What do you believe about intelligence? Is your intelligence something very basic about you that can’t change much? Or, do you believe your intelligence can be substantially changed? It turns out that what you think about these questions profoundly affects your life.
Twenty-five years ago Dr. Carol Dweck, a social psychologist and professor, started researching her two interests--the power of people’s beliefs and how people coped with failure. Her work led to a groundbreaking discovery.
Dweck asked research subjects if they mostly agreed or mostly disagreed with two types of statements:
- You can learn new things but you can’t really change how intelligent you are.
- No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.
The answers split people into two groups with different mindsets about intelligence—that intelligence was either fixed or could grow. Those with a fixed mindset held what Dweck termed an “entity” theory of intelligence and those with a growth mindset held an “incremental” theory of intelligence. The big discovery was that believers of each mindset coped very differently with failure.
Entity vs. Incremental Theory of Intelligence
Dweck expected her experiments to reveal differences in how research subjects coped with failure. But she didn't expect to discover that people with an incremental theory of intelligence did not actually “cope” with failure, they didn’t even think they were failing! Even as they made mistake after mistake, they thought they were learning and relished the difficultly in problems. People with an entity theory of intelligence when faced with a hard problem were quicker to give up after a few mistakes.
These results have been confirmed by two decades of studies conducted with thousands of subjects from preschoolers through adults. Entity theory believers worried that making mistakes, or even having to work hard at something, might be perceived as low intelligence. But believers of the incremental theory were unthreatened by difficult problems. They thought if they worked harder, they could learn and eventually solve the problem. They didn’t feel bad or embarrassed that they didn’t know the answer.
Dr. Dweck didn’t try to define intelligence. She focused on how beliefs about intelligence affected behavior and performance. Her research provided strong evidence that holding an entity or incremental theory of intelligence predicted many behaviors important to learning, achievement and success. What people believe about intelligence influences how much effort they make to learn, how much challenge they pursue, how much determination they show, how resilient they are in failure, and how much validation they seek.
How can these two mindsets have such a powerful influence on so many aspects of life? The effect is attributed to motivation. For entity theorists, the outcome, not effort, matters. If performance isn’t good relatively quickly, they lose motivation. Because incremental theorists believe small consistent gains achieve greater levels of mastery, the rewards of continuing effort motivates them.
Praise and Incremental Intelligence
How do children get their theory of intelligence? Most often from parents, teachers, and coaches. Research shows that a significant factor shaping children's mindsets is how they are praised. Dweck discovered that praising students for their intelligence might actually limit their intellectual growth.
When a child scores well on a test, a parent might want to praise that success. The parent could say, “You’re so smart!” Or, “Good work on that test!” The first statement tells the child a successful test outcome means the child is smart, which implies a less successful outcome means he or she must not be so smart. The second statement praises the work, and implies the effort is what matters, not some innate cognitive ability. The key for parents is to become skillful at praising effort not ability.
We Don’t Know How Far Effort Can Take Someone
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm,” said Winston Churchill, expressing the spirit of incremental intelligence. People with a growth mindset don’t think that effort makes everybody a Mozart. They believe more effort leads to greater mastery and they don’t know how far that effort will take them.
Dweck’s research proved that an entity mindset could be changed and she explains how in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She wrote this book for a general audience after her student researchers insisted that what they were discovering was too important to be available only in scientific journals. Mindset is essential reading for parents, but it could impact your whole life.
Fixed vs. Growth Intelligence Mindsets: It's All In Your Head, Dweck Says, a Stanford University article, tells more about incremental intelligence and Dweck's journey of discovery.
Unboxed, If You're Open to Growth, You Tend to Grow, a New York Times article, describes the relevance of Dweck's discoveries to the business-minded.
The Mindset website, has links to more articles, a test to determine mindset, and information on praising effectively.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, one of PCM's Top 10 Books for Parents.
Chapter 8 of Daniel Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School, one of PCM's Top 10 Books for Parents.