The Perils of “Being Smart” (or Not So Much)
Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 22, 2007
The the current edition of Stanford Magazine, contains an excellent article (excerpted below) by Marina Krakovsky summarizing Carol Dweck’s research, which is the topic of Dweck’s fascinating recent book, Mind-Set.
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Through more than three decades of systematic research, she has been figuring out answers to why some people achieve their potential while equally talented others don’t—why some become Muhammad Ali and others Mike Tyson. The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed.
What’s more, Dweck has shown that people can learn to adopt the latter belief and make dramatic strides in performance. . . .
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As a graduate student at Yale, Dweck started off studying animal motivation. In the late 1960s, a hot topic in animal research was “learned helplessness”: lab animals sometimes didn’t do what they were capable of because they’d given up from repeat failures. Dweck wondered how humans coped with that. “I asked, ‘What makes a really capable child give up in the face of failure, where other children may be motivated by the failure?’” she recalls.
At the time, the suggested cure for learned helplessness was a long string of successes. Dweck posited that the difference between the helpless response and its opposite—the determination to master new things and surmount challenges—lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed. People who attributed their failures to lack of ability, Dweck thought, would become discouraged even in areas where they were capable. Those who thought they simply hadn’t tried hard enough, on the other hand, would be fueled by setbacks. This became the topic of her PhD dissertation.
Dweck and her assistants ran an experiment on elementary school children whom school personnel had identified as helpless. These kids fit the definition perfectly: if they came across a few math problems they couldn’t solve, for example, they no longer could do problems they had solved before—and some didn’t recover that ability for days.
Through a series of exercises, the experimenters trained half the students to chalk up their errors to insufficient effort, and encouraged them to keep going. Those children learned to persist in the face of failure—and to succeed. The control group showed no improvement at all, continuing to fall apart quickly and to recover slowly. These findings, says Dweck, “really supported the idea that the attributions were a key ingredient driving the helpless and mastery-oriented patterns.” Her 1975 article on the topic has become one of the most widely cited in contemporary psychology.
Attribution theory, concerned with people’s judgments about the causes of events and behavior, already was an active area of psychological research. But the focus at the time was on how we make attributions, explains Stanford psychology professor Lee Ross, who coined the term “fundamental attribution error” for our tendency to explain other people’s actions by their character traits, overlooking the power of circumstances. Dweck, he says, helped “shift the emphasis from attributional errors and biases to the consequences of attributions—why it matters what attributions people make.” Dweck had put attribution theory to practical use.
She continued to do so as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, collaborating with then-graduate student Carol Diener to have children “think out loud” as they faced problem-solving tasks, some too difficult for them. The big surprise: some of the children who put forth lots of effort didn’t make attributions at all. These children didn’t think they were failing. Diener puts it this way: “Failure is information—we label it failure, but it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.’” During one unforgettable moment, one boy—something of a poster child for the mastery-oriented type—faced his first stumper by pulling up his chair, rubbing his hands together, smacking his lips and announcing, “I love a challenge.”
Such zest for challenge helped explain why other capable students thought they lacked ability just because they’d hit a setback. Common sense suggests that ability inspires self-confidence. And it does for a while—so long as the going is easy. But setbacks change everything. Dweck realized—and, with colleague Elaine Elliott soon demonstrated—that the difference lay in the kids’ goals. “The mastery-oriented children are really hell-bent on learning something,” Dweck says, and “learning goals” inspire a different chain of thoughts and behaviors than “performance goals.”
Students for whom performance is paramount want to look smart even if it means not learning a thing in the process. For them, each task is a challenge to their self-image, and each setback becomes a personal threat. So they pursue only activities at which they’re sure to shine—and avoid the sorts of experiences necessary to grow and flourish in any endeavor. Students with learning goals, on the other hand, take necessary risks and don’t worry about failure because each mistake becomes a chance to learn. Dweck’s insight launched a new field of educational psychology—achievement goal theory.
Dweck’s next question: what makes students focus on different goals in the first place? During a sabbatical at Harvard, she was discussing this with doctoral student Mary Bandura (daughter of legendary Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura), and the answer hit them: if some students want to show off their ability, while others want to increase their ability, “ability” means different things to the two groups. “If you want to demonstrate something over and over, it feels like something static that lives inside of you—whereas if you want to increase your ability, it feels dynamic and malleable,” Dweck explains. People with performance goals, she reasoned, think intelligence is fixed from birth. People with learning goals have a growth mind-set about intelligence, believing it can be developed. (Among themselves, psychologists call the growth mind-set an “incremental theory,” and use the term “entity theory” for the fixed mind-set.) The model was nearly complete (see diagram).
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The most dramatic proof [that you can change the mind-set itself] comes from a recent study by Dweck and Lisa Sorich Blackwell of low-achieving seventh graders. All students participated in sessions on study skills, the brain and the like; in addition, one group attended a neutral session on memory while the other learned that intelligence, like a muscle, grows stronger through exercise. Training students to adopt a growth mind-set about intelligence had a catalytic effect on motivation and math grades; students in the control group showed no improvement despite all the other interventions.
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Unlike much that passes for wisdom about education and performance, Dweck’s conclusions are grounded in solid research. She’s no rah-rah motivational coach proclaiming the sky’s the limit and attitude is everything; that’s too facile. But the evidence shows that if we hold a fixed mind-set, we’re bound not to reach as high as we might.
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But aren’t there plenty of people who believe in innate ability and in the notion that nothing comes without effort? Logically, the two ideas are compatible. But psychologically, explains Dweck, many people who believe in fixed intelligence also think you shouldn’t need hard work to do well. This belief isn’t entirely irrational, she says. A student who finishes a problem set in 10 minutes is indeed better at math than someone who takes four hours to solve the problems. And a soccer player who scores effortlessly probably is more talented than someone who’s always practicing. “The fallacy comes when people generalize it to the belief that effort on any task, even very hard ones, implies low ability,” Dweck says.
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In May, Professor Dweck will give the keynote address at the Association for Psychological Science 19th Annual Convention.
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