Praise hard work, not intelligence

July 3, 2007 | By | 12 Replies More

I just finished listening to a lecture by Carol Dweck at IT Conversations, Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, is the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Dweck’s idea is straightforward, though widely applicable.  She starts with the premise that there are two kinds of people, those with “fixed mindsets” and others with “growth mindsets.”  Those with fixed mindsets see their lives as being about proving themselves and not making mistakes.  It is important to them that they look smart at all times.  Those with “growth mindsets” have deep-seated beliefs in cultivating and developing their own qualities.  Their lives are about stretching and growing, a process that is not thwarted (and is sometimes actually enhanced) by making mistakes.

How do you tell which mindset you have?  During the interview, Dweck offered this simple test: “True or false, you can’t change how smart you are.”  If you think this is true, you probably have a fixed mindset.

This distinction important because there are adverse consequences to having a fixed mindset.  If you have a fixed mindset, failures label you as a failure for the rest of your life.  People with fixed mindsets develop inaccurate views of themselves.  They block out negative information for the sake of their egos.  Compare this to growth mindsets, where failures are not self defining, but merely bumps along the way.  Failures are, indeed, opportunities for growth.   Those with growth mindsets actually crave negative information.  They stay in touch with their own liabilities in order to make adjustments.

Dweck has conducted research showing that mindset is critically important when it comes to the ability of children to learn.  Self-esteem is not a bad thing, but it can’t be simply “pumped into a child” by telling the child how good he or she is.  Admittedly, telling a child that she is smart or talented will make her happy for a short while.  Making these sorts of statements to a child, however, put the child into a fixed mindset.  When that same child encounters future hurdles (difficult tests, for example) she will be unable to cope with setbacks as well as a child with a growth mindset.  For her (with a fixed mindset) the name of the game is to look smart.  These fixed mindset children “crash” when they encounter difficult new tasks.  Rather than attempt new tasks, they would rather re-do familiar tasks over and over.

Compare this with what happens when you praise the effort or the strategies employed by a child (instead of praising how “smart” the child is).  When you praise the effort or strategy, 90% of the students are more willing to attempt to learn new things.  When growth mindset children encounter difficult new problems, they don’t rely upon how “smart” they are (they haven’t framed their past successes in that way).  Rather, they try harder.  They work their ways out of problems.  Especially difficult hurdles simply mean they need to reach deeper and try even harder.

Through her work, Dweck has evidently discovered real-life reasons for avoiding the fundamental attribution error.

Dweck has studied adult students as well, including medical students.  Even as adults, those with growth mindsets are more resilient, more willing to immerse themselves deeper into their work when things get tough.

Those with fixed mindsets also stumble when it comes to mate choice.  They tend to look for the perfect mate.  They have difficulty tolerating disagreements or mistakes in relationships.

The good news, according to Dweck, is that people can change their mindsets.  Although she did not discuss the method of doing that in this interview, she indicates that her book contains a series of exercises for getting out of the fixed mindset mode and cultivating a growth mindset.

These are politically charged times, and I couldn’t resist applying Dweck’s work to politicians who are of the view that God has annointed them to do God’s work.  It would certainly seem that this sort of belief would give rise to a fixed mindset, leading to repeatedly asserting their infallibility and fearing mistakes above all else.


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Category: Education, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. If you've never failed, you've never lived. | Dangerous Intersection | June 1, 2010
  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    It seems there are some mindset categories missing in this dichotomy, especially as applied to our current administration. If they were of the "fixed mindset", as you suggest, they would have avoided situations with a high possibility of failure. Like attacking foreign nations, cutting taxes as government expenses steeply rise, or appointing legal advisers with mail-order degrees.

  2. a penis says:

    this is some arbitrary reductionist structuralism

    people have personality traits in contexts, I recognize both the fixed and growth mindsets in relation to myself, along with many others

    over the past 40 years people have been deconstructing ficticious binaries, lets not start constructing new ones!

  3. Vicki Baker says:

    Look, a talking penis!

    Sorry, I could not resist.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Vicki, not to squelch your enthusiasm, but this might not be a first penis to visit our site. There is a lot of psuedonym usage among the commenters. It might have happened before.

  5. Vicki Baker says:

    Oh darn.

    But still, it's the first time for me.

  6. Ben says:

    There is a wonderful new book by Rhonda Byrne about this kind of thing. It is on the bestseller list, maybe you have heard of it, it's called "The Secret". 😛

  7. Erika Price says:

    A penis actually makes a very good point: these binaries, while usually pretty applicable to society as a whole, can really promote the same kind of rigid Aristotilean logic that a "growth mindset" tries to avoid! Very few people actually tow the line as a completely "fixed" thinker, I would imagine. We demonstrate more creativity in situations comfortable to us and our way of thinking (say, at a job we've worked for years) , and revert to more simplistic, "fixed" methods when in a strange situation in which we have little expertise- does this make us "fixed" or "growth" thinkers? That scenario shows elements of both in all of us.

  8. Karla says:

    But let us not ignore the words of the penis just because he is one.

    I myself have known some very insightful penises.

    He's right – this is just more blah blah blah, but this time it has the Stanford imprimatur on it. Ooh, I'm swooning!

    You mean, some people do well with change and mistakes while others don't? It's a fucking breakthrough, I tell you.

    Are publishers committed to putting out a certain number of titles each season, no matter what? If so, I've got a lovely manuscript tenmtatilely titled: Sometimes a Rainy Day. It's about how the weather changes, and what you can do.

    Oh, and I'm from Harvard, or Yale, or whichever one looks better on a book jacket.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    I don't think anything I wrote or anything Dweck wrote suggests that she thinks she is superior just because she works at Stanford. I identified her school to make it easier to track her down on the Internet, that's all.

    For those interested learning more about her theory, here's a short video:

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    How do we transmit a growth mind-set to our children? One way is by telling stories about achievements that result from hard work. For instance, talking about math geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of great mathematicians who fell in love with math and developed amazing skills engenders a growth mind-set, our studies have shown. People also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him or her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided.

    In studies involving several hundred fifth graders published in 1998, for example, Columbia psychologist Claudia M. Mueller and I gave children questions from a nonverbal IQ test. After the first 10 problems, on which most children did fairly well, we praised them. We praised some of them for their intelligence: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We commended others for their effort: “Wow … that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”

    We found that intelligence praise encouraged a fixed mind-set more often than did pats on the back for effort. Those congratulated for their intelligence, for example, shied away from a challenging assignment—they wanted an easy one instead—far more often than the kids applauded for their effort. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they would learn.) When we gave everyone hard problems anyway, those praised for being smart became discouraged, doubting their ability. And their scores, even on an easier problem set we gave them afterward, declined as compared with their previous results on equivalent problems. In contrast, students praised for their effort did not lose confidence when faced with the harder questions, and their performance improved markedly on the easier problems that followed.

    [Quote from Carol Dweck, at… ]

  11. Bryan says:

    I find it hard to believe that elliminating intelligence praise in all cases could be right. Different people need different motivation. It seems like applying a purely "growth" mindset in every case, would lead to more people not finding their niche in society. While it may be true that it is possible for a person to become more skilled at something with effort, that area may not be right for them. In my opinion intelligence praise is important in motivating people where they should be motivated. A "growth" mindset could trap a person in a frustrating pathway to failure.We're not robots, we can't succeed at everything. Where as intelligence praise encourages effort in what a person can do well. I agree that there are flaws in using only intelligence praise, but to say that there is no place for it, and that in all cases praising effort works better is stupid!

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