You may have heard expressions like “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” (Henry Ford) or “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” (Theodore Roosevelt). Research shows those men were right. Our beliefs do impact our abilities.
Beliefs impact abilities
Scientists have tested how our beliefs impact our abilities. They take different groups and ‘prime’ them. They give one group ‘neutral’ information and the other group ‘beliefs’ information. Then they test them.
Preschoolers were better at delaying gratification when they believed they could cause positive outcomes. When seniors were reminded how memory fades with age, they scored 15% worse on memory tests. Remind females of the stereotypes around females and math and they perform worse in math. These tests (and many others) have shown the same thing. What we believe directly impacts our abilities. This works both positively and negatively.
Do beliefs matter to everyone?
Dr. Carol Dweck is the world-renowned scientist who decided to dig a little deeper. She discovered some people don’t seem to be as affected by the belief manipulation. Her research has shown there are two different mindsets: Fixed and Growth. Before we explain them, try testing yourself. This is one of Dr. Dweck’s tests:
“Imagine that you are a young adult having a really bad day. One day, you go to a class that is really important to you and that you like a lot. The professor returns the midterm papers to the class. You got a C+. You’re very disappointed. That evening on the way back to your home, you find that you’ve gotten a parking ticket. Being really frustrated, you call your best friend to share your experience but are sort of brushed off.”
What would you think? What would you feel? What would you do?
(Think through your answers now.)
Did you answer something like: “I would feel stupid and worthless. I would think that it just wasn’t my day. Maybe I would go home and eat or drink something or just watch TV. I would do something to make myself feel better.”
Or did you answer something like this: “I would wonder if my friend was ok. She wasn’t acting like herself and I would try to connect with her later. I would figure out why I got the ticket so I could avoid the next one. And I would make a plan to get a better grade – maybe make an appointment with the professor or study harder.”
Fixed mindset vs Growth mindset
In the example above, the first person felt paralyzed. He was overwhelmed with his day. He had a fixed mindset. The second person was still upset but she made a plan to make things better. She had a growth mindset.
People with fixed mindsets believe that talent and intelligence are fixed. They believe these qualities don’t change much during a school year or a lifetime. People with growth mindsets believe that hard work pays off. They believe that they can change and grow with experience. They believe this regardless of the talents and qualities they started with. Each person can have a fixed mindset in one aspect of our lives, and a growth aspect in another. The aspects of our lives include intelligence, sport, music, creativity, talent, moral character, and other qualities.
The big picture
Fixed mindset folks are more affected by the ‘priming’ and stereotypes. But that is not the only difference. Dr. Dweck and her colleagues have found many other significant differences.
People with a fixed mindset believe that they have a set amount of each quality. Let’s use intelligence as an example. Take a person who believes they are good at math. They feel smartest when they score 100% on a test, especially if they didn’t put in much effort. It confirms their belief that they are smart.
Each new test can cause anxiety. This is because this test may be the one to prove they are not as smart as they think. And that is scary. So they avoid math challenges. They are perfectionists and yet limit how much they study. This gives them an excuse in case they make a mistake. If they do poorly, they try to put the blame elsewhere. For example, they might say the room was too hot, they didn’t feel well, etc.
When they fail, they feel stupid. They give up easily when things are difficult. They are very sensitive to criticism. Again, this is because it can cause them to question their identity (as someone who is smart at math). They don’t use the feedback to improve, preferring to ignore it. They have a hard time when other people succeed; it lessens their perception of their own skills. As a result, they may not achieve their full potential.
People with a growth mindset believe that they can use their experiences to grow and improve. Let’s take the example of a person who loves languages. This person feels smartest when they struggle and then succeed. For example, they struggle with a complicated grammar rule, persevere, and then finally understand it.
Tests do not cause as much anxiety because they are not final. They just measure how much someone can remember at that moment. These people love a challenge, getting excited about things they do not yet know or cannot yet do. And when they have a challenge, they persevere. They believe that they can succeed with time.
When they fail, they believe they could pass next time and need to work harder. These people increase their effort. They use criticism and feedback to identify what areas need attention. They are happy for other people’s success; it does not reflect on their own abilities. As a result, they are likely to go far in life.
Each of these reactions has been documented with significant research. You can see it is better to have a growth mindset. And here’s where it gets really interesting. We can change our own and other people’s mindsets. Fixed mindsets can be changed to growth mindsets, and growth can be changed to fixed. This can change can be temporary (like what researchers did in their experiments). The change can also be more sustainable. Parents, teachers, coaches and even peers can cause positive (and negative) changes in mindset.
This week we will look at how you can influence your child to take on a growth mindset.
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