Here’s when I think it happens the most. When some of us say that we are just no good at math. The world, we think, is neatly organized into two categories of people: those who are good at math and those who aren’t. And we just aren’t. Other times it’s organized into those who are smart and those who aren’t. And maybe then we fall on the fortunate side of the fence.
It turns out that whichever side of the fence we fall on, the real problem is erecting it.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about what Carol Dweck might call a “fixed mind-set.” For over 30 years she has been researching the effects that our attitudes toward intelligence and ability have on our behavior and success. What has she found? There is a fence. But the important one is not the one that divides the gifted from the ungifted. Rather on one side, there are those who have a fixed mind-set and view intelligence as a finite resource; they think you are born with a certain amount. Failures indicate you just aren’t smart enough and successes that you are.
And she claims that while “many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is a key to success … more than three decades of research shows that an overemphasis on intellect or talent — and the implication that such traits are innate and fixed — leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unmotivated to learn.”
The problem is that when we adopt a fixed mind set, successes and failures become a mere diagnosis of our inborn talents and not opportunities to learn and expand. Better to shy away from anything too difficult, as failure would be proof of our innate shortcomings and unseat us from our intellectual thrones. It’s a deterministic framework, where performance is inextricably linked to your luck in the great genetic lottery.
Luckily, it isn’t like that.
Because, on the other side of the fence, there are those who see intelligence as “malleable,” capable of expansion and growth through hard work and effort. And even more fortunately, these outlooks are not eternal; you can switch from one to the other.
In several studies, those induced to adopt a “growth mindset” increased their academic achievement significantly. For example, in one study, Dweck and her colleagues “taught some students study skills and how they could learn to be smart — describing the brain as a muscle that became stronger the more it was used.” Two months later, students in this group showed “marked improvement in grades and study habits” relative to the control group, who were taught the study skills but not “Dweck’s expandable theory of intelligence.”
Dweck’s results may be even more generalizable. She offers evidence that a “belief in fixed intelligence also makes people less willing to admit to errors or to confront and remedy their deficiencies in school, at work and in their social relationships.”
A big part of our success and thriving then rests in our minds and attitudes. And we have the power to control and change those attitudes for the better. To do so, we must not only confront our individual perspectives, but our communal ones as well.
We all bear some collective responsibility for glorifying the myth that success belongs to the superbly talented while simultaneously deriding the value of hard work. We treat natural intelligence as some sort of virtue; but being a “try-hard” and working to overcome whatever natural limitations may exist is something to be embarrassed about. In reality, being born smart, to the extent which that is meaningful distinction, is about as virtuous as being born with blue eyes. Not at all. Attitude and effort, that is praiseworthy.
And it is not only we, as students, who give undue emphasis on innate skill. Many of our professors do too. They never fail to remind us that we are all here because of how smart we are. It turns out this kind of praise is totally unhelpful. Dweck and Claudia M. Mueller conducted an experiment in which they had fifth graders complete an assignment from part of an IQ test — which most did well on. They praised some for their good performance by extolling their innate intelligence, singing adulations like “that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” Others had their performance praised for the amount of effort they put in, being told “that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” The students who had their innate intellect lauded were more hesitant to do a difficult task. And when they actually had to complete that task, they felt more discouraged and questioned themselves more. Subsequently, their performance, relative to their results from the first assignment, dropped during an easier assignment. On the other hand, those who had their effort lauded maintained their self-assurance in the face of the difficult task and showed significant relative improvement on the subsequent easier assignment.
Sure intelligence is important. But, our beliefs about it are equally critical.
So, the next time you get a bad grade or can’t pick something up immediately don’t tell yourself it’s because you’re not smart. It’s because you didn’t try hard enough. It would be stupid to think anything else.
Sebastian Deri is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. Thought Crimes appears alternate Mondays this semester.