Psych in Real Life: Growth Mindsets

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how different praise and mindsets can lead to different levels of performance

How Mindset Influences Performance

Imagine that you are a parent and your child has just brought home a report card from 4th grade that is really good. You look it over and feel proud of your son or daughter.  With a wide grin on your face, you turn to your child and say:

“I’m so proud of you! This report card is great! You __________”

  • are so smart!
  • must have worked so hard!
  • have some jelly on your nose!

We hope you didn’t choose the jelly statement. Between the other two options, which one would you be more likely to blurt out?

It turns out that your choice could matter.

Carol Dweck, who is now a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has been studying factors that promote or interfere with achievement since the 1970s. Over this time, and especially since the mid-1990s, she came to realize that our ways of dealing with the world and particularly our behaviors in trying to achieve our own goals are influenced by what she calls “self-theories”: beliefs we have about our own abilities, strengths and weaknesses, and potential. These self-theories affect decisions we make about what is possible or sensible or reasonable to do in order to achieve our goals.

Before we discuss Carol Dweck’s work, please answer a few questions about your own beliefs. Try to answer based on your real ways of thinking. The questions are a bit repetitive, but answer each one without regard to your previous answers.

Take the  8-question Mindset Quiz here or take the 8-question Mindset Quiz here

Teacher looks on as two fourth-grade students work on assignments.

Figure 1. Those with a growth mindset are optimistic about how the environment, experiences, and attitudes can influence intelligence.

Dr. Dweck and her colleagues have used questions like the ones you just answered to sort people into groups based on their beliefs about intelligence (and other abilities and skills). She has found that people tend to adopt one of two general sets of beliefs about intelligence. People with a fixed mindset tend to think of intelligence as an “entity”—something that is part of a person’s essential self. According to people with this belief, intelligence does not change much regardless of what we do or what we experience. Other people have a growth mindset, and they tend to think of intelligence as being “incremental”—a quality that can change for better or worse depending on what we do and on the experiences we have. Some people are strongly committed to one or the other end of the fixed vs. growth mindset scale, while others fall in-between to varying degrees.

Study 1:  Mueller & Dweck (1998)

If Dweck is right, our mindset has a big impact on how well we achieve our potential—in school and in many other areas of our lives (for example, in sports, music, and business). But where do these different mindsets come from?

There can be many reasons that a person comes to believe that intelligence is fixed or changeable, but one obvious influence on our way of thinking about ourselves is the messages we hear from adults as we grow up. Dweck and her then-graduate student Claudia Mueller wanted to see if they could influence the mindset of children, if only for a brief period of time, by giving different kinds of praise to the children. Their starting point was the unsurprising and well-established idea that praise is motivating. When we do something and receive praise, we are more likely to want to do that same thing again. But Mueller and Dweck wondered if all praise is equal. In particular, is it possible that certain types of praise that well-meaning parents and teachers often use could actually reduce a child’s motivation to learn and that child’s resiliency when he or she encounters challenges?

The researchers recruited 128 fifth graders (70 girls and 58 boys ranging in age from 10 to 12) to participate in their study. Before we go into the details of the first experiment, please get a feel for the task that the children had to perform.

You will have one minute to solve as many of the problems below as you can.[1] For each problem, you will see a set of patterns arranged in a 3×3 matrix. Each matrix has one item missing, and your task is to figure out what the missing item is based on the changing patterns in the rows, columns, and diagonals.

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Before we start, here is one practice item. The 3×3 matrix is at the top and the pattern on the lower right is missing. Figure out which one of the eight patterns on the bottom, labeled 1 to 8, is the missing pattern.

A sample question from an IQ test, showing three sets of a 3x3 grid with stars in certain squares, with the last square missing. Imagine the grid is labeled 1-9, beginning in the top left. In the first image, there are stars in 1 and 8; the next has a star in 5; the next has stars in 1, 5, and 8; the next has stars in 3 and 7; the next has stars in 1 and 9; the next has stars in 1,3,7, and 9; the next has stars in 2 and 8, and the last has stars in 4 and 6. Which image should come next?

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Now you will have ONE MINUTE to solve as many of the problems below as possible.

Now that you’ve taken the test, how much would you like to try some more of these questions?

  • Not at all
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • Very much

How much did you enjoy working on these problems?

  • Not at all
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • Very much

How well do you think you did on these problems overall?

  • Not very well
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • Very well

If we gave you some more problems, would you prefer some more like the easier practice problem or some more like the hardest test problem you tried?

  • Like the easier practice problem
  • Like the hardest test problem

The problem-solving task you just tried out is based on a widely used psychological test called the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Most people find the test to be challenging, requiring close attention to detail and careful logical thinking. Mueller and Dweck chose this task because it could be adapted to be relatively easy or extremely difficult by changing the complexity of the patterns required for the solution.

The experiment had three stages, each based around a different set of matrix problems like the ones you worked on. Each child was tested one-on-one in an otherwise empty classroom by a research assistant.

Stage 1: Pretest, Treatment, and Assessment of Motivation

Pretest

The children were given instructions and 10 problems that were fairly easy to solve. At the end of 4 minutes, they were stopped and the research assistant scored their answers. On average, the children attempted to answer 7.9 out of the 10 problems, and the mean number correct was 5.2.

Treatment

When you do something to manipulate an independent variable, that something you do (administer a pill, tell the participant something that might affect performance, etc.) is called a “treatment.” In this case, the treatment was the feedback the child received about his or her performance on the progressive matrices task. This treatment involved a bit of deception because children received randomly assigned feedback. In other words, regardless of real performance, the children heard one of three statements depending on random assignment to a treatment condition.

  • First, every child was told: “Wow, you did very well on these problems. You got _____ right. That’s a really high score.” The minimum number right that a child heard was 80%, which is obviously well above the actual average of 51%. If a child got more than 80% correct, the actual number correct was used.
  • The next step was based on the treatment condition the child had been assigned to:
    • Some of the children were praised for their ABILITY: “You must be smart at these problems.”
    • Other children were praised for their EFFORT: “You must have worked hard at these problems.”
    • The remaining children were in the CONTROL condition. They did not receive any additional feedback, aside from the general praise shown above.

Assessment

After receiving feedback and, for children in two of the conditions, additional praise, the children were asked a series of questions. The experimenters wanted to know if the success the children experienced in the first set of problems, along with the type of praise, influenced their choice of additional problems. They were told that they might get some more problems to solve and they were asked to choose the difficulty of those problems. There were several options, but the choice came down to this:

    • Give me easy problems: “Problems that I’m pretty good at, so I can show that I’m smart.”
    • Give me challenging problems: “Problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart.”

The children were then told that there might be some time at the end of the session to work on these problems they had chosen, but that the next problems they would work on had been determined before the experiment started. They were told this so they would not interpret the next problem set as being “easy” or “challenging” based on their selection.

The results showed that the children were genuinely influenced by the praise they had received. The figure below shows the percentage of children choosing EASY problems, broken down by treatment condition. The children who were praised for how smart they were (ability) were far more likely to choose easy problems than were the children praise for working hard (effort). The control condition, children who were told they did well but received no additional praise, were in the middle.

Bar graph showing the percentage of students choosing easy problems. Of those who were praised on ability nearly 70% chose easy problems, 50% of the control condition chose easy problems, and less than 10% of those who were praised for effort chose the easy problems.

Figure 2. The type of praise given influenced the types of problems students wanted to tackle. This graph shows the number of students choosing easy problems after given praise.

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Stage 2: Failure, Negative Feedback, and Consequences

Failure

Next, the children tried to solve a new set of 10 matrix problems and again they had 4 minutes. On the surface, these problems looked about the same as the first set, but they were considerably more difficult. After the 4-minute test period, the researchers scored the answers and, regardless of actual performance, they told the children that they had done poorly (“a lot worse”). No one was told that he or she had solved more than 50% correctly. In fact, this feedback was accurate. The results showed that the children found the problems difficult. On average, they attempted 5.8 of the 10 problems and correctly solved only 1.8 of them. There was no significant difference in the number of problems solved for the three groups (ability feedback, effort feedback, and no-feedback control).

Consequences

Now the experimenters wanted to know about the effect of “failure” on the children’s motivation (though the term “failure” was never used with the children).

Immediately after receiving feedback, the children were asked a series of questions:

  • “How much would you like to take these problems home to work on?” [This was a measure of “task persistence”]
  • “How much did you like working on the first set of problems? How much did you enjoy working on the second set? How much fun were the problems? [These measured “task enjoyment”]
  • Using a somewhat complicated measure, the children were also asked to explain their difficulties with the second problem set by attributing failure to lack of ability or lack of effort. This was done in a way that they could explain their problems on the second set as partially due to low ability and partially to low effort.

Results

  • “How much would you like to take these problems home?” The children answered on a 1-to-6 scale, where higher numbers mean more interest in taking the problems home to practice.
Bar graph showing the type of praise given and the feelings of the participants about how much they would like to take the problems home. A higher score means the participant was more interested in taking the problems home. Those praised for ability scored it just over a 3, while those in the control just over a 4, and those who were praised for effort, just under a 5.

Figure 3. How praise influenced students’ desires to take the problems home. Statistical note: the Ability group was significantly lower than the other two. There was no significant difference between the Control and Effort groups.

  • “How much fun were the problems?” The children answered on a 1-to-6 scale, where higher numbers mean more enjoyment of the problems.
On a scale of 1-6, students who were praised for ability rated the problems as a 4 for "fun", while students in the control rated them at a 4.5, and students who were praised for effort rated them at a 5.

Figure 4. Tye type of praise given had a small, but noticeable, impact on how much students enjoyed the problems. Statistical note: all three groups were significantly different from each other.

  • Why did you perform poorly on this second set of problems? The children expressed their own explanation for their poor performance using a somewhat complicated procedure. It was not a simple ability vs. effort choice and they could apportion their failure partially to either cause (reference the original study for more details).
Two bar graphs. The first shows responses to the question "How much was your failure due to low ability?" The group that had been praised for ability answered high to this at 16, while the control group answered at 14 and the effort group responded at 10. The second bar graph shows responses to "How much was your failure due to low effort? The ability group answered low (5), the control group at 11 and the effort group at 12.

Figure 5. When asked how much of their “failure” was due to low ability, those praised for ability were more likely to blame their own inability. When asked how much of their failure was due to low effort, those who were praised for ability did not blame their effort, rather their ability.

Stage 3: Posttest

For the last stage of the experiment, the children were given a new set of problems that was similar in difficulty to the first set. The problems were moderately difficult, and the children had 4 minutes to solve as many as possible. The figure below shows the change in the average number of problems between the pretest (Stage 1) and the posttest (Stage 3).

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Instructions: Click and drag the circles on the right (Posttest) to where you think they should be to reflect the results of the experiment. When you’re done, click the link below to see the actual results.

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The Mueller and Dweck experiment shows how a single comment to a child can have at least a temporary effect. It is unlikely that these children were still influenced by that one comment (“You’re smart!” or “You worked hard!”) a day later or even an hour later. But at least for a short time in a controlled setting, the children were apparently affected by what the adult researcher said to them. Why would this matter? If a child repeatedly and consistently hears one sort of encouragement or the other, the child can internalize that way of thinking. Later, as an adolescent and then an adult, the individual’s “mindset” can determine how that person approaches new opportunities to learn and to grow intellectually.

Before you go on, we’d like you to create a psychological theory. This may sound like a strange thing to do because theories are often presented to you in textbooks as being the final summary of some research. Sometimes that is true, but the primary use of theories in real scientific research is as a temporary and changeable summary of a researcher’s ideas.

Try It

Using the figure below, which shows a sequence of influences beginning with either praise for effort or praise for ability, build a psychological theory.

This is the psychological theory based on Dr. Dweck’s ideas, showing how the two different mindsets lead to different outcomes.[2]

What this theory says is that different kinds of praise encourage the child to focus on different goals. Praise for effort tells the child that the process of learning is important and reward comes from trying hard. Praise for ability tells the child that performance comes from something mysterious inside of you (“intelligence” or “talent”) rather than from what you do.

According to the theory (and supported by the results), children who had been praised for effort could focus on the process of learning, so failure at hard problems could be seen as a challenge—even something fun—and failure could motivate them. The children who were praised for their intelligence, which effort cannot change, felt smart when they had easy problems, but the hard problems led to a disturbing realization: maybe I don’t have that magical ability.

At stage 3 in the experiment, children who were energized by the difficult problems tackled the final set of problems, which were fairly easy, with enthusiasm that led to success. The children who were discouraged by failure handicapped themselves on the last set of problems, doing worse than they had at the beginning of the study.

Next, let’s read about a second study by Dweck’s research team, though this one is described more briefly and with less detail. Study 2 is not an experiment because there are no manipulated variables. It is a longitudinal study, which means that the same participants (in this case, children) are tested repeatedly across a long period of time.

Study 2: Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck (2007)

In this study[3], Dweck and her colleagues administered a questionnaire about beliefs and attitudes to some 7th graders in public schools, and then they tracked 373 of the students from the beginning of the 7th grade to the end of 8th grade. This period, which marked the transition from elementary school to junior high school, was considered a particularly interesting time because it was a challenging, even stressful, time for the students and the children’s learning styles and attitudes could now have a substantial impact on their academic achievement.

Eight grade student Caribe Polk gets some assistance from Chris Shumway, math teacher, at Feagin Mill Middle School Nov. 7.

Figure 6. Students with a growth mindset demonstrated behaviors that led to better math performance.

At the beginning of their 7th grade school year, the children were tested on their mindset (various levels of commitment to fixed or growth mindset), learning goals (preference for easy or challenging work), beliefs about effort (whether it tends to lead to improvement or not), and attitudes about failure (whether it is motivating or discouraging).

The researchers focused on the students’ mathematics grades across the two years of the study. They chose mathematics because students tend to have strong beliefs about their skills (“I’m good at math” or “I’m not a math person”), which is influenced by their mindset and because math proficiency can be tested and graded fairly objectively. Although the study focused on math, the researchers were interested in any area of study or skill, not just math.

The figure below shows the average grades[4] of the students with strong fixed and strong growth mindsets based on the initial test. Students with mixed mindsets are not included in this graph. At the end of the first semester, there was a very modest difference of fewer than two points in math grades. The trends for the two lines are obviously different. The students with a fixed mindset (red line) showed a slight decline in average grades across the two years of the study. Students with a growth mindset (green line) show steady improvement across the two years, with their average grade increasing by nearly 3-points.

Line graph mapping the change in average math grades from fall of 7th grade to spring of 8th grade for students with a growth mindset and students with a fixed mindset. Growth Mindset students see an increase in their average math grades over time while fixed mindset students see a steady decrease in their average math grades over time. Growth Mindset students average a grade of around 73% in math in fall of 7th grade with a steady increase to 76% in spring of 8th grade. Fixed Mindset students start with an average math grade of around 71% with a steady decrease to about 70.5% in spring of 8th grade.

Figure 7. Differences in math grades between those with growth and fixed mindsets.

At the beginning of the study, the students—then just starting the first term of the 7th grade—filled out a questionnaire about their attitudes and beliefs about learning. The table below summarizes these differences.[5] The reason for these questions is an important part of the psychology of learning. Mindset itself (fixed vs. growth) doesn’t cause better or worse performance. Mindset leads to behaviors (types of studying, reactions to setbacks) that in turn affects the quality of learning.

The researchers found that children with growth mindsets (related to EFFORT praise in the first study) had different attitudes than children with fixed mindsets (related to ABILITY praise in the first study). The table below summarizes their findings.

Growth Mindsets and Fixed Mindsets
Attitude Fixed Mindset Growth Mindset
Preferred difficulty of work Easy success Challenging
Belief about value of effort Doesn’t lead to improvement Leads to improvement
Attitude about failure Discouraging Motivating 

The table indicates that children with different mindsets sought out different kinds of experience, with growth mindset children preferring challenging experiences, while those with a fixed mindset preferred easier learning experiences that led to easy success. The growth mindset students believed that working hard—effort—leads to improvement, while those with fixed mindsets tended to undervalue effort, believing that hard work is frustrating because we can’t do better than our “talents” or “innate abilities” allow us to do. Finally, the growth mindset children found difficult work and even failure to be a source of inspiration. They wanted to prove to themselves and others that they could do what was needed to succeed. The fixed mindset children tended to respond to difficulty and failure with discouragement, believing that it simply reaffirmed their own limitations.

Takeaways

The two studies we have discussed are just two of dozens of research projects by Dweck and others that show how mindset is related to differences in achievement. In another study, Grant and Dweck (2003) followed several hundred college students taking a pre-med organic chemistry course, as this is one of the most important and challenging courses for pre-med students at most universities. Students with a growth mindset outperformed students with a fixed mindset, and the two groups reported differences in attitudes and beliefs similar to those shown in the table above.

Mindset is just one factor that influences how we learn and how we respond to challenges. Whether you have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, you can study hard and do well in school and in other areas. Here is a summary point from Carol Dweck: “It should be noted that in these studies…students who have a fixed mindset but who are well prepared and do not encounter difficulties can do just fine. However, when they encounter challenges or obstacles they may then be at a disadvantage.”

One last thing to remember is this: you can change your mindset. If you regularly handicap yourself by your beliefs (I just don’t have the talent for this) and attitudes about learning (I can’t learn this), you can change those beliefs and attitudes. That change in mindset can be the difference between an effective response to challenges or avoidance of those challenges. Keep in mind that your beliefs and attitudes are the result of many years of experience, so you won’t change your mindset overnight by simply deciding to be different. You may have to work at it. In particular, when you encounter difficulty—a poor grade on a test, a paper that has some negative comments from your professor, or a reading assignment that leaves you confused—that is the time that your mindset can have a huge impact on what you do next. Don’t let your mindset prevent you from realizing your abilities or reaching your potential!

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  1. Questions used with permission from http://www.smart-kit.com/scategory/brain-teasers/iq-test-questions/
  2. This particular version of her theory did not come directly from her papers. We have put them together in this form to illustrate how experience can influence thinking which then influences behavior.
  3. Lisa S. Blackwell, Kali H. Trzesniewski, and Carol S. Dweck (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, January/February 2007, Volume 78, Number 1, Pages 246 – 263.
  4. More accurately, predicted grades from growth curves based on data and using a technique called hierarchical linear modeling.
  5. This table is not in the research paper. It is based on correlations between answers to the mindset question and answers to questions about these other issues. See Table 1 of the published study.