Mindset over matter

26th September 2008 at 01:00
Praising intelligence can have a detrimental effect on children, and could result in them failing later on in life. Henry Hepburn reports

Telling children they are intelligent sets them up to fail, claims a leading American psychologist.

Carol Dweck told a Scottish audience that pupils picked out as high- achievers often fell short of expectations because they could not handle setbacks. The Stanford University professor draws a distinction between "fixed" and "growth" mindsets: the former describing a belief that intelligence is fixed, the latter that it can be improved through hard work. Her research has shown that growth mindsets provide a far better route to success, as she explained in Glasgow last week.

Students constantly praised for their intelligence believed that it came effortlessly - the "myth of the natural". They could coast for years, but when faced with a particularly difficult piece of work they panicked and gave up easily: "In a fixed mindset there is no good recipe for recovery from a setback," she said.

Several former child prodigies had asked her why life did not turn out as expected, having failed to graduate from university and ending up in unsatisfying jobs. "They feel as if a promise was made to them that if they just sat there with their genius, success would arrive," she said.

Professor Dweck tracked a seventh grade class (roughly S2) for two years, and found that those with growth mindsets thought learning was important. Children with fixed mindsets merely wanted to look clever. In another study, engineering students did well in two tests and badly in another. They were asked if they would like extra tuition for the easier tests or the more difficult one; fixed mindset students wanted to feel good about themselves and chose the former - "I don't want these people building my bridge," Professor Dweck quipped.

Fixed mindset pupils did not like to face their deficiencies and were far more likely to cheat, whereas those with growth mindsets realised the importance of endeavour. She highlighted Tiger Woods and Albert Einstein, commonly seen as born talents but whose work ethic was crucial. Woods took the risk of changing his swing, despite his dominance of golf, to improve further; Einstein devoted four years to two papers, as he worked out whether light acted like waves or particles.

Mindsets, however, could be changed. Half of a group of medicine students were told they would sit an intelligence test. The other half were told good results depended on hard work; having been steered towards growth mindsets, they scored 25 per cent higher.

In another study, fifth graders (about P7) sat an IQ test. Some were praised afterwards for their intelligence, others for their hard work. The results were so striking that the study was repeated five times with groups of various ages and backgrounds. Each time, praising intelligence put people in a fixed mindset. They only wanted to do easy tasks, so that they did not jeopardise their label; the others relished challenges.

Pupils were asked to write anonymously about how they had done. Even incognito, those praised for intelligence were more likely to exaggerate their performance, since feeling clever had become crucial to them. "There's nothing in life that's important that comes without great, sustained effort, and if that makes you feel stupid, you're at a severe disadvantage," she said. "I believe this is why many very able students stop working in school when the material becomes very difficult."

Professor Dweck had a kindred spirit in the leader of the team which invented the iPhone, she related. He recruited from colleagues regarded as "superstars" in their department. They were told they could stay there or join him in a project which would be difficult and frustrating, but might lead to the accomplishment of a lifetime. Several chose to remain superstars; the others were the type of people he wanted to work with.

Professor Dweck spoke at Creating Confident Individuals organised by the Centre of Confidence and Well-being.

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