irrational beliefs involved frustration when things do not happen as desired, avoidance of difficulties, and need to punish a third-party failure. This group of irrational beliefs reveals absolutist ways of thinking and cause emotional distress. This data is in line with meta-analysis study of Oltean and David (2018) that identified an average negative correlation between rational beliefs (related to preferences, non-catastrophizing of events, high tolerance for frustration, and acceptance of oneself, others/life) and psychological distress. Unconditional acceptance of self, others, and/or life play a central role as a protective factor against mental disorders, regardless of age or gender.
Philosophy of life is also composed of beliefs, rational and irrational, that influence expectations regarding the undergraduate course. The participants of this study showed problematic dysfunctional thoughts not only because of their content, but also due to their rigidity regarding the academic performance. This may represent a problem because psychological characteristics such as perfectionism and anger suppression are identified in the literature as risk factors for the mental health of university students (Graner & Cerqueira, 2019).
Some of the participants of this study had rigid beliefs about the need to treat and be treated with justice and consideration and to have comfortable living conditions. These data are consistent with those found by Soares, Leme, et al. (2018), which identified as students’ expectations that the university offered good conditions for professional preparation and for a pleasurable social coexistence.
The belief that it is possible to avoid the discomforts of life is dysfunctional. If a person imagines that they should never feel uncomfortable and that their preferences should materialize most of the time, they will avoid temporary unpleasant situations, even if that decision is detrimental to achieving long-term goals.
After the interventions, the students developed flexible ways of thinking. Those of the REBT group could reduce their self-demand and their “exigencies” from others, as well as to catastrophize less. On the other hand, those who received Psychoeducation became more apt to recognize and question traditional beliefs that used to conflict with the exercise of their legitimate rights. A more flexible thinking can contribute to reduce suffering (Crum, 2019; Oltean & David, 2018). The knowledge of their own beliefs and feelings (REBT group) and interpersonal rights (Psychoeducational group) contributed to the improvement of assertive behavior.
We also sought to expand the social skills of self-affirmation and coping with risk. This result is consistent with that found by Leite-Salgueiro et al. (2018) in a study with university students from northeastern Brazil, which found some good social skills. In our study, it is possible to state that there was an increase in the averages of the variable F1 (self-affirmation and coping with risk) in post-intervention assessments and follow-up in the three groups. So, it is not possible to ensure, statistically, that the changes were produced only by the interventions. The very small number of participants in the control group may have interfered with the statistical result.
On the other side, the written report of the participants shows the perception of benefits of the interventions. Such results corroborate the findings of two studies: (a) a social skill training program with students of Exact Sciences, conducted by Lopes et al. (2017), in which there were gains in SS of self-affirmation and confrontation with risk and self-exposure to strangers, and new situations, and (b) study carried out by Lima et al. (2019), who undertook social skills training with university students from public and private institutions, identifying acquisition of social skills.
The cognitive approach, specifically REBT, allowed the expansion of self-knowledge, the questioning of rigid thinking regarding interpersonal relationships, the recognition of assertive and non-assertive behaviors, and the proposal of practices with the adoption of new interaction patterns (Caballo et al., 2013). On the other hand, in the Psychoeducation-based group, a set of beliefs was constructed that favored respect for their own rights, as well as of third parties. The characteristics of assertive responses were discussed and plans to change non-assertive behaviors were elaborated collaboratively.
In the Control group, there was also a significant change between pre- and post-intervention. Considering that it was a small group, it is possible that if only one of its members oversized its social repertoire, either by a distorted perception of its own behavior or by the desire to make a good impression, this could already affect the result of this group.
The hypothesis that the programs would increase subjective well-being (an individual’s self-assessment of life satisfaction; and the prevalence of the experience of positive affects on the negative ones) has not been statistically confirmed for any of the groups. An individual’s self-assessment of life satisfaction is linked to the achievement of life goals. It is possible that students feel dissatisfied with their lives because they have not yet reached their goals. According to the REBT theory, self-assessment by comparing achievements with those of others or what others think (self-esteem) leads to dissatisfaction. On the other hand, self-acceptance and acceptance of failures promote health (Dryden & Ellis, 2006). In the meetings, the students had difficulty accepting their possible mistakes regarding academic performance and self-image, indicating a rigid thinking.
In the REBT group, the development of a healthy life philosophy was instigated, guided by preferences and not by “tyrannies.” This concept of REBT is compatible with the concept of self-compassion, which refers to the adoption of an attitude of respect with oneself, instead of a severely critical posture, in the face of its flaws, as well as the acceptance of negative thoughts and emotions (Neff & Vonk, 2009). A survey of 184 university students conducted by Stephenson et al. (2018) found that irrational beliefs correlate negatively with self-compassion and positively with self-esteem. This study also pointed out that self-compassion favors mental health, while attempts to maintain self-esteem are linked to the experience of depression and anxiety.
In the Psychoeducation group, the responsibility for changing, or maintaining, beliefs that were incompatible with self-acceptance and the exercise of assertive skills was instigated.
The two programs in our study proposed interventions that made it possible to question the concept of self-esteem and strengthen students’ self-acceptance to increase their perception of satisfaction with life.
Another point that may have compromised the well-being of students was the distance from family and friends, as 76% of the participants lived outside the city of origin. Based on a study on sociability, Sposito, Nakano and Chen (2016) point out perceptions and values when comparing young Brazilian and Chinese university students. According to the authors, students from both countries use most of their free time at home to access the Internet. Another interesting fact about this comparative study, involving both countries, is that Brazilian students mentioned a conversation with parents and other family members as a frequent activity, which shows the importance attributed to living with the family in the same house.
The written records of participants (both groups) show that the participants felt more satisfied with their life after the interventions. The students recognized the development of resources that favored their interpersonal relationships, as well as self-knowledge, which may have increased the subjective well-being.
It was not possible to confirm the hypothesis that the REBT group would be more effective than the Psychoeducation group for promoting assertive skills and subjective well-being. The duration and number of meetings may have been insufficient for evidencing the effects of cognitive changes.
Murta and Trócoli (2009) point out some factors, which may have also influenced our results, to explain the similarity of the results when analyzing the similarity of the effects of two different interventions for occupational stress management, namely (a) the small groups, since the smaller the sample, the lower the sensitivity of a statistical test; (b) dissemination of information between the groups, since the students met in their classes and residences; and (c) the similar way of fostering the construction of a new belief system, because the researcher conducts both groups.
Finally, it is necessary to reflect on the impact of interventions based on qualitative data on satisfaction with the group process and the resources developed in the group. Students from both groups highlighted as positive points: (a) the possibility of meeting other university students, which may be related to a group process aspect: universality, that is the discovery that different people may suffer from the same types of problems, and (b) having a space to reflect and speak without judgment: the climate of acceptance, trust, and support and the sharing of knowledge (based on REBT or Psychoeducation) seem to have been indicated by students as an important factor to facilitate changes. On the other hand, the duration of each meeting and the number of meetings were assessed as insufficient to consolidate the changes. The students’ suggestions were to expand the exchange space, which may indicate their interest in developing or improving their personal resources. The main expectation of the students was to expand their knowledge about themselves and about interpersonal relationships in order to develop new ways of relating. This may indicate that those entering university think about the importance of developing technical and personal knowledge.
Regarding the category related to the perception that the meetings produced changes in the way of thinking and acting, it is necessary to highlight beliefs considered by the participants as difficult to change: the idea that it is unacceptable to fail or that others fail. Throughout the meetings, students were able to understand the role of beliefs in their behavior and emotions. This knowledge helped them to overcome the deficits of assertiveness and to see life in a more positive way. Recognizing that everyone can fail (assertive ability) seems to have contributed to making the way they perceive their interpersonal problems more accurate, which can contribute to their resolution.
In the category related to the impact of the intervention on daily relationships, characterized by the use of learning outside the group, the students pointed out that the new resources were important in their personal and academic-professional context. Whereas only competence technique is insufficient to deal with the demands of the job market, the university needs to offer programs that favor the development of interpersonal skills.
The interventions facilitated the strengthening of ties between participants and outside groups. Such was the appreciation of the collective space to share problems and seek solutions that the students of the Psychoeducation-based group continued to meet fortnightly, even in the absence of the researcher.