Mindset: Two Schools of Thought

Carol Dweck is one of the most famous learning theorists alive today. Though she has been studying mindsets for decades, she is perhaps best known for her (appropriately-titled) book, Mindset Her ideas have directly helped hundreds of thousands of readers learn and teach more effectively, and they have indirectly helped millions more by influencing the way we think about learning and intelligence today.

When it comes to intelligence there have always essentially been two schools of thought. One claims intelligence is a relatively fixed quantity that is stable throughout our lifespan, while the other argues it is a malleable quality that can change depending on experience (i.e. a variation of the infamous Nature versus Nurture debate). Adherents to the first school often adopt "entity" theories of intelligence and pursue "performance goals," in which they are concerned with gaining favorable judgments of their competence, whereas adherents to the second school of thought often adopt "incremental" theories and pursue "learning goals," in which they are concerned with increasing their competence. Which school of thought is right?

The Nature versus Nurture debate rages on - and probably always will - but, in terms of mindsets at least, we do know that a preoccupation with performance often leads to "helpless" response patterns, in which individuals avoid challenges and experience a deterioration in performance when faced with failure. Indeed, in one of Dweck's more famous experiments, children were assessed as having either a performance or a learning mindset and then asked to complete a set of problems, the last four of which were highly likely to result in failure. The performance-oriented children quickly became helpless: they attributed their failure to personal inadequacies such as deficient intelligence, memory, or problem-solving ability (despite having answered the first eight questions correctly); they began to report an aversion to the task, boredom with the problems, and/or anxiety over their performance; and they viewed their difficulties as insurmountable failures that indicated low ability. Consequently, more than two thirds showed a clear decline in the level of their problem-solving strategy and over 60% reverted to ineffective strategies characteristic of much younger children.

In contrast, "mastery-oriented" children did not respond with attributions for their failure - in fact, they did not appear to think they were failing at all. The unsolved problems were perceived as challenges to be mastered through effort. They instructed themselves to exert more effort or to concentrate harder and then monitored their level of effort or concentration. They remained optimistic that their efforts would pay off. Rather than view the unsolved problems as negative judgments of their ability, they focused on learning what they needed to know to get the problems right. They believed that their ability would directly follow from their level of effort, not the reverse. As a result, 80% succeeded in maintaining their problem-solving strategies at or above prefailure levels, with over 25% increasing the level of their strategy.

Despite the fact that both groups of children performed identically on the first eight problems (with the helpless children actually slightly outperforming the mastery-oriented children), their performance completely diverged once they encountered failure. Why? The helpless children were overly concerned with performance goals, which are associated with a vulnerability to challenge avoidance, negative ability attributions, negative affect, and low persistence in the face of difficulty. In other words, these children became helpless because of their emphasis on performance. In contrast, the mastery-oriented children had learning goals, which are associated with challenge seeking (regardless of confidence in ability), an effort/strategy focus, positive affect, and high persistence when faced with challenges - i.e. exactly what was observed with the children in this group. Thus it was the the children's different goals that led to their different response patterns in the face of failure, which then led to completely different outcomes.

Let's now return to the two schools of thought we began with. Obviously individuals vary in initial aptitudes - some of us learn to walk, talk, read, write, multiply, etc. earlier than others. Nature is not irrelevant. However, without disputing that certain individuals may begin with innate advantages in particular areas, the incremental school of thought believes effort is the key to maintaining and developing intelligence over time. Carol Dweck is famous because she has shown, in countless studies and experiments, that an incremental view is strongly correlated with more adaptive cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses in the face of failure, and that these more adaptive responses result in superior learning and development over time. The helpless response pattern is inevitable for the overwhelming majority of people who hold entity theories of intelligence, because, at some point, everyone faces challenges that are difficult to overcome. If you believe effort is indicative of low ability - as most entity theorists do - you will be ill-prepared when effort is precisely what is required to overcome obstacles to your goals. Indeed, entity theories offer little to sustain us during trying times, and therefore tend toward inferior learning outcomes compared to incremental theories.

Given the unambiguous findings in Dweck's studies and others like them, one might wonder why so many people still pursue performance goals. One reason is that they are obviously important in certain contexts: evaluating our abilities is often necessary to obtain an objective understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, and gaining positive judgment of our competence from authority figures is often a prerequisite for access to important resources. The problems arise when an overconcern with proving our adequacy (to ourselves or others) leads us to ignore, avoid, or abandon potentially valuable learning opportunities.

So regardless of where you stand on the never-ending Nature versus Nurture debate, it is far more adaptive to hold an incremental view of intelligence - in which effort is the key to developing and maintaining abilities - than it is to think of intelligence as a relatively fixed quantity that is difficult to drastically change. There is such an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting this view that arguing with it is more likely the result of an aversion to putting in effort than of having an empirically-supported objection. If you're putting in the effort but feeling disappointed that you have not yet reached your goal, that negative affect is likely the result of an overemphasis on performance. As soon as you realize and believe that effort is the key to developing your ability, you will recognize the incremental progress you are undoubtedly making as the result of your work. That's something you can feel good about. At the end of the day, large differences in ability are generally the result of incremental differences accumulating over time. Never forget that.


Peter A.

Harvard PhD Student | Expert SAT, ACT, & GRE Tutor

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