The Situationist

How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 21, 2007

aps-poster.jpgIn May, the American Psychological Society (APS) held their annual conference (drawing 3000 psychologists to D.C.), at which several of social psychology’s biggest hitters — including Situationist contributor Susan Fiske and Situationist friend Dan Gilbert made presentations. The latest issue of Observer, the APS magazine, contains articles summarizing a few of those presentations. Over the next week or so, the Situationist will include several posts excerpting those articles.

We begin with Wray Herbert’s excellent article on Carol Dweck’s keynote address. Carol Dweck’s fascinating research has been the subject of previous Situationist posts (including The Young and the Lucky, and The Perils of Being Smart (or Not So Much). This post compliments those posts as well as the collection of previous Situationist posts on child development (including Only Child Syndrome or Advantage?, Role-Playing Helps Adolescent Emotional Learning,” “Jock or Nerd?: Where Do You Sit at the Dinner Table?,” “Biology and Environment Affect Childhood Behavioral Development,” or “Growing up in a Sexualizing Situation.”).

* * *

How Beliefs About the Self Shape Personality and Behavior

TwinsPeople are fascinated by separated-at-birth stories . . . . [I]dentical twins often . . . share aspects of temperament, like sociability and self-control. But in her keynote address at the APS 19th Annual Convention, APS Fellow Dweck emphasized that much about personality and behavior is demonstrably not part of a fixed genetic legacy. Specifically, Dweck argues that beliefs about the self and the world not only contribute to and change personality, they underlie adaptive functioning in school, work, and relationships.

Dweck described her work on “mindsets” and their influence on academic performance. People tend to hold one of two beliefs about intelligence: Some believe that intelligence is a fixed entity, endowed at birth and unchanging, whereas others believe that intelligence is malleable. People with these different “self theories” tend to have very different experiences in life. Those with a fixed mindset set as their primary goal in life the documentation of their ability, not true learning. When they experience setbacks, they take these setbacks as reflections of their innate ability, becoming defensive and helpless. By contrast, people with a malleable mindset value learning and growth and react to adversity with increased effort and strategies for change. They are resilient.

Dweck has demonstrated the power of belief in many studies, including one (with Jennifer Mangels) in which she measured the brain-waves of Time Cover November 2005students with different mindsets. She gave the students a computerized test, deliberately made up of very difficult questions. Exactly 1.5 seconds after the students answered a question, the computer told them if they answered correctly or incorrectly. Exactly 1.5 seconds after that, the computer gave the correct answer. Dweck measured the electrical activity of the students’ brains to see when in this process the students focused their attention. The students with a fixed mindset basically stopped paying attention once they knew if they were right or wrong: “Their work was over,” Dweck said. Those with a malleable mindset — and a belief in effort — were more focused on learning the real answer.

Dweck also has shown that it’s possible to intervene and change beliefs. Even those with a tendency to think of fixed ability can learn otherwise — withCarol Dweck at APS Conference (from The Observer) effects on performance. She (with Lisa Blackwell and Kali Trzesniewski) studied a group of junior high school students whose math grades were declining steeply. All of the students had eight sessions of training in study skills, except that for half the students, these sessions included instruction in the malleability of intelligence. They were told that the brain is a muscle, which like other muscles can be strengthened with hard work. The students were “mesmerized,” she says, by the idea that they had the power to grow and enrich their own brains. The result? The students who learned the malleable mindset theory rebounded with better math grades, and their teachers reported positive changes in their motivation. [For an NPR Morning Edition audio interview and story about this research, click here.] (Dweck designed a computer software version of this intervention, called “Brainology,” which is now being tested in 20 New York City schools.)

Beliefs can also affect relationships, Dweck reported. Her research (with Susan Johnson) builds on the work of John Bowlby, who theorized that infants form internal models of relationships with other human beings based on their early experiences. Dweck and her Mother & Infant (from studied 12- to 16-month-old children who were either securely or insecurely attached to their mothers. They had them watch a story, using abstract shapes, in which the “mother” moves away from the “child,” who follows. When all of the children had gotten used to this story through many viewings, the story ended in one of two ways: Either the mother returned to care for the child, or she continued on her way, effectively abandoning the child. The secure children expressed more interest and surprise at the abandonment than did the insecure children; indeed the insecure children, if anything, were more surprised by the caring mother’s behavior.

Such beliefs about security and relationships can manifest themselves in adult relationships as well, Dweck says. Adults with low expectations and anxiety about relationships have more fragmented and shorter-lived romantic relationships. . . . They have learned through experience certain beliefs about others, and those beliefs have shaped their attitudes and behavior in crucial ways.

These kinds of beliefs can be changed as well. Dweck reported research by Greg Walton and Geoff Cohen in which African-American students who were entering college were taught to expect acceptance rather than rejection from others. They learned that doubts about being accepted in this new environment were common but largely unwarranted. Students receiving this information, compared to those in a control group, were more likely to reach out to professors, participate in class discussion, study more, and earn higher grades.

Dweck concluded . . . : “Beliefs matter. Beliefs can be changed. And when they are, so too is personality.”

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To read all of Wray Herbert’s article, click here. To view a four-minute video interview of Carol Dweck regarding her research and its relevance (even for race-car drivers), click the youtube video below.


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12 Responses to “How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition”

  1. [...] continue to discover the power of beliefs. The Situationist, one of my favorite blogs, today referred to an article illustrating this power. Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck and her [...]

  2. [...] How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition [...]

  3. [...] How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition [...]

  4. [...] of those presentations. This is the fourht in a series of posts (to link to the first three, click here, here, and here) by the Situationist excerpting and supplementing those articles. Below you will [...]

  5. [...] This is the fifth in a series of Situationist posts (to link to the first four, click here, here, here, and here) excerpting and supplementing those articles. Below you will find excerpts of [...]

  6. [...] previous, related Situationist posts, go to “How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition” (which includes a video of Carol Dweck), “The Perils of Being Smart,” [...]

  7. Winston said

    “Adaptive functioning in school”? Adapting to school is where we learned our screwed up beliefs and assumptions.

  8. [...] some related Situationist posts, see “Wise Parents Don’t Have “Smart” Kids,” “How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition” (which includes a video of Carol Dweck), “The Perils of Being Smart,” “Jock or Nerd,” [...]

  9. How do we change this mindset as adults is my question. I was only able to find one study that even addressed this question. I’ve put a reference to it below.

    If you write something about how an adult can change their mindset, I’d love to know about it. I’ve subscribed to follow-up comments so you can just reply to this comment to let me know about them.

    Thanks in advance,


    Here’s a refernece to that study:

    Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., and Dweck, C.S. 2007. Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development 78 (1): 246-263.

  10. [...] a sample of related Situationist posts, see Part I, Part II and Part III of this series and “How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition,” “Categorically Biased – Abstract,” “The Situation of John Yoo and the [...]

  11. [...] Stereotype Stereotypes,” “Women’s Situation in Economics,” “How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition,”and “The Perils of ‘Being Smart.’” Regarding the plasticity of the [...]

  12. [...] “How Situational Self-Schemas Influence Disposition,” [...]

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