The Basic Idea
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” Perhaps you’ve heard this phrase, and many similar ones, throughout your life. If so, you should feel lucky to have been surrounded by so many supportive people. As cheesy as these phrases may sound, they remind us that there is always room for improvement, encouraging us to persevere.
This is the idea behind a growth mindset: we believe our intelligence and abilities can be developed over time.1 Growth mindsets are one end of the spectrum of how we think about ourselves, with fixed mindsets on the opposite end. Having a growth mindset means we are eager to learn, adaptive, find value in embracing challenges, and believe that being effortful can improve certain skills, compared to the fixed mindset’s belief that our abilities are unchangeable.
Theory, meet practice
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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
An American developmental, personality, and social psychologist, Carol Dweck is primarily recognized for her work on mindset.8 Dweck’s work has focused on motivation and self-regulation, driven by her belief that having the right mindset is critical for success. As a result of her research on growth and fixed mindsets, Dweck has delivered accessible interventions to foster a growth mindset through the website “Mindset Works,” 9 books like Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,1 and TEDtalks.10 Dweck received her doctorate from Yale University and later taught at Columbia University and Stanford University.11 There, she encouraged students to pursue “risky research” with high potential for theoretical and societal impact, with many students identifying her as the most influential person in their career path.
Dweck’s research has suggested that a growth mindset drives motivation and achievement.12 When people believe they can improve their abilities, they understand that effort makes them stronger. This encourages them to put in more time and effort, leading to higher achievement. Research on growth mindsets has also been connected to neuroscience, which has shown just how malleable our brain is. Practicing a skill will grow new neural connections in our brain and strengthen existing ones, emphasizing the fact that our abilities are not fixed.
According to research findings, people with growth mindsets tend to achieve more than those with fixed mindsets, since they worry less about looking “smart” and focus their energy on learning.13 Much of the research on growth mindsets has been done in the context of school, especially for younger children, and has also been extended to workplaces.1,7
Applications of growth mindsets in the classroom have centered around encouragement, explicit lessons on growth mindsets, and feedback.1 Praising students for the effective strategies they used and the persistence they showed — rather than simply labeling them as “smart” — will yield more long-term benefits.14 Educators can capitalize on this by portraying challenges as fun and exciting: when students engage in more challenging activities, they have more opportunities to make mistakes, allowing teachers to help them discover new strategies and develop a growth mindset.
Educators can also explicitly teach children about the benefits of a growth mindset and have students engage in activities such as establishing action plans for their goals and reflecting on improvements in certain skills.14 In terms of the feedback that students receive, the word “yet” is much more valuable than it may seem. If a student says that they aren’t good at something, having a teacher tell them that they may not be good at it yet is important for encouraging the idea that ability is fluid.
Dweck has also considered whether organizations — rather than individuals — can have a growth mindset.7 In 2010, the effects of fixed versus growth mindsets were studied in the context of workplaces. A diverse sample of employees from seven Fortune 1000 companies was asked about the extent to which they agree with statements on fixed versus growth mindsets such as, “When it comes to being successful, this company seems to believe that people have a certain amount of talent and they really can’t do much to change it.” After determining whether the organization mostly had a growth or fixed mindset, Dweck and her colleagues then assessed how the organization’s mindset influenced outcomes like employee satisfaction, collaboration, innovation, and ethical behavior.
Dweck found that employees tended to have a consensus about each company’s mindset, which the survey presented each with a set of characteristics.7 Employees at a company with a fixed mindset, for example, often felt that a few star employees were valued more than other employees, which decreased overall employee commitment. These employees were dissuaded from innovative projects out of fear of failing, often kept secrets, and cut corners or cheated to get ahead.
Employees in a company with a growth mindset were 47% more likely to say they had trustworthy colleagues, 34% more likely to feel committed to the company, 65% likelier to say that the company supports taking risks, and 49% likelier to say that the company encourages innovation.7 As a result, Dweck has considered how organizations can embrace a growth mindset. Ultimately, it requires dedication and hard work from those in management positions, especially when making hiring decisions. Companies that hire and promote from within their ranks, opposed to reflexively looking for outsiders, are more likely to have a growth mindset. Rather than emphasizing credentials and past accomplishments, companies with a growth mindset will value potential and a passion for learning.
Dweck’s ideas behind the growth and fixed mindsets have become a bit distorted in their translations.13 As a result, Dweck has addressed three common misconceptions, with the first being a “false growth mindset,” which is when people say they have a growth mindset when they do not. Essentially, the growth mindset’s popularity has led it to be perceived as simpler than it really is.6
People tend to confuse having a growth mindset with being open-minded or having a positive outlook on life, which are ultimately qualities that people believe they have always had.13 A teacher might applaud a child for putting in effort on a failed test, because they believe that doing so will promote a growth mindset.6 However, this sort of empty praise is one of the issues that growth mindsets were developed to overcome.
The issue of the “false growth mindset” is tied to another common misconception, which is that growth mindsets are solely about praising and rewarding effort.13 While support is important, outcomes matter too. Rather than just praising the effort, Dweck suggests that people praise the effort that led to the outcome or learning progress, encouraging the person to find another learning strategy.6 In the context of school, students need to know that they need more than just effort when they’re stuck: they need to know when to ask for help and when to use certain resources.
The third misconception is that simply saying and believing you have a growth mindset will result in success.13 A company that has a mission statement with values of growth, empowerment, and innovation is great, but it doesn’t mean anything if the company doesn’t implement policies to make those growths and empowerment attainable. Dweck emphasizes the importance for organizations to encourage risk-taking and support collaboration to truly embody a growth mindset.
Even if we overcome these misconceptions, Dweck acknowledges that it’s not as easy to attain a growth mindset as people may think.13 Why? Because we all have triggers that revert us to a fixed mindset. When receiving criticism or comparing ourselves to others, we can fall victim to insecurity and defensiveness, two responses that inhibit growth. Certain environments can also be structured to be fixed mindset triggers, such as working for a company that encourages competition amongst employees.
Of course, people can learn to identify and work around their triggers for a fixed mindset.13 Dweck hopes that by making more resources accessible, people can recognize when their fixed mindset “persona” appears and how to find responses other than insecurity or defensiveness. One such resource is the 2016 edition of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success that has been updated to address false growth mindset.6
Economic disadvantages and academic achievement
Academic achievement is influenced by many more factors than a student’s IQ score alone, including the student’s socioeconomic status and psychological factors (such as their beliefs about their abilities).15 Economic disadvantages have been shown to impact academic achievement through many different mechanisms such as higher stress levels, reduced access to resources, and poor nutrition. As a result, researchers in Chile were interested in whether students’ mindsets — specifically, having a growth mindset — could dampen the effects of economic disadvantage on academic achievement.
All Chilean students in a grade 10 public school classroom responded to a national survey, where their family’s socioeconomic status was recorded and students were evaluated on their mindsets surrounding intelligence and whether it can be developed.15 Using a version of Dweck’s mindset scale, students who agreed with statements like “You can learn new things, but you can’t change a person’s intelligence” were categorized as having a fixed mindset, while students who disagreed were categorized as having a growth mindset. Any students who were uncertain about the statements on intelligence were categorized as having a mixed mindset.
The researchers found that students who held more of a growth mindset consistently outperformed students who did not, at every socioeconomic level and on a national scale.15 In terms of mindset and economic disadvantages, the students with the lowest familial income were twice as likely to report a fixed mindset, compared to students from families with the highest incomes. Additionally, having a fixed mindset was an even stronger predictor of academic achievement for students from low-income families. For low-income students who held a growth mindset, however, this mindset buffered against the effects of low income on academic achievement.
Based on these findings, researchers suggested that structural inequalities such as socioeconomic status can lead to psychological inequalities, such as the difference between a growth or fixed mindset.15 Those psychological inequalities can then strengthen the impact of structural inequalities on academic achievement, resulting in a never-ending cycle of certain children being disadvantaged. These results highlight the importance of acknowledging structural inequalities like low socioeconomic status and increasing access to resources for those who need it most. If schools prioritized students’ nutrition, for example, it is possible that this could allow students to focus their efforts on academic achievement rather than their diet, subsequently improving their access to future opportunities.
Related TDL Content
For a more comprehensive look into Carol Dweck’s many research achievements, take a look at her thinker piece. Dive into the innovative ideas that drove her work, the life events that shaped her, and the different avenues that have made mindset theory accessible.
Growth mindsets are only one end of the spectrum of mindset theory, with fixed mindsets on the other end. To explore more general applications or criticisms of Dweck’s work, or case studies that have put mindset theory to the test, read through this article.
- Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.
- Gollwitzer, P. M. (1990). Action phases and mind-sets. In The Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior (Vol. 2, pp. 52-92). Guilford Press.
- French, R. P. (2016). The fuzziness of mindsets: Divergent conceptualizations and characterizations of mindset theory and praxis. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 24(2), 673-691.
- McInerney, L. (2015, June 25). Carol Dweck, professor of psychology, Stanford University. Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/carol-dweck/
- Wilson, J. (2014, February 19). What your IQ score doesn’t tell you. https://www.cnn.com/2014/02/19/health/iq-score-meaning/index.html
- Gross-Loh, C. (2016, December 16). How praise became a consolation prize. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/12/how-praise-became-a-consolation-prize/510845/
- How companies can profit from a “growth mindset.” (2014, November). Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2014/11/how-companies-can-profit-from-a-growth-mindset
- Carol Dweck. (n.d.). Stanford Profiles. https://profiles.stanford.edu/carol-dweck
- About us. (2017). Mindset Works. https://www.mindsetworks.com/about-us/default
- Dweck, C. S. (2014, November). The power of believing that you can improve. https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve
- 2019 APS mentor awards. (2019, March 29). Association for Psychological Science. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/2019-aps-mentor-awards
- The science. (2017). Mindset Works. https://www.mindsetworks.com/science/
- Dweck, C. S. (2016, January 13). What having a “growth mindset” actually means. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/01/what-having-a-growth-mindset-actually-means
- Dweck, C. S. (2010). Even geniuses work hard. Educational Leadership, 68(1), 16-20.
- Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(31), 8664-8668.