Can You Become Smarter? Students Who Say Yes Act More Intelligently



Evidence that our beliefs about the nature of intelligence have powerful impacts on our achievements.

Do you believe intelligence can be changed?

Decades of research conducted by Carol Dweck and colleagues indicate that people’s approaches and responses to learning are rooted in their implicit beliefs of intelligence; beliefs that can be identified by simply asking people questions similar to the one above.

Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets
Dweck's research shows that even when accounting for people’s actual cognitive abilities, students who believed their smarts could be changed (had “growth” mindsets) engaged in adaptive behaviors, such as focusing on mastering concepts and developing new strategies after making mistakes. As expected, these behaviors led to improvements in performance on subsequent tasks.

On the flip side of the coin, students who believed that people were either smart or not smart, and could do little about it (had “fixed” mindsets”), showed decrements in performance when faced with negative feedback or failure. In contrast to students with growth mindsets, these students were more likely to view their failure as evidence of their immutable lack of ability.

To make matters worse, studies showed that students with fixed mindsets were more likely to:

  • cheat on tasks
  • report exaggerated scores on tests
  • prioritize the outcome rather than the process of learning
  • when given a choice, choose easier over more challenging activities
  • lose motivation quickly
  • demonstrate an intolerance for ambiguity

These counterproductive attitudes and behaviors stemmed from fixed-minded students' belief that mistakes were a sign of inherent inability rather than opportunities to learn, and interpretations of situations that demanded more effort as evidence of inferiority rather than challenges that can be overcome.

A recent brain study  conducted among college students showed evidence for different neural mechanisms that are at play in growth vs. fixed mindsets. After receiving corrective feedback, a growth mindset was associated with a neural signal (enhanced Pe amplitude) that reflected deliberate attention to the mistake and feedback. This heightened awareness and conscious effort to process feedback was predictive of post-error accuracy scores on a version of the Eriksen flanker task. In other words, people with growth mindsets are more likely to put forth increased effort to overcome error. 

On the upside, there is encouraging evidence that people's theories of intelligence are subject to change, and are actually likely to shift towards growth mindsets under the right circumstances. 

A note on praise
A closely related line of research also led by Dweck show that entity-based praise that promotes an innate, trait view of intelligence, for example, “You are such a smart girl!” is linked to children behaving according to fixed mindsets, whereas effort-based praise such as, “I’m proud of you for studying so hard for your spelling test!” is linked to the adaptive behaviors characteristic of children with growth mindsets. She explains that in the former scenario, children’s sense of self-worth becomes contingent on the praise label. Conversely, in the latter scenario, children maintain their self-esteem and focus on improving based on the constructive feedback.

If we want to support children's abilities to reach their full potential, a sobering lesson of these findings for parents, teachers, and other adult role models, is to stop telling children they are smart in the hopes of raising their self-esteem and instead, provide detailed, meaningful, and honest feedback regarding their efforts. This is a step towards orientating children away from the need to look smart and instead, focus on learning.

Lesson Learned
It seems that self-efficacy, or simply put, an ‘I can do better’ belief will not only help you bounce back from your mistakes, but more importantly, motivate you to learn and grow from them. 


Whether Dweck’s theory of intelligence may also apply to other constructs (such as creativity!) is a potentially fruitful line of research that remains to be explored.

Tags: education, mindset, psychology

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