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Two Mindsets: Fixed versus Growth

February 6, 2014
Posted by Jerome Gaynor


The above graphic caught my eye during a casual perusal of social media last week. I zoomed in, and liked what I saw. Nothing about it was brand new to me, but it was put together with a clarity that felt inspiring, and that made me want to learn more about this “Carol Zweck, PhD” to whom the ideas were credited.

It turns out that she is a Social Psychologist that has done a number of clever studies that have shed light on the way that a person’s mindset can affect their life. The heart of her thinking is that there are two basic ways that people think of their own and others’ abilities:

  1. FIXED: “People have a certain preset level of ability. Some people are smart, some are not.”
  2. GROWTH: “A person’s ability grows or shrinks depending on the effort that they make.”
And from these two fundamentally different views of the world, we have the two cascades of results shown in the diagram.

Many of her ideas seem trite, or commonplace – but what’s different about her is the originality and rigor of the research behind her ideas.

My favorite part of the article describes a study she and her colleagues did with a few hundred middle-school students. It went like this:

  1. Each of the students was given a relatively simple IQ test.
  2. When they had finished, half of the students were praised in a way that emphasized their ABILITY: “Wow, you did great, you must really be smart!” (to push them into a “FIXED” mindset) and half were praised in a way that emphasized their EFFORT: “Wow, you did great, you must work hard!” (to push them into a “GROWTH” mindset)
  3. Next, the students were given another IQ test with harder questions than on the first test. Of course, they didn’t do as well. The FIXED-mindset students expressed shame – if doing well meant they were smart, then doing poorly meant they were stupid – and their performance on the test degraded as they proceeded through the test, so their discouragement had a measurably negative impact. But the GROWTH-mindset students expressed enjoyment of the test – and as the test went on, the second group’s performance improved.
  4. Finally, the psychologists asked the kids to privately write a letter to one of their fellow classmates describing how they did on the tests, including a place where they could report their score. And get this – 40% of the fixed-mindset kids actually lied about their scores, indicating that they were experiencing significant shame about their performance.
Reading about that study really drove the point home for me, and I immediately started thinking about how to apply this insight to my life in a practical way. My first thought was of my teenage daughter – I wondered how often I praised her ability and how often I praised her effort. I resolved to pay closer attention to the way I spoke to her in this regard. My second thought was realizing that when I felt discouraged following a mistake, that the basis for that discouragement was indeed in the mistaken idea that my identity was fixed.

I should also mention that Nigel Holmes, the fellow that created the drawing that sucked me in in the first place, is no slouch either.  Would my discovery and acceptance of Ms. Zweck’s ideas have ever happened without the fantastic “marketing” of his illustration?  You can see more of his work here.

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