The study of mindset, which refers to a set of assumptions held by a person or group, is not exactly new in the world of decision-making research.2 Studies of mindset can be traced back to the early 1900s, conducted under the field of cognitive psychology. It later extended to areas such as positive psychology, the study of well-being and what makes life worth living, and social psychology, such as in research on groupthink, which is when members of a group achieve consensus without critical thinking.3
But when most people hear the word “mindset” — especially those outside of psychological academic circles — they likely think of growth versus fixed mindsets.4 This distinction was pioneered by American psychologist Carol Dweck.1 While her conceptualization has become a popular topic in psychological research, it did not begin there.
Instead, the inspiration behind the growth and fixed mindsets began in Dweck’s sixth-grade classroom in Brooklyn, New York.4 In this classroom, Dweck’s teacher Mrs. Wilson organized students’ seats in order of their IQ scores, a measurement of reasoning and problem-solving abilities to represent intelligence.5 Dweck excelled in school and had one of the top IQ scores in her school, which granted her the allowance to erase the blackboard, wash the erasers, carry the school flag, and bring a note to the school principal.4 In contrast, students with low IQ scores were not allowed to perform such tasks.
Dweck notes that, on one hand, she didn’t think IQ scores derived from one test could be that important.4 On the other hand, all students want to succeed in the models presented to them. In Dweck’s school, academic success was associated with a high IQ score. In fact, she was told that her school was counting on her to get the highest score in a state-wide chemistry test. While she scored 99 out of 100, Dweck believes that the pressure she experienced from her school’s glorification of IQ was a pivotal point, inspiring her future work.
As a young researcher, Dweck was fascinated by the fact that some children faced challenges with calmness and confidence, while others shrunk back in defeat.6 Specifically, Dweck’s use of mindset referred to the frameworks in which people understand and respond to the world.1
In what is perhaps her most famous study, Dweck assessed the different types of praise that teachers offered their students. 4 She found that young children who were called “clever” or “smart” were less likely to approach challenging tasks in the future, out of fear that they would no longer be considered smart and lose such validating praise.1 Dweck also found that when the students who were called “smart” were later asked to disclose their scores on a difficult test, almost 40% of students lied and bolstered their grades. On the other hand, Dweck found that students who were praised for their efforts and participation in the learning process were more truthful about their difficult test scores and more engaged in the tasks.
While completing her Ph.D. at Yale University in the 1970s, Dweck asked children to complete increasingly difficult problems and recorded their reactions.1 Originally, she hypothesized that students would either be completely defeated by the difficult tasks, or they would reluctantly cope with it. However, the results shocked her: while some children were indeed defeated, the others did more than just cope with the difficult problems. Instead, they were excited to have the chance to approach a challenge. Dweck credits these students — who demonstrated what we now know to be a growth mindset — for her career.4 She was determined to figure out the “special sauce” those students had and wanted to share it with the rest of the world.
In her attempts to decode the so-called “special sauce” that drove some students to be excited in the face of a challenge, Dweck considered the terms “fixed mindset entity theory” and “incremental theory.” 7 Realizing how clunky and ambiguous these terms sounded, Dweck came up with the more appealing labels of growth and fixed mindsets in the early 2000s. Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success was published in 2006 to present her framework to the general population and to help people fulfill their full potential.1