The Basic Idea
For some people, it seems like the sky’s the limit, while for others the ceiling is a bit lower, closer to earth. We sometimes see this dichotomy as optimists versus pessimists; the ambitious versus the less motivated. Classic bits of folklore starting with, “there are two types of people in this world,” typically fail to account for the people in between, but that doesn’t mean we can’t exist on a continuum of two perspectives.
One of these spectrums of unique perspectives is mindset: the idea that people hold differing beliefs regarding the malleability of human attributes.1 On one extreme is the view that these attributes, such as intelligence or personality, can be changed through effort and determination, while the other extreme is that these attributes are innate and remain fixed over time. Research has explored these two forms of mindsets and found that such lay beliefs can predict a variety of personal outcomes.
Theory, meet practice
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Implicit Theories: Beliefs about the nature of human attributes and abilities.
Growth Mindset: The belief that human attributes and abilities can change over time; they can be acquired with enough effort and determination (also sometimes referred to as incremental theory).
Fixed Mindset: The belief that human attributes and abilities are mostly static and innate (also sometimes referred to as entity theory).
Mindset Theory can be attributed to the psychologist Carol Dweck. Her work on mindset began in the 1970s after observing stark differences in children’s reactions to challenges and setbacks.2 Dweck noticed that some children were rather aversive to challenges while others actively sought them. These observations later led Dweck, along with her colleague Mary Bandura, to consider whether one’s approach to challenges depends on how people interpret the meaning of failure: if this view relates to the belief that ability is something static and permanent, or something that can be developed. In other words, whether people are discouraged or motivated by failure. This insight ignited a broad range of research from Dweck and her colleagues, exploring these implicit theories in a variety of domains from academic and occupational success, to interpersonal relationships.1
An American psychologist and Professor at Stanford University, Dweck’s work on mindset became widely popularized following the publication of her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Her TED talk on the subject has received over 11 million views.
Mindset has been dubbed a revolution in psychology since it has made a profound impact on education, government, and business. In an article for BuzzFeed, Tim Chivers highlighted the prominence of growth mindset in organizations by pointing out the hiring practices of both NASA and Google, which factor in a growth mindset, as well as a recommendation by the British government to hire for growth mindsets. He also cited a Harvard Business Review article titled, How Companies Can Profit from a “Growth Mindset,” and noted the endorsement of Dweck’s book by Bill Gates. It is safe to say that mindset theory has caught the attention of many.
The mindset craze is almost entirely a product of Carol Dweck’s research and promotion of the theory. Dweck and her proponents claim that individuals with a growth mindset believe that their characteristics and abilities can be changed with effort, and over time, these people are more likely to adopt learning goals, choose challenging tasks, and employ adaptive strategies to improve their abilities.3 Those with a fixed mindset, however, are more likely to adopt performance goals and prioritize positive assessment over learning.4,5
These differences in behavior can have considerable ramifications on both an individual and systemic level, as they may directly impact the decision-making process for a variety of stakeholders within an organization. In their review on growth mindset for human resource development, Soo Jeoung Han and Vicki Stieha, of Boise State University, cite studies that have identified growth mindset as a factor in enhancing workplace engagement, employee productivity, mentoring, leadership, openness to feedback, and creativity within organizations.6
Although mindsets tend to lack an association with cognitive ability, a swath of literature has explored the effects of mindset on outcomes, particularly within education. As much of Dweck’s research has suggested, individuals with a growth mindset are more likely to have higher grades, which has led to the implementation of mindset training in schools across the world under the aim of increasing growth mindsets among students. Interestingly, however, one review on the relationship between implicit theories in regard to intelligence and academic achievement found that the relationship becomes more nuanced when considering cultural differences.7 The association between growth mindset and achievement was positive in Eastern populations, while Europe exhibited a positive relationship between fixed mindset and achievement. The authors of the review posit that these cultural differences may stem from tendencies in Eastern, collectivist cultures, to encourage students to value the learning process over academic achievement, whereas Western, individualist cultures may place greater value on positive assessment, prioritizing individual outcomes.
The criticisms surrounding mindset theory are arguably as extensive as the research on mindset itself. Some academics have highlighted that many of the popular studies on mindset have come from a small cohort of researchers, pointing out that the meta-analyses are filled with Dweck’s articles.8 Questions have also been raised over dubious statistical methods used by Dweck and her colleagues. Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia University, said “their research designs have enough degrees of freedom that they could take their data to support just about any theory at all.”9 Outside of Dweck’s work, the evidence supporting the effects of growth mindset is weak. A 2018 study, for example, found small correlations between mindset and academic outcomes, with mindset interventions having a meager effect on achievement.10
Yue Li and Timothy Bate of the University of Edinburgh published a study in 2019 that further questions the validity of mindset theory. “We found little or no support for the idea that growth mindsets are beneficial for children’s responses to failure or school attainment,” the authors wrote. “Our findings across multiple substantial studies with active controls as well as real-life outcomes across time suggest that mindset has no impact on school grades, response to challenge, or goal orientation.”11 Also in 2019, a randomized control trial in England that included over 100 schools found no significant effects of a growth mindset intervention in improving academic outcomes.12
Apart from issues of poor scientific integrity surrounding mindset theory, some have also offered moral critiques of the phenomenon. In an essay for aeon, Carl Hendrick, the head of learning and research at Wellington College, wrote, “An enduring criticism of growth mindset theory is that it underestimates the importance of innate ability, specifically intelligence. If one student is playing with a weaker hand, is it fair to tell the student that she is just not making enough effort? Growth mindset – like its educational-psychology cousin ‘grit’ – can have the unintended consequence of making students feel responsible for things that are not under their control: that their lack of success is a failure of moral character. This goes well beyond questions of innate ability to the effects of marginalization, poverty and other socioeconomic disadvantages.”
In light of Hendrick’s words, the growth mindset begins to sound awfully similar to the concept of a meritocracy, an ideology that supposes people are rewarded for their talent and effort rather than their wealth or social class. Beliefs in a meritocracy have been shown to promote selfish and discriminatory behavior,13 which wouldn’t seem totally out of context in a system that promotes a growth mindset where individuals feel entitled to their success and assume others are less fortunate because they lack internal value in effort and the learning process. It’s possible that Dweck wouldn’t agree with this analogy – she has responded to criticisms, arguing that her work is often misapplied or misunderstood – however, given the range of mindset applications in a variety of organizational and educational settings, it should be expected that the more fine details behind mindset can be lost, giving way to problematic moral implications wherever it may manifest.
As previously mentioned, Google has incorporated a growth mindset in its recruiting practice. In their 2017 book, How Google Works, former CEO Eric Schmidt and Alphabet Inc. adviser Jonathan Rosenberg write how their “ideal candidates are the ones who prefer roller coasters, the ones who keep learning. These ‘learning animals’ have the smarts to handle massive change and the character to love it.”14 The idea to implement a growth mindset in their culture came from an extensive research program called Project Oxygen, that looked at over 10,000 manager impressions to identify key attributes of the best bosses.15 One of these attributes, which won’t come as any surprise to readers by now, is having a growth mindset.
When the health insurance company began to reinforce a growth mindset in its workplace culture, they channeled the message through a variety of internal mechanisms, from town halls to “lunch and learn” sessions, asking employees for their thoughts and feedback. Growth mindset has since been incorporated in the company’s talent management guidelines, where managers and employees now set goals that stretch one’s abilities. Cigna also communicates an expectation for growth and progress, alongside a passion for curiosity and learning in its job postings. These vacancies are meant to attract more than just given abilities and expertise. According to the company, since these initiatives, employees have demonstrated more visible growth mindset behaviors, suggesting that implementing a growth mindset has resulted in lasting behavior change.16
This piece builds on the idea that implicit beliefs can translate to differences in organizational behavior.
With all the different interpretations of the research on igniting employee engagement and internal innovation, it can help to have experts in behavioral science in your organization to parse through all the noise and consider concepts such as mindset from a scientific and pragmatic perspective.
- Bernecker, K., & Job, V. (2019). Mindset Theory. In Social Psychology in Action (pp. 179-191). Springer, Cham.
- Dweck, C. S. (2012). Implicit Theories. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 23–42). London, UK: SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.
- Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological review, 95(2), 256.
- Elliott, E. S., & Dweck, C. S. (1988). Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement. Journal of personality and social psychology, 54(1), 5.
- Han, S. J., & Stieha, V. (2020). Growth mindset for human resource development: A scoping review of the literature with recommended interventions. Human Resource Development Review, 19(3), 309-331.
- Costa, A., & Faria, L. (2018). Implicit theories of intelligence and academic achievement: A meta-analytic review. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 829.
- Chivers, T. (2017, January). A Mindset “Revolution” Sweeping Britain’s Classrooms May be Based on Shaky Science. BuzzFeed News. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/tomchivers/what-is-your-mindset
- Gelman, A. (2016, May). Happy talk: Meet the Eldin factor. Statistical modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science. Retrieved from https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2016/05/12/happy-talk-meet-the-edlin-factor/#comment-272996
- Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018). To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind-sets important to academic achievement? Two meta-analyses. Psychological science, 29(4), 549-571.
- Li, Y., & Bates, T. C. (2019). You can’t change your basic ability, but you work at things, and that’s how we get hard things done: Testing the role of growth mindset on response to setbacks, educational attainment, and cognitive ability. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(9), 1640.
- Foliano, F., Rolfe, H., Buzzeo, J., Runge, J., & Wilkinson, D. (2019). Changing mindsets: Effectiveness trial. National Institute of Economic and Social Research.
- Mark, C. (2019, March). A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you. Aeon. Retrieved from https://aeon.co/ideas/a-belief-in-meritocracy-is-not-only-false-its-bad-for-you
- Schmidt, E., & Rosenberg, J. (2014). How google works. Hachette UK.
- Schneider, M. (2018, March). Google spent years studying effective managers. The most successful leaders had this mindset. Inc.com. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/michael-schneider/googles-best-managers-have-growth-mindsets-not-fixed-mindsets-heres-how-to-tell-difference.html
- Derler, A., & Baer, D. (2019). How Four Companies Built a Growth Mindset Culture. NeuroLeadership Institute. Retrieved from https://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/1927708/Growth%20Mindset%20Case%20Study%20Collection%20PDF.pdf