Carol Dweck: A new intellectual crush

I’ve fallen in love: intensely, deeply in love with Carol Dweck. And I won’t hear a bad word against her. It’s probably not healthy, it’s definitely a bit weird, but it’s how I feel and I won’t apologise: My intellectual love for her runs deep and flows fast.
Dweck pioneered a distinction between what she calls a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Originally conceived as a descriptor for attitudes towards intelligence, this distinction has traction for most cognitive attributes and provides insight and explanation for observable behaviour. A fixed (entity) mindset is characterised by a belief that there is a constant level of some cognitive attribute or trait for every person which cannot be surpassed no matter how much it is worked at. A growth (incremental) mindset is contrasted with this and is characterised as a belief that a given attribute or trait is malleable and can be affected and changed by an individual. So, for instance, someone holding a fixed mindset of intelligence will believe that everyone is born with a certain level of intelligence and no matter how studious and motivated they are, once they reach their intelligence ceiling, they cannot surpass it. This outlook is typified by sentences such as “he’s the clever one” or “I’m no good at x” – the subtext here is “he was born clever” and “I can never be any good at x”. Conversely, someone with a growth mindset might say “I have to work hard to get good results in x”.

In the context of learning it is obvious that we want everyone to have growth mindsets. If I believe I have a certain amount of mathematical ability and I come to a topic which at first go I don’t succeed in, then what reason do I have for continuing to try at that topic? I don’t believe that by working at the topic, algebra say, I might come to understand it and be good at it; I believe I’ve got my pot of mathematical knowledge and algebra is not part of it. So I give up. Having given up in my algebra classes I become bored and cause trouble. Else I am embarrassed that I am not as clever as my classmates so I cause distraction so no one can tell whether I “can do” algebra or not. Or perhaps I sit there quietly, causing no trouble, no distraction, daydreaming. All these scenarios are pretty bleak: in none of them do I learn algebra and in all of them I leave my maths class believing “I’m just no good at algebra”.


The same scenario could take place in art or music, leading to “I’m just not creative”, in sports, leading to “I’m just not athletic”, in English, in foreign languages, in chemistry, biology, physics, drama, cookery, DIY, the list stretches on.


But this is not true. It is not the case that the brain has a fixed amount of some attribute no matter what is done. When people say to themselves “I’m just not good at x” it is not true. The brain is capable of learning anything.

There is no controversy in stating the brain is plastic, by which is meant malleable, changeable, adaptable. There are extraordinary stories demonstrating this capability of the brain to adapt and grow. Hearing stories of how the brain can rebuild function after seemingly devastating damage should leave us in no doubt about its constant capacity for growth and change. Learning how to walk or talk after suffering a stroke is an obvious example of this capacity. Brain regions adapting to take on the function of a damaged area is also seen in other senses and processes. More dramatically, there is a procedure for treating extreme and debilitating seizures in which half of the brain is removed or disabled. A vast amount of function is regained, especially when this procedure is performed on children. Clearly, there is no little capability of the brain for growth.


The tragedy of believing that intelligence, for example, is fixed is not that we want everyone to be a genius in all subjects and isn’t it terrible if they’re not. Nor is it that a bored, disengaged, embarrassed child causes classroom problems and disturbs other children (although if this were the only consequence it would be bad enough to demand immediate solution). No. The tragedy is this mindset can be observed in children as early as primary school (age 4+) and results in the denial of certain bodies of knowledge because of an erroneous belief that there is nothing that can be done to aid understanding of a topic. The tragedy is children as young as four shutting off certain hobbies, careers, passions based on fundamental misunderstandings of how the brain works.


Brains are well known to adapt to use. For example, my grandparents and their contemporaries are a lot better than me and my contemporaries at remembering strings of information. Not because they are cleverer than I nor because they had better teaching, but simply because it was more economical for them to remember phone numbers, recipes, directions than it is for me. I don’t have so much need for this sort of memory because I can rely on my phone to store phone numbers, my tablet to store recipes and my sat-nav to give me directions. Although my grandparents had access to address books, recipe books and maps, looking up the desired information from these resources was a lot more time consuming and thus resource draining than tapping quickly on a computational device. So, do I have a less capable memory than my grandparents? No. I simply have memory for different things. The memory that is no longer required for strings of information is requisitioned to strings of processes. I am probably much faster at navigating around an unfamiliar web page, or getting to grips with a new operating system on my smart phone. Again, this does not indicate that I am cleverer than my grandparents or that I have a better memory. It is just a different memory ability, adapted to use.

Believing I am no good at algebra becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t think I’m any good, so I don’t try, so I don’t do well, which reinforces my belief I am no good.


As I wrote above, this is tragic because it closes off realms of possible delight and wonder to children (and adults). However, recent evidence shows this distinction is also seen in social cognitive attributes: a fixed social mindset gives rise to beliefs that people are either good or bad, friendly or unfriendly, bullies or kind, aggressive or gentle, and they always will be. Dweck and colleagues have shown that if I believe in fixed personality attributes then I am more likely to treat others in unhelpful ways: if I believe someone just is aggressive, I am likely to respond to them with aggression, thus ramping up any potential conflict into full blown unpleasantness.


I am not in love with Carole Dweck simply because she has demonstrated that people hold beliefs like this, though. I am completely bowled over by her because she has shown how easy it is to transform a fixed mindset into a growth mindset in intellectual pursuits and social interactions. Growth mindset leads (unsurprisingly) to growth: growth of understanding and learning and appreciation of the learning process. It also leads to growth of kindness. Kindness in social interactions – a person behaving badly may well respond to my kindness if I believe they have the capacity to change – and kindness to oneself. Instead of telling myself I’m stupid at algebra, an unkind way to view myself, I tell myself I’m not good at algebra yet. I may never be good at algebra because I choose never to work to be good at it, but this is my choice and thus there is no unkindness to myself in acknowledging it.


How does she transform a fixed mindset into a growth mindset? Well, that’s the stuff of another blog post.

Carol Dweck: A new intellectual crush

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