Personal Growth

A 10-Year-Old Theory About Motivation Might Be Wrong

Have you ever heard of a "growth mindset"? No, it's not a gardener's psychological state. It's a perspective on child development that prioritizes process and potential over inherent qualities like "intelligence." It's been one of the guiding principles of education since Carol Dweck, Ph.D., described the concept in her 2007 book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success." In the years since, some have started to wonder if it could be effective for adults as well, while others have begun to question how effectively it's been implemented in the first place — including Dr. Dweck herself.

A Growth Mindset for Grown-Ups

Even if you've never heard the term "growth mindset" before, you've probably encountered one of its central tenets: instead of praising a child's intelligence, beauty, athletic ability, or another trait, parents and teachers should instead praise their work ethic and tenacity, and emphasize that problems they can't solve today might be solved tomorrow if they keep trying. The idea is, if a child wins a spelling bee and chalks it up to the fact that they're smart, then the minute they encounter something difficult, they'll feel they aren't actually smart after all. But if they recognize that they won because they practiced spelling better than anyone else, then their response to their next intellectual challenge could be to work harder.

It's a common-sense notion, and it's got some behavioral experts wondering if the same principle would apply to adult brains as well. In a study led by psychologist Rachael D. Reavis, grown-ups proved to be a lot more resistant to the positive effects of growth-minded praise. 156 adults recruited via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website were first given six simple visual puzzles to solve. Regardless of how the test went, they were all told that they had outperformed most people. Then, a third of the participants were told they had been categorized as smarter than most people, a third were told that they were harder workers than most people, and another third were told that they had worked harder on these particular questions than most other people.

Next, all of the participants were challenged with a much more difficult set of 12 questions. Afterward, they were all told that they performed worse than most other people. (Yikes, this study is a real roller coaster.) If research on children's growth mindsets is any indication, you should expect that the "hard worker" group would outperform the "worked harder" and "smarter than most" groups. But actually, none of the groups performed all that differently from each other. In the second test, you also would have expected the smarties to have blamed their intelligence the most for their failure, but the hard workers thought they were just as dumb. In other words, as the researchers noted, "Few of the results demonstrated with children were replicated."

What Good Is Growth, Anyway?

So maybe growth-mindset approaches don't do much for adults. The researchers from that study suggested that this might be a cultural problem — perhaps today's adults hear "you're a hard worker" as "I can't think of anything nice to say," but adults who grew up with growth-based compliments might react more positively. The thing is an even newer study from May 2018 cast doubts on the practice altogether. This study comprised two meta-analyses from a total of 400,000 students, and it suggested pretty strongly that grade-point averages, course grades, course exams, and standardized test scores such as the SAT weren't hugely impacted by whether or not their schools employed growth-mindset methodologies.

But maybe that's not so surprising. After all, even the founding parent of growth mindset has begun to suggest that despite its popularity, the approach hasn't been implemented effectively. Dr. Dweck corrects several easy misunderstandings about it: first, that effort is the only ingredient needed for a successful education. The problem, she says, is that many children are being praised for trying hard but not learning, and that doesn't encourage helpful behaviors. She also describes encountering "false growth mindset" environments. "Many parents who endorse a growth mindset ... react to their children's mistakes as though they are problematic or harmful, rather than helpful. In these cases, their children develop more of a fixed mindset about their intelligence." So maybe we shouldn't toss the idea out quite yet.

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There's a lot more to learn about a growth mindset and no better place to start than the beginning. Check out Dr. Carol Dweck's "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" and start re-thinking how you approach your problems. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas June 18, 2018

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