Growth mindset: Can a theory of intelligence boost your ability to learn?

What you believe about cognitive performance – the theory of intelligence that you adopt – can have brain-altering effects, and enhance your ability to learn. Yet programs designed to promote the right, “growth mindset” in students haven’t always worked. Why not? I think the answer has to do with follow-through. Merely believing that you can grow doesn’t turn you into an achiever. You have to apply yourself, too.

little girl with father, looking intently through a magnifying glass at the leaves on a bush

Here is a look at the research, and some suggestions for helping students reach their full potential.

What is your theory of intelligence? What do you believe makes people smart? Years ago, anthropologists and cultural psychologists noticed that people hold very different beliefs depending on their cultural upbringing.

For example, in Western countries, people often take the view that intelligence is innate and fixed: Individuals are born with certain abilities, and these abilities remain stable throughout the lifespan. By contrast, people in East Asian countries are more likely to believe that intelligence is malleable. It can be enhanced through effort.

The effort-based view, often characterized as a “growth mindset,” is more optimistic. But is it also wrong-headed? What actual evidence do we have that our cognitive abilities can improve?

Why the “growth” theory of intelligence isn’t just an optimistic delusion

Point 1: Training in logic and reasoning enhances cognitive performance.

Rationality is crucial for truly intelligent decision making, yet even high IQ individuals fall prey to common logical fallacies. Formal training in the tools of critical thinking — like logic, the scientific method, and statistics — can transform our ability to solve problems and make intelligent choices. In a very real sense, such training makes us smarter.

Point 2: Working memory hacks can improve our ability to process information.

Are you good at “thinking on your feet”? Juggling new information, and keeping track of what’s going on? These abilities are dependent on something called our working memory capacity, and while genetic and prenatal factors play a big role in the development of working memory, we can learn effective hacks for improving our working memory performance

Point 3: Physical exercise, play, and time outdoors boosts our ability to focus.

Academic achievement depends a great deal on executive function, the master self-regulator that helps us pay attention, plan, and resist distractions. And it appears that executive function gets a boost from both regular, aerobic exercise and breaks taken outdoors, in nature. Moreover, kids are more likely to stay focused in school if we give them opportunities to play.

Point 4: We can learn more efficiently by making smart choices about sleep.

For example, experiments demonstrate that people learn facts faster if they sleep shortly after studying (Gais et al 2006; Kurdziel et al 2013). Experiments also suggest that sleep can make us more insightful — helping us discover hidden patterns in information that already absorbed learned (Beijamini et al 2014; Wagner et al 2004).

Point 5: Physical exploration of the environment stimulates brain growth.

Experiments on rats suggest that exploratory behavior boosts brain growth and memory (Huber et al 2007; Dong et al 2012), and recent research hints that exploration could influence human children, too.

In one study, babies who explored more actively at 5 months achieved higher academic levels at 14 years (Bornstein et al 2013). The was true even after controlling for a child’s behavioral adjustment, as well as for factors related to the heredity of intelligence (mother’s verbal IQ and educational attainment). 

Point 6: Research suggests we can promote recall by stoking curiosity.

People gripped by curiosity are more likely to retain what they learn, and they don’t just show better recall for the stuff they were curious about. They also display improved recall for other, extraneous facts they encountered at the same time — as if curiosity temporarily renders the brain more receptive to new information (Grubet et al 2014). In addition, there is evidence that children make more progress in early literacy and mathematics when they show higher levels of curiosity (Shaw et al 2018). 

Point 7: People develop expertise through effort and practice.

Some people may start with advantages that make learning easier. Others face obstacles that require more work to overcome. But with motivation, perseverance, and support, people can develop new skills.

So it’s clear that we can expand our abilities. What are the practical consequences of embracing this point of view?

Experimental evidence: We learn more from our mistakes if we embrace a “growth” theory of intelligence.

Cognitive neuroscientist Jennifer Mangels and her colleagues tested Columbia undergraduates who subscribed to one of two 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 held the “incremental” or “growth” theory of intelligence viewed intelligence as more malleable.

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, “growth” theory of intelligence responded differently to errors.

When “growth mindset” 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. Moreover, the “growth mindset” students were more likely to come up with the correct answers the second time around.

And these results have been replicated by other research teams — on both adults and kids (Moser et al 2011; Schroder et al 2017).  

For example, in study of more than 120 school-aged children, kids spent less time processing errors than adults typically do. But they showed the same general pattern: 

Individuals who endorsed a growth mindset paid more attention to their errors, and achieved greater post-error accuracy. They were more likely to bounce back after getting something wrong (Schroder et al 2017).

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

So what’s going on? Why is the growth mindset linked with better learning?

Very likely, the answer concerns our feelings about failure. 

To people who believe in the malleability of intelligence, it’s no big deal. They know they can improve their abilities with practice, and errors are part of the learning process. So they are eager to tackle challenges, and more likely to profit from their mistakes.

But if you believe that intelligence is fixed, failure poses a major threat. It’s a sign that you lack ability, and aren’t going to improve. Public failure is particularly devastating, so you avoid challenges. And when you make a mistake, you’re more likely to feel helpless. There seems little point in trying to understand where you went wrong. You don’t have what it takes.

And where do these mindsets come from? How do kids come to accept the idea that their abilities are fixed?

Children aren’t born believing that intelligence is unchangeable.

In the United States, young children tend to endorse views common in East Asia: They believe in the malleability of intelligence until they are midway through grade school (Kinlaw and Kurtz-Costes 2007; Nicholls and Miller 1984).

But whereas East Asians continue to embrace a growth mindset throughout their lives, Americans tend to change. Studies suggest that they become more invested in the “entity” view of intelligence as they get older (Heine et al 2001; Chen and Stevenson 1995; Stevenson and Lee 1990).

One contributing factor could be the style of praise that some American children receive. You might think that it’s helpful to praise a child for being smart. But in a series of experiments, Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck (2002) showed how this can backfire.

Kids who received such praise became more concerned about protecting their image than learning. They seemed to conclude that failure is a sign of low intelligence, so they played it safe and avoided difficult tasks that might have made them look incompetent. When they did fail, they tended to give up.

By contrast, kids praised for their effort became more eager to tackle challenges, and more resilient in the wake of failure.

It’s a pattern that’s also been observed outside the lab. Over the long term, tweens who are regularly praised for their intelligence (“You’re so smart!”) become ever-more likely to endorse the entity theory, and ever-more reluctant to tackle challenges (Pomerantz and Kempner 2013).

And even young children are vulnerable (Erdley et al 1997; Smiley and Dweck 1994). When Patricia Smiley and Carol Dweck presented 4- and 5-year-olds with several puzzles, the researchers noticed a pattern in children’s preferences: The kids who were most susceptible to feelings of helplessness were more likely to prefer puzzles that were too easy for them (Smiley and Dweck 1994).

Does this mean I will perform better by changing my theory of intelligence? Can we boost achievement by training kids to accept the growth mindset?

We’ve seen that people who believe in the malleability of intelligence have a learning advantage. But does this mean we can boost achievement by encouraging students to adopt a growth theory of intelligence?

I think the answer is yes, but only if there is follow-through. Merely believing that you can achieve doesn’t make you into an achiever. You have to apply yourself, too. And I think this distinction may account for inconsistencies across studies.

For example, consider the successes.

In one study, researchers wanted to find out if they could improve mathematics performance in 7th graders. So they enrolled students in one of two instructional programs:

  • a program that taught study skills only, or
  • a program that combined study tips with information about the brain. 

The latter program encouraged kids to think of the brain as a muscle that becomes stronger with use, and the theme seemed to have an effect. Kids enrolled in the brain-based program improved their math grades over time. Kids enrolled in the study skills program did not (Blackwell et al 2007).

Studies suggest that mindset interventions can help older students, too. 

When college undergraduates have been coached to believe in the power of practice, they have showed immediate improvements in their attitudes towards failure (Niiya et al 2004), and performed better on puzzle-solving tasks (Thompson and Muskat 2005).

In fact, in one case, merely reading about the growth mindset — a few brief sentences — was enough to change the way students tackled a high-speed, attention task. Compared to students who read an endorsement of the “entity” theory, students exposed to the “growth” mindset showed more focus and learned more from their mistakes (Schroder et al 2014).

But despite these success stories, there have also been failures.

For instance, in a study testing the effects of the growth mindset on mathematical performance, researchers assigned 11- and 12-year-olds to attend workshops in neuroscience and the incremental theory of intelligence. The kids increased their endorsement of a growth mindset, but these beliefs didn’t translate into better math scores (Dommett et al 2013).

Why the disparity?

Researchers who’ve analyzed the published literature see evidence that the effects of mindset training depend on a child’s circumstances. It’s primarily children from low socioeconomic backgrounds — and children at high risk for academic problems — who benefit from mindset interventions. When training studies target other types of children, the effects tend to be very modest — or non-existent (Sisk et al 2018).

But I think it’s likely that something else is playing a role, too.

The growth mindset is believed to help students because it boosts their motivation to take risks, practice, and learn. But what if the growth mindset isn’t enough to motivate students?

You can tell a child that she’s got what it takes to master algebra. But if she isn’t interested in algebra, and doesn’t see why mastering algebra is important, we wouldn’t expect her to set this goal. She might verbally endorse the growth theory of intelligence — and sincerely believe in it — and yet fail to apply it.

We shouldn’t expect mindset training alone to make a difference. Kids may pay lip service to the growth mindset — and even buy it. But they aren’t going to benefit from it unless they engage themselves in learning. 

If we don’t inspire kids to pay attention — if we don’t stoke their curiosity, or otherwise motivate them — we shouldn’t be surprised if a simple mindset intervention fails.

What can parents and teachers do?

Quite a lot, I think. Here are some suggestions.

Get on board yourself

Are you convinced that skills should develop easily, or else they weren’t meant to be? If so, it’s likely you’ll communicate this belief to your child. Take stock of your biases and attitudes. 

As noted above, there is real scientific evidence that we can sharpen are own our thinking. Read more about it in James Flynn’s What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect and Richard Nisbett’s book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count.

Instill a sense of realistic optimism in your kids

Tell children about the importance of exercising their minds, and the encourage them to view mistakes as opportunities to learn (Dweck 2006). Provide kids with specific, concrete examples of how novices become competent over time. 

Don’t imagine that merely adopting a growth mindset is enough. 

Kids must want to learn. They need to be intellectually curious, or possess some other form of motivation to devote themselves to learning.

So we need to help students discover what’s interesting in the subject matter they study. And we need to help them find clear connections between what they are learning, what they aspire to become. How is school work relevant to their lives, their hobbies, their economic futures?

Use praise wisely.

Praise can be a great motivator for academic achievement. However, the wrong kind of praise can backfire. As noted above, praising kids for their intelligence might make them too image-conscious. They may become more fearful of failure — thinking it will show them to be imposters. So they shrink from new challenges.

On the other hand, praising kids for effort may encourage them to develop a growth 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 a growth mindset 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 best-selling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

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

Content of “Growth mindset: Can a theory of intelligence improve the way you learn?” last modified 8/2018. Portions of the text are derived from earlier versions of this article, written by the same author.

image of little girl looking at leaves with magnifying glass by Mladen Zivkovic / istock