Carol Dweck [ Mindset ] I’d like to introduce you to my version of happiness. For me happiness is being infinitely curious. It’s being – it’s constantly learning.
It’s constantly mastering new and difficult tasks.
And yet, many of the things we do to motivate our kids are sapping their desire to learn.
How do we make sure then that kids and adults remain eager to learn? That’s what my work is about and that’s what I’d like to share with you this afternoon.
In my work, we find that kids and adults can have different mindsets about their basic talents and abilities. In a fixed mindset, children think their talents, abilities – intelligence, are just fixed.
They have a certain amount and that’s that.
As you will see, this is the mindset that saps children’s motivation to learn – and adult’s motivation to engage as well.
But other kids have a growth mindset. They don’t think it’s fixed. They think their abilities can be developed through practice, dedication, help and good mentoring from others.
They don’t think everyone’s the same, or that anyone can be Einstein, but they think everyone can get smarter if they apply themselves
And these are the people who remain vehemently, vigorously engaged with learning – especially in the face of difficulty.
So I’m going to take you through a bunch of pressure cooker situations and see who remains engaged and who doesn’t – in my view, therefore, who remains happy and who doesn’t.
So let’s go.
In one study, we followed hundreds of seventh graders through their transition.
Seventh grade , in the U.S. – they are about 13 years of age – it’s a terrible transition for many students.
Everything gets harder. The grading gets more stringent. The environment becomes less personal. And that’s when we see students turning off to school
So we measured student’s mindsets at the beginning of 7th grade. We saw who believed their intelligence was just fixed versus who believed it could be developed.
And look what we found.
Although the two groups entered seventh grade with identical past achievement in math, their grades diverged steadily over the next two years.
Those with a growth mindset remained and became increasingly engaged – while those with a fixed mindset became increasingly disengaged.
Then we decided to look at the pressure cooker of all academic situations. We decided to study pre-med students at an elite University on the east coast of the U.S.
There is no curriculum that’s more intense.
Moreover, students have lived their lives for this moment – to gain entrance into a pre medical curriculum.
Their parents have lived their lives for this moment.
And yet, those with the growth mindset said they cared more about learning than they did about grades.
They remained, moreover, engaged in vigorous learning – even when things didn’t go well for them initially.
And look what happened.
As a result of their vigorous engagement in the learning process – in the face of remaining engaged when the going got rough – they actually ended up with significantly higher final grades then those with the fixed mindset, who were always worried about how smart they were.
They, as a group, did not recover from poor initial performance.
They worried about whether it meant they were smart or dumb but they didn’t get back in there and engage vigorously.
I want to show you how this vigorous engagement works in the brain.
In this study, student’s brains were monitored as they worked on a task and made mistakes.
What we see here are the growth mindset brains.
When they made mistakes, they detected them, they processed them, and they corrected them. So they remained engaged and curious and effective.
But on the left, the fixed mindset brains, they show almost no sign of engaging with the errors. They are running from the errors as fast as possible. That is not a recipe for effective engagement or achievement.
How are these mindsets learned?
The most interesting way we’ve studied them is in the context of praise.
We’ve done experiments with little kids to older kids, and in these experiments children perform on a task and some of them are praised for their ability.
“You are really smart!”
Some of them, after they’ve performed, are praised for the process they’ve engaged in – their strategies, their efforts, their focus, their persistence. So here’s an example of effort
“You worked really hard!”
What we have found, in study after study, is that Ability Praise backfires.
The self-esteem movement told us Ability Praise would make kids happy. And it does. For a minute. But, as soon as they encounter difficulty, that happiness fades away
So Ability Praise, we found, puts them into a fixed mindset and, as soon as the task becomes difficult, they start being unhappy, disengaging and becoming less and less effective in their problem solving.
But those who receive process praise – again, strategies, effort, perseverance – they go into more of a growth mindset and their engagement becomes more and more vigorous as the problems get harder.
Their problem-solving becomes more and more effective as the problems get harder.
Recently, we examined mother’s praise to their babies .1 to 3 years of age. We then measured these on film clips of mothers interacting with their babies.
We then measured the child’s mindset and desire for challenge – this was five years later – after the film’s had been taken.
The more mothers used Process Praise to their babies, the more that child had a growth mindset and desire for challenge five years later.
So it starts early. It’s never too late to change, but it does start early.
If we have time, at the end, I’ll give you some nice juicy examples of Process Praise and how it can be used with kids.
Can mindsets be changed?
In one major study we took students – seventh graders –who are already showing declining grades in math, and we divided them into two groups.
One group got fantastic study skills – six sessions of training in learning skills that their teachers said would really help them.
But the other group, the growth mindset group, got six sessions of growth mindset plus study skills.
The growth mindset sessions kicked off with this article: “You Can Grow Your Intelligence: New Research Shows the Brain Can be Developed Like a Muscle”. And they learned that every time they pushed out of their comfort zone, to learn something new, there were these neurons in their brain and they formed new connections.
Over time, if they did hard things and stuck to them, they could get smarter.
Kids were thrilled by this idea.
Think about it. In a fixed mindset, kids tell us that when they are applying effort or experiencing difficulty they feel dumb. Because they think, if they were really smart, they wouldn’t have to try hard and they wouldn’t be experiencing difficulty.
But in a growth mindset ,or after they learn a growth mindset, they know that effort and difficulty – those are the times they’re growing new connections and getting smarter.
So let’s see what happened to our kids.
Those who just got the learning skills workshop continued to show declining grades in math.
They became more and more disengaged.
But those who got the growth mindset plus study skills workshop showed a sharp rebound in their grades.
They became more and more engaged over time and the teachers saw it.
So even though things were hard for them, they stuck to them and enjoyed the learning more than they had before.
But it’s not just academics where a growth mindset is important.
Growth mindset can affect all kinds of things –including relationships.
So here again, we’re going to go into some pressure cooker settings and see who’s able to cope with them effectively and function well in those settings.
We decided to study adolescent aggression in high schools and particularly at the transition to high school –9th grade – when kids are really, at least in my country, in turmoil
We also went to a school where there was a lot of aggression – to really put our workshops to the test.
Now, when we got there, the teachers and administrators said, “don’t waste your time with these kids, it’s too late.”
But we thought, “let’s have a go and see what happens.”
So in this intervention, with David Yeager and Kelly Trzesniewski, we divided the ninth graders into three groups.
Two of the group’s got workshops – six sessions over three weeks. One group got the growth mindset workshop – I’ll tell you about in a moment – but the other group, the coping skills group, got a fantastic social, emotional, learning curriculum that focused on conflict resolution among peers.
School employees, who were required to look in on the workshops, they all said “hey, that social skills one, that’s much better – they’re having a lot more fun.” and they thought they were learning more.
But let’s see what happens.
There was also a No Treatment control. They didn’t get a workshop.
Here’s what the growth mindset workshop did.
In the first two sessions, the students learned about the brain and how it changes with learning.
In the next two sessions, they learned that people’s personalities live in their brains and can be changed.
And in the final two session, they learned that people have many motivations for their actions and these motivations can change.
So they learned that people don’t pick on you because they’re bad people – it doesn’t mean you’re a loser (which is what fixed mindset kids think).
People have insecurities, needs, fears – and they often act on these. But they live in their brain and they can be changed.
They weren’t taught the change was easy, or inevitable or that it was their responsibility to change anyone else.
But they learned that change was always possible.
They also practiced what they learned.
They created skits that embodied a growth mindset approach to conflict resolution. And also, they learned a growth mindset way of perceiving conflict.
One month later, we put them in a situation that measured their desire for aggressive retaliation, as well as their engagement and pro-social behavior.
Each student was exposed to a game of cyber ball.
It’s an online game of catch where the student had the icon – here – and then there were two peers that they were playing ball with.
After the first couple of tosses, the other two peers only threw the ball to each other – and never to the child.
So there’s a temporary mild feeling of exclusion but we tell them all about it later.
A short time later, each child was given the opportunity to express their feelings about the other person who had rejected them.
In a slightly different situation, they were given the chance to assign hot sauce to one of the perpetrators whom they knew hated spicy food.
So our measure was: “how much hot sauce did they dole out to someone who had excluded them?”
And, if you look at the graph here, you see that the kids in the two control groups, both – including the coping skills group – doled out a hefty amount of hot sauce.
40 grams – which are 6 heaping teaspoons. But those who had the growth mindset treatment doled out forty percent less.
So they weren’t Harboring.
In previous work we showed that kids with a fixed mindset harbor an exclusion or conflict for a long time. They weren’t harboring it.
We also gave them the opportunity to write a little note to go along with the hot sauce to the other child.
And what we found was that the kids who have the growth mindset training wrote two to three times more pro-social notes.
Let’s take a look at these notes
Here’s a pro-social note from someone who went through the growth mindset training:
“I tried to put only a little bit of the hot sauce as I could, because you circled you just like it, so I hope it is not too much for you. It’s not that spicy. I already tasted it, so I hope you can handle how much I put in.”
Let’s look at a not pro-social note sent by one of the other kids:
“I gave you a lot because you don’t like spicy [ with a mean face ] and because you didn’t share the ball.” And then they smeared hot sauce all over the note.
Three months after the intervention, we asked the teachers who showed improvements and conduct.
They didn’t know who was in each group, and yet, they singled out many more students who had this growth mindset training to say they were showing improved conduct – less aggression, in the classroom.
We also consulted the school records, fewer suspensions, fewer absences for those in the growth mindset group.
These are happier kids and they’re creating happier schools.
We have replicated this study many times now and we’re showing that learning a growth mindset – and how to apply it during this pressure cooker transition – lowers stress, lowers depression and increases health.
Groups can also be in conflict – not just people one to the other groups – can also be in conflict and can create pressure cooker situations. Groups at work, political groups. But we decided to visit the mother of all conflicts.
Perhaps the only place that has more conflict than American high schools is the Middle East.
Again we said, “we’re putting our theory to the test, can we create greater accord between Israelis and Palestinians through a growth mindset?”
In our first study – it was with a nationally representative sample of Israeli Jews – we measured their mindsets about groups, not about Palestinians –about groups in general.
Did they agree or disagree: groups can’t change their basic characteristics?
If they agreed with that, that’s a fixed mindset. If they disagreed, that’s more of a growth mindset.
We measure their attitudes toward Palestinians, and their willingness to engage in major compromises for the sake of peace – like dialing back the borders to the pre-1967 borders – which would mean evacuating the settlement – or entertaining the idea that Jerusalem could be the capital of a two-state solution.
What we found was a strong relationship. The more they endorse a growth mindset, the more positive where their attitudes toward Palestinians and the greater their willingness to entertain these really major compromises.
Of course then we asked – if we change their mindsets, would we alter their attitudes toward Palestinians and toward peace or toward each other?
Because not only did we do a study with Jewish Israelis, where we taught a growth mindset, but we did one with Palestinian citizens of Israel and another one with Palestinians who were residents of the West Bank – many of whom were members of Fatah or Hamas –groups with radical arms.
As part of the growth mindset intervention they read about research showing that violent or aggressive groups could change their ways.
They learned that patterns of violence in groups can change over time because of changes in the characteristics of the dominant leader or the changes in the situation.
They learned that many groups that were once considered evil, warlike, bellicose, were now considered quite normal.
We never mentioned the other group, their adversary, just groups in general.
And yet we found, in every case, learning a growth mindset changed their attitudes toward their adversary – Jews toward Palestinians and Palestinians toward Jews – and created a significantly greater willingness to make these compromises for the sake of peace.
We also found greater willingness to meet with each other and discuss the issues.
So in this mother of all conflicts, we found the growth mindset could orient people toward persisting, remaining engaged, remaining constructive.
We are now developing – just got a big grant we’re excited – we’re developing a longer-term fuller workshop that will teach a growth mindset – to see if it can persist over time.
So you all know that a deep controversy in psychology is the nature-nurture debate.
And I think many of us, kind of idly, may ponder, “well is this human characteristic innate and fixed, or is it something that can be developed or changed with experience?”
Next time you ponder a question like this remember: it’s not an idle question
People’s well-being hangs in the balance.
Yeager, Trzesniewski, Dweck. An Implicit Theories of Personality Intervention Reduces Adolescent Aggression in Response to Victimization and Exclusion. Child Development. 2013.
Moser, Schroder, Heeter, Moran & Lee. Mind Your Errors: Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mindset to Adaptive Post-error Adjustments. Michigan State University. 2011.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Wendell