The right mindset: How a child's theory of intelligence can change the way she learns

© 2008-2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

What is your theory of intelligence? In East Asian countries, people often take the view that intelligence can be enhanced through effort. In the West, another, more deterministic view is popular: We are born with abilities that remain fixed throughout our lives.

The deterministic view sounds more depressing, and as we'll see, believing it has important consequences for how you learn. But is it also wrong-headed?

I think it is. While it's undeniable that hereditary and prenatal factors influence our cognitive performance, that's far from the whole story.

Consider what research suggests about our ability to improve cognitive performance:

Regular, aerobic exercise may stimulate the growth of brain cells and enhance executive function, that master self-regulator that helps us pay attention, plan, and resist distractions

• Adults and children can better retain newly learned information by  scheduling study sessions shortly before they sleep (Gais et al 2006; Wagner et al 2004; Kurdziel et al 2013).

• We can enhance reasoning and possibly boost IQ scores with formal instruction in logic and critical thinking.

• We can protect children from brain-shrinking stress by using sensitive, responsive parenting techniques (Luby et al 2013; Landry et al 2003; 2006).

• We can improve children's focus in school by giving kids opportunities to play.

• We can expand memory by learning mnemonic strategies.

• We can boost working memory. In controlled, randomized experiments, people who practiced daily working memory exercises were subsequently tested with higher “fluid intelligence,” i.e., the inventive, analytical problem-solving capacity thought to be the least malleable aspect of intelligence (Jaeggi et al 2008; Rudebeck 2012).

And of course there is the most obvious observation of all. People can develop impressive levels of expertise through hard work and practice.

So there is good reason to think that we can get smarter. What are the practical consequences of embracing this theory of intelligence?

People who believe that intelligence is malleable are better learners

Cognitive neuroscientist Jennifer Mangels and her colleagues tested Columbia undergraduates who subscribed to one of beliefs about  intelligence (Mangels et al 2006).

Undergraduates who held the “entity” theory of intelligence said they agreed strongly with statements like “you have a certain amount of intelligence and you can’t do much to change it.”

Undergraduates who viewed intelligence as more malleable were characterized as believing in an “incremental” theory of intelligence.

For the experiment, each student sat at a computer and was quizzed on a variety of academic subjects, ranging from history to science. Students were also asked to rate how confident they were about their answers.

After answering each question, students were told if their answer was right or wrong. They were also told what the correct answer was.

Then, once they’d answered all the questions, the students were tested again. But this time students were tested only on those questions which they had gotten wrong previously.

Throughout the experiment, researchers measured the students’ brain activity by recording event-related potentials (ERPs)—the electrical activity that accompanies our thoughts and perceptions.

The results were eye-opening.

Both groups did equally well on the first test session, and both groups were equally confident about their answers.

But students holding the more flexible, “incremental” theory of intelligence responded differently to errors.

When “incremental” students answered incorrectly and were told the right answer, they seemed to pay more attention. Their brains were more likely to show evidence of sustained, “deep” processing.

And--get this--the “incremental” students were more likely to come up with the correct answers the second time around.

In other words, the students who believed that intelligence is malleable actually learned better than students who believed that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable.

What’s going on? Why beliefs influence the way we learn

It seems likely that our beliefs about intelligence affect how we feel about failure.

For instance, people who believe that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable may be more uptight about failure.

To these folks, how we perform is an indication of our innate ability. Failure signals lower intelligence. Such beliefs make people more reluctant to tackle challenges. They may also hinder learning by making people too upset or distracted to learn from their mistakes. And they make people feel helpless. If intelligence is fixed, what is the point of trying to improve (Dweck 2006)?

By contrast, people who believe in the malleability of intelligence are more likely to view failure as an opportunity to learn.

What about kids?

Kids aren’t born believing that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable.

Research on American kids suggests that young school children tend to believe in the malleability of intelligence (Kinlaw and Kurtz-Costes 2007).

Ask a kindergartener, and he’s likely to tell you that the smartest person is the one who tries the hardest. Most American kids don’t distinguish effort from ability until the third grade (Nicholls and Miller 1984).

And people living in different cultures have decidedly different views of intelligence and achievement.

Studies suggest that East Asians are particularly likely to believe that effort and persistence are the keys to success (Heine et al 2001; Chen and Stevenson 1995).

But Westerners often take a different view. When asked to explain their children’s academic achievement, Chinese and Japanese mothers placed a stronger emphasis on hard work than did American mothers. The American moms were more likely to cite innate ability (Stevenson and Lee 1990).

So it seems that kids—in at least some cultures—come to adopt the entity theory during their later school years.

And when they do, their achievements suffer. Consider this evidence.

Attitudes and achievement in children

• One study tracked 373 American middle school students for two years. Seventh graders who professed a belief in the malleability of intelligence tended to improve their math grades over the next two years in school. Kids who believed that intelligence is fixed showed no improvement over time (Blackwell et al 2007).

• Another study of American 4th- 5th- and 6th-graders found that some kids subscribe to an entity theory of intelligence. These kids were more likely to value the appearance of performing well over learning to master a subject (Erdley et al 1997).

• Even preschoolers may be held back by their attitudes. A study that presented puzzle tasks to 4- and 5-year olds found that differences in the way that children approach problems. Some kids preferred easy puzzles, others more difficult puzzles. Those kids that preferred the difficult puzzles were focused on honing their skills—even if they encountered failure. Those kids that preferred the easy puzzles were more likely to feel helpless when they failed (Smiley and Dweck 1994).

Change your mindset, improve performance

People who believe in the malleability of intelligence have a learning advantage. And this makes sense if our beliefs influence how we respond to challenges.

But does this mean people can become better learners if they change their mindsets?

In other words, if you change your beliefs about intelligence, will you change your capacity to learn and cope with failure?

Researchers behind the study of 7th graders and math achievement put this question to the test (Blackwell et al 2007). They enrolled students in one of two instructional programs. One program taught kids study skills. The other program combined study tips with information about the brain. The brain-based program encouraged kids to think of the brain as a muscle that becomes stronger with use.

The results? Kids enrolled in the brain-based program improved their math grades. Kids enrolled in the study skills program did not improve (Blackwell et al 2007).

Research on adults has reported similar findings.

One study focused on college students whose sense of self-worth depends on academic performance (Niiya et al 2004). When these students were primed with an incremental theory of intelligence, they responded less negatively to failure.

Another study demonstrated improvements in academic performance: When college students favoring the entity theory were coached to focus on self-improvement rather than social comparison, they performed better in puzzle-solving tasks (Thompson and Muskat 2005).

What can parents do?

Based on the research I’ve seen, parents can probably do a lot to help their kids acquire the right mindset for learning:

Get on board yourself

Are you convinced that intelligence is unchangeable? If so, you’ll probably pass this belief along to your child. You might argue that intelligence really IS unchangeable—whether we like it our not. But rest assured--it’s not just wishful thinking.

As noted above, there is real scientific evidence that we can sharpen are own our thinking. Read more about it in Richard Nisbett's book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.

Be careful with praise

Praise can be a great motivator for academic achievement. However, the wrong kinds of praise can backfire. For instance, praising kids for their smarts may actually encourage kids to adopt the entity theory of intelligence.

On the other hand, praising kids for effort may encourage them to develop an incremental theory of intelligence. In a recent study tracking children from the age of 1 year, kids who received more praise for effort during the toddler years were more likely to endorse the incremental theory when they were in the 2nd and 3rd grades. They were also more likely to agree that persistence and hard work pays off (Gunderson et al 2013).

For more information about the effects of praise, see these articles on praise and intelligence and tips for effective praise.

In addition, check out Carol Dweck's popular book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success .

Teach your child the good news

...that the brain is like a muscle that becomes more powerful with exercise (Dweck 2006).


References: How a theory of intelligence can hamper learning

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Chen C and Stevenson HW. 1995. Motivation and mathematics achievement: a comparative study of Asian-American, Caucasian-American, and east Asian high school students. Child Development 66(4):1214-34.

Dweck CS 2006. Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Erdley CA, Cain KM, Loomis CC, Dumas-Hines F, and Dweck CS. 1997. Relations among children's social goals, implicit personality theories, and responses to social failure. Developmental Psychology 33(2):263-72.

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Gunderson EA, Gripshover SJ, Romero C, Dweck CS, Goldin-Meadow S, and Levine SC. 2013. Parent praise to 1-3 year-olds predicts children’s motivational frameworks 5 years later. Child Development.

Heine SJ, Lehman DR, Ide E, Leung C, Kitayama S, Takata T, Matsumoto H. 2001. Divergent consequences of success and failure in japan and north america: an investigation of self-improving motivations and malleable selves. J Pers Soc Psychol. 81(4):599-615.

Jaeggi SM, Buschkuehl M, Jonides J, and Perrig WJ. 2008. Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105(19):6829-33.

Kinlaw CR and Kurtz-Costes B. 2007. Children's theories of intelligence: beliefs, goals, and motivation in the elementary years. Journal of General Psychology 134(3):295-311.

Kurdziel L, Duclos K, and Spencer R. 2013. Sleep spindles in midday naps enhance learning in preschool children. PNAS (epub ahead of print) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1306418110.

Landry SH, Smith KE, and Swank PR. 2003. The importance of parenting during early childhood for school-age development. Dev Neuropsychol. 24(2-3):559-91.

Landry SH, Smith KE, Swank PR. 2006. Responsive parenting: establishing early foundations for social, communication, and independent problem-solving skills. Dev Psychol. 42(4):627-42.

Mangels JA, Butterfield B, Lamb J, good C and Dweck CS. 2006. Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. Soc Cogn Affect Neuroscience 1(2): 75–86.

Neisser U, Boodoo G, Boucard TJ, Boykin AW et al 1996. Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns. American Psychologist 51 (2): 77-101.

Niiya Y, Crocker J, and Bartmess EN. 2004. From vulnerability to resilience: learning orientations buffer contingent self-esteem from failure.

Rudebeck SR, Bor D, Ormond A, O'Reilly JX, and Lee AC. 2012.A potential spatial working memory training task to improve both episodic memory and fluid intelligence. PLoS One 7(11):e50431.

Smiley PA and Dweck CS. 1994. Individual differences in achievement goals among young children. Child Development 65(6):1723-43.

Stevenson HW and Lee SY. 1990. Contexts of achievement: a study of American, Chinese, and Japanese children. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 55(1-2):1-123.

Thompson T and Musket S. 2005. Does priming for mastery goals improve the performance of students with an entity view of ability? Br J Educ Psychol. 75(Pt 3):391-409.

Wagner U, Gais S, Haider H., et al. Sleep inspires insight. Nature 427: 352-355.

For more information about the ways that our theory of intelligence can influence our intellectual performance, see this article about stereotype threat.

Content last modifed 2/13