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No Clarity Around Growth Mindset

I.

Admitting a bias is the first step to overcoming it, so I’ll admit it: I have a huge bias against growth mindset.

(if you’re not familiar with it, growth mindset is the belief that people who believe ability doesn’t matter and only effort determines success are more resilient, skillful, hard-working, perseverant in the face of failure, and better-in-a-bunch-of-other-ways than people who emphasize the importance of ability. Therefore, we can make everyone better off by telling them ability doesn’t matter and only hard work does. More on Wikipedia here).

It’s unnatural, is what it is. A popular psychological finding that doesn’t have gruff people dismissing it as a fad? That doesn’t have politicians condemning it as a feel-good justification for everything wrong with society? That doesn’t have a host of smarmy researchers saying that what, you still believe that, didn’t you know it failed to replicate and has since been entirely superseded by a new study out of Belarus? I’m not saying Carol Dweck has definitely made a pact with the Devil, I’m just saying I don’t have a good alternative explanation.

Which brings me to the second reason I’m biased against it. Good research shows that inborn ability (including but not limited to IQ) matters a lot, and that the popular prejudice that people who fail just weren’t trying hard enough is both wrong and harmful. Social psychology has been, um, very enthusiastic about denying that result. If all growth mindset did was continue to deny it, then it would be unexceptional. But growth mindset goes further. It’s not (just?) that ability doesn’t matter. It’s that belief that ability might matter is precisely what makes people fail. People who believe ability matters will refuse to work hard, will avoid challenges, will become “helpless” in the face of pressure, will hate learning as a matter of principle, will refuse to work hard, will become blustery and defensive about their “brilliance”, will lie to people and hide their failures, and will drop out of school and turn to drugs (really)! People who believe that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough will be successful, well-adjusted, and treat life as a series of challenging adventures. It all strikes a curmudgeon like me as just about the thickest morality tale since Pilgrim’s Progress, and as just about the most convenient explanatory coup since “the reason psychic powers don’t work on you is because you’re a skeptic!”

Which brings me to the third reason I’m biased against it. It is right smack in the middle of a bunch of fields that have all started seeming a little dubious recently. Most of the growth mindset experiments have used priming to get people in an effort-focused or an ability-focused state of mind, but recent priming experiments have famously failed to replicate and cast doubt on the entire field. And growth mindset has an obvious relationship to stereotype threat, which has also started seeming very shaky recently.

So I have every reason to be both suspicious of and negatively disposed toward growth mindset. Which makes it appalling that the studies are so damn good.

Consider Dweck and Mueller 1998, one of the key studies in the area. 128 fifth-graders were asked to do various puzzles. First they did some easy ones and universally succeeded. The researchers praised them as follows:

All children were told that they had performed well on this problem set: “Wow, you did very well on these problems. You got [number of problems] right. That’s a really high score!” No matter what their actual score, all children were told that they had solved at least 80% of the problems that they answered.

Some children were praised for their ability after the initial positive feedback: “You must be smart at these problems.” Some children were praised for their effort after the initial positive feedback: “You must have worked hard at these problems.” The remaining children were in the control condition and received no additional feedback.

This is a nothing intervention, the tiniest ghost of an intervention. The experiment had previously involved all sorts of complicated directions and tasks, I get the impression they were in the lab for at least a half hour, and the experimental intervention is changing three short words in the middle of a sentence.

And what happened? The children in the intelligence praise condition were much more likely to say at the end of the experiment that they thought intelligence was more important than effort (p < 0.001) than the children in the effort condition. When given the choice, 67% of the effort-condition children chose to set challenging learning-oriented goals, compared to only 8% (!) of the intelligence-condition. After a further trial in which the children were rigged to fail, children in the effort condition were much more likely to attribute their failure to not trying hard enough, and those in the intelligence condition to not being smart enough (p < 0.001). Children in the intelligence condition were much less likely to persevere on a difficult task than children in the effort condition (3.2 vs. 4.5 minutes, p < 0.001), enjoyed the activity less (p < 0.001) and did worse on future non-impossible problem sets (p...you get the picture). This was repeated in a bunch of subsequent studies by the same team among white students, black students, Hispanic students...you probably still get the picture. Or take An Analysis Of Learned Helplessness. Dweck has used a test called the IAR to separate children out into those who think effort is more important (“mastery-oriented”) and those who think ability is more important (“helpless”). Then she gave all of them impossible problems and watched them squirm – or, more fomally, tested how long the two groups continued working on them effectively. She found extremely strong results – of the 30 subjects in each group, 11 of the mastery-oriented tried harder after failure, compared to 0 helpless. 21 of the helpless children stopped trying hard after failure, compared to only 4 mastery-oriented. She described the mastery-oriented children as saying things like “I love a challenge,” and the helpless children begging to be allowed to stop.

This study is really weird. Everything is like 100% in one group versus 0% in another group. Either something is really wrong here, or this one little test that separates mastery-oriented from helpless children constantly produces the strongest effects in all of psychology and is never wrong. None of the children whose test responses indicated that they thought ability was important to success ever monitored their own progress – not one – while over 95% of the children who said they thought effort was more important did. None of them ever expressed a positive statement about their own progress, while over two-thirds of the children who thought effort was more important did.

Normally I would assume these results are falsified, but I have looked for all of the usual ways of falsifying results and I can’t find any. Also, the boldest falsifier in the world wouldn’t have the courage to put down numbers like these. And a meta-analysis of all growth mindset studies finds more modest, but still consistent, effects, and only a little bit of publication bias.

So – is growth mindset the one concept in psychology which throws up gigantic effect sizes and always works? Or did Carol Dweck really, honest-to-goodness, make a pact with the Devil in which she offered her eternal soul in exchange for spectacular study results?

I don’t know. But here are a few things that predispose me towards the latter explanation. A warning – I am way out of my league here and post this only hoping it will spark further discussion.

II.

The first thing that bothers me is the history.

I’ve been trying really hard to trace its origin story, but it is pretty convoluted. It seems to have grown out of a couple of studies Carol Dweck and a few collaborators did in the seventies. But these studies generally found that a belief in innate ability was a positive factor alongside belief in growth mindset, with the problem children being the ones who attributed their success or failure to bad luck, or to external factors like the tests being rigged (which, by the way, they always were).

A good example of this genre is Learned Helplessness And Reinforcement Responsibility In Children. Its abstract describes the finding as: “Subjects who showed the largest performance decrements were those who took less personal responsibility for the outcomes of their actions…and who, when they did accept responsibility, attributed success and failure to presence or absence of ability rather than to expenditure of effort.”

But that seems like a somewhat loaded way of interpreting this table:

As you can see, the “persistent” children (the ones who kept going in the face of failure) had stronger belief in the role of ability in their successes (I+a) and failures (I-a) than the “helpless” children (the ones who gave up in the face of failure)! These don’t achieve statistical significance in this n = 10 study, but they do repeat across all four combinations of success x gender tested. The real finding of the study was that children who attributed their success or failure to any stable factor, be it effort or ability, did better than those who did not.

Likewise, in The Role Of Expectations And Attributions, Dweck describes her findings as “persistent and helpless children do not differ in the degree to which they attribute success to ability”. When you actually look at the paper, this is another case of the persistent children actually having a higher belief in the importance of ability, which fails to achieve statistical significance because the study is on a grand total of twelve children.

(I should say something else about this study. Dweck compared two interventions to make children less helpless and better at dealing with failure. In the first, she gave them a lot of easy problems which they inevitably succeeded on and felt smart about. In the second, she gave them difficult problems they were bound to fail, then told them it was because they weren’t working hard enough. Finally, both groups were challenged with the difficult bound-to-fail problems to see how hard they tried on them. The children who had been given the impossible problems before did better than the ones who felt smart because they’d only gotten easy problems. Dweck interpreted this to prove that telling children to work hard made them less helpless. To me the obvious conclusion is that children who are used to failing get less flustered when presented with impossible material than children who have artificially been made to succeed every moment until now.)

Then there’s there’s this, a preliminary to the second study I mentioned in Part I. Does it show the mastery-oriented children outperforming the helpless children on every measure. Yeah. But listen to this part from the discussion section:

The results revealed striking differences both in the pattern of performance and in the nature of the verbalizations made by helpless and mastery-oriented children following failure. It was particularly noteworthy that while the helpless children made the expected attributions to uncontrollable factors, the mastery-oriented children did not offer explanations for their failures

.
But if you look at the data, this doesn’t seem right.

Mastery-oriented children were about six times more likely to attribute their failures to the most uncontrollable factor of all – bad luck. They were also about six times more likely to attribute their failures to the task “not being fair”. This contradicts every previous study, including Dweck’s own. The whole field of attribution theory, which is intensely studied and which Dweck cites approvingly, says that attributing things to luck is a bad idea and attributing them to ability is, even if not as good as effort, pretty good. But Dweck finds that the kids who used ability attributions universally crashed and bomb, and the kids who attribute things to luck or the world being unfair do great.

It might not be fair for me to pick on these couple of small studies in particular when there’s so much out there, but the fact is that these are the first, and a lot of the reviews cite only these and a few theses which as far as I know were never published. So this is what I’ve got. And from what I’ve got, I find that until about 1980, every study including Dweck’s found that belief in ability was a protective factor. Suddenly this disappeared and was replaced with it being a toxic plague. What happened? I don’t know.

III.

The second thing that bothers me is the longitudinal view.

So you have your helpless, fixed-mindset, believe-in-innate-ability children. According to Dweck, they “…are so concerned with being and looking talented that they never realize their full potential. In a fixed mindset, the cardinal rule is to look talented at all costs. The second rule is don’t work too hard or practive too much…having to work casts doubt on your ability. The third rule is, when faced with setbacks, run away. They say things like ‘I would try to cheat on the next test’. They make excuses, they blame others, they make themselves feel better by looking down on those who have done worse.”

These people sound like total losers, and it’s clear Dweck endorses this reading:

“Almost every great athlete – Michael Jordan, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Tiger Woods…has had a growth mindset. Not one of these athletes rested on their talent…research has repeatedly shown that a growth mindset fosters a healthier attitude toward practice and learning, a hunger for feedback, a greater ability to deal setbacks, and significantly better performance over time…over time those with a growth mindset appear to gain the advantage and begin to outperform their peers with a fixed mindset.”

Man, it sure would be awkward if fixed mindset students generally did better than growth-mindset ones, wouldn’t it?

Aronson, Fried, and Good (2001) looks at first like just another stunning growth mindset study. They do a half-hour intervention to teach college students growth mindset and find they are still getting higher grades a couple of months later (an effect so shocking I wrote about it here). But one thing they do kind of as an afterthought is measure the students’ general level of growth mindset, as well as some measures of academic performance before the intervention.

People with high growth mindset had lower GPA (decent effect size but not statistically significant) and lower SAT scores (which was statistically significant).

The authors are obviously uncomfortable with this, but they propose that people who get low SAT scores just tell themselves ability doesn’t matter/exist in order to protect their self-esteem since they don’t seem to have much of it.

And okay, that’s probably true (a commenter makes the equally good point that smart people may coast on their native intelligence without ever applying effort, and so accurately describe their experience as ability mattering but effort not doing so).

But if Dweck is to be believed, people with growth mindset are amazing ubermenschen and people with fixed mindset are disgusting failures at everything who hate learning and give up immediately and try to cheat. In the real world, however big the effect is, it is totally swamped by this proposed “people with low SAT scores protect their self-esteem or whatever” effect.

The same study also notes the awkward result that blacks are more likely to believe intelligence is flexible and growth-mindset-y than whites, even though blacks do worse in school and even though half the reason people are pushing growth mindset is to try to explain minority underperformance.

This is not an isolated finding. For example, Furnham (2003) finds in a sample of students at University College London that mindset is not related to academic performance. I’ve been told there’s a study from Pennsylvania that shows the same thing, though I can’t find it.

If you look hard enough, you can even notice this in Dweck’s studies themselves. One little-remarked-upon feature of Dweck’s work is that the helpless children and the mastery-oriented children always start out performing at the same level. It’s only after Dweck stresses them out with a failure that the mastery-oriented children recover gracefully and the helpless children go into free-fall.

But these are fifth-graders! For the two groups of children to do equally well on the first set of problems means that from first through fourth grade, their “helpless” “fixed-mindset” work-hating nature hasn’t impaired their ability to learn the material to a fifth-grade level one bit! (In this study, the fixed mindset children actually start out doing better; I can’t find any studies where the growth mindset children do).

When it’s convenient for her argument, Dweck herself admits that:

Some of the brightest, most skilled individuals exhibit the maladaptive pattern. Thus, it cannot be said that it is simply those with weak skills or histories of failure who (appropriately) avoid difficult tasks or whose skills prove fragile in the face of difficulty.

But I don’t think she follows the full implication of this statement, that despite being doomed to failure by their fixed mindset, these people have become “the brightest and most skilled individuals”.

Indeed, there has recently been some growth mindset studies done on gifted students, at elite colleges, or in high-level athletics. All of these dutifully show that people with fixed mindset respond much worse to whatever random contrived situation the experimenters produce. But thus far nobody has pointed out that there seem to be about as many of these people at, say, Stanford as there are anywhere else. If growth mindset was so great, you would expect fixed mindset people at Stanford to be as rare as, say, people with less than 100 IQ are at Stanford. Given that you will search in vain for the latter but have no trouble finding a bunch of the former for your study on how great growth mindset is, it sure looks like IQ is useful but growth mindset isn’t.

When people are in a psychology study, the fixed mindset individuals universally crash and bomb and display themselves to be totally incapable of learning or working hard. At every other moment, they seem to be doing equally well or better than their growth mindset peers. What’s going on? I have no idea.

IV.

The third thing that bothers me is Performance Deficits Following Failure, a study which manages to be quite interesting despite coming from a university in a city that very possibly doesn’t exist.

They use a procedure much like Dweck’s. They make children do some problems. Then they give them some impossible problems. Then they give them more problems, to see if they’ve developed “learned helplessness” from their failure on the impossible ones. Dweck’s theory predicts that the fixed-mindset children would and the growth mindset children wouldn’t. The Bielefeld team wasn’t testing growth mindset, but they indeed found that a bunch of children got flustered and stopped trying and did poorly from then on.

Then they repeated the experiment, but this time they made it look like no one would know how the children did. They told the kids they would be on teams, and the scores of everyone on their team would be combined before anybody saw it. The kids could fail as much as they wanted, and it would never reflect on them.

After that, children did exactly as well after failure as they had before. There was no sign of any decrease, or any “fixed mindset” group that suddenly gave up in order to protect their ego.

This doesn’t strike me as fully consistent with mindset theory. In mindset theory, people are acting based on their own deep-seated beliefs. Once a fixed mindset child fails, that’s it, she knows she’s Not Intelligent, there’s no helping it, all she can do is sabotage herself on the problems in order to protest a spiteful world that has failed to recognize her genius blah blah blah. Instead, there seems to be a very social role to these failures. The Bielefeld team describes it as “self-esteem protection”, but that doesn’t make much sense to me, since if they were worried about their self-esteem they could still be worried about it when no one else knew their performance.

To me it seems like some kind of interaction between self-esteem and other-esteem. Fixed mindset people get flustered when they have to fail publicly in front of scientists. This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable problem to have. A more interesting question is why it’s correlated with belief in innate ability.

Suppose that the difference in “people who talk up innate ability” and “people who talk up hard work” maps onto a bigger distinction. Some people really want to succeed at a task; other people just care about about clocking in, going through the motions, and saying “I did what I could”.

Put the first group in front of an authoritative-looking scientist, tell them to solve a problem, and make sure they can’t. They’re going to view this as a major humiliation – they were supposed to get a result, and couldn’t. They’ll get very anxious, and of course anxiety impedes performance.

Put the second group in front of an authoritative-looking scientist, and they’ll notice that if they write some stuff that looks vaguely relevant for a few minutes until the scientist calls time, then whatever, they can say they tried and no one can bother them about it. They do exactly this, then demand an ‘A’ for effort. At no point do they experience any anxiety, so their performance isn’t impeded.

Put both groups on their own in private, and neither feels any humiliation, and they both do about equally well.

Now put them in real life. The success-oriented group will investigate how to study most effectively; the busywork-oriented group will try to figure out how many hours of studying they have to put in before other people won’t blame them if they fail, then put in exactly that amount. You’ll find the success-oriented group doing a bit better in school, even though they fail miserably in Dweck-style experiments.

And if an experimenter praises children for working hard, it will make them believe that all the experimenter cares about is their effort. Next problem, when the experimenter poses an impossible question, the child will beat their head against it for no reason, since that’s apparently what the experimenter wants. But if the experimenter praises a child’s ability, then the child will feel like the experimenter really wants them to correctly solve the questions. When the next question proves unsolveable, the child will admit it and expect the experimenter to be disappointed.

I doubt that this is the real phenomenon behind growth mindset, simply because it flatters my own prejudices in much the same way mindset theory flatters everyone else’s. But I think it shows there are a lot of different narratives we could put in this space, all of which would be able to explain some of the experimental results.

V.

I want to end by correcting a very important mistake about growth mindset that Dweck mostly avoids but which her partisans constantly commit egregiously. Take this article, Why A Growth Mindset Is The Only Way To Learn:

[Some people think] you’ll always have a set IQ. You’re only qualified for the career you majored in. You’ll never be any better at playing soccer or dating or taking risks. Your life and character are as certain as a map. The problem is, this mindset will make you complacent, rob your self-esteem and bring meaningful education to a halt.

In short, it’s an intellectual disease and patently untrue.

The article goes on to show how growth mindset proves talent is “a myth”, a claim repeated by growth mindset cheerleader articles like Debunking The Genius Myth and The Learning Myth: Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart and this woman who says we need to debunk the idea of innate talent.

Suppose everything I said in parts I – IV was wrong, and growth mindset is 100% true exactly as written.

This still would not provide an iota of evidence against the idea that innate talent / IQ / whatever is by far the most important factor determining success.

Consider. We know from countless studies that strong religious belief increases your life expectancy, makes you happier, reduces your risk of depression and reduces crime. Clearly believing in, say, Christianity has lots of useful benefits. But no one would dare argue that proves Christianity true. It doesn’t even imply it.

Likewise, mindset theory suggests that believing intelligence to be mostly malleable has lots of useful benefits. That doesn’t mean intelligence really is mostly malleable. Consider, if you will, my horrible graph:

Suppose this is one of Dweck’s experiments on three children. Each has a different level of innate talent, represented by point 1. After they get a growth mindset and have the right attitude and practice a lot, they make it to point 2.

Two things are simultaneously true of this model. First, all of Dweck’s experiments will come out exactly as they did in the real world. Children who adopt a growth mindset and try hard and practice will do better than children who don’t. If many of them are aggregated into groups, the growth mindset group will on average do better than the ability-focused group. Intelligence is flexible, and if you don’t bother practicing than you fail to realize your full potential.

Second, the vast majority of difference between individuals is due to different levels of innate talent. Alice, no matter how hard she practices, will never be as good as Bob. Bob, if he practices very hard, will become better than Carol was at the start, but never as good as Carol if she practices as hard as Bob does. The difference between Alice and Carol is a vast, unbridgeable gap which growth mindset has nothing whatsoever to say about.

Here is a graph which is less terrible because it was not made by me. I have taken it from one of the two other sources I have found on the entire Internet that don’t like growth mindset:

We can argue all day about whether poor students do worse because they have bad health, because they have bad genes, because they have bad upbringings, or because society is fixed against them. We have argued about that all day before here, and it’s been pretty interesting.

But in this case it doesn’t matter. If the only thing that affects success is how much effort you put in, poor kids seem to be putting in a heck of a lot less effort in a surprisingly linear way. But the smart money’s not on that theory.

A rare point of agreement between hard biodeterminists and hard socialists is that telling kids that they’re failing because they just don’t have the right work ethic is a crappy thing to do. It’s usually false and it will make them feel terrible. Behavioral genetics studies show pretty clearly that at least 50% of success at academics and sports is genetic; various sociologists have put a lot of work into proving that your position in a biased society covers a pretty big portion of the remainder. If somebody who was born with the dice stacked against them works very hard, then they might find themselves at A2 above. To deny this in favor of a “everything is about how hard you work” is to offend the sensibilities of sensible people on the left and right alike.

Go back to that 1975 paper above on “Role Of Expectations And Attributions” and look more closely at the proposed intervention to help these poor fixed mindset students:

Twelve extremely helpless children were identified [and tested on how many math problems they could solve in a certain amount of time]…the criterion number was set one above the number he was generally able to complete within the time limit. On these trials, he was stopped one or two problems short of criterion, his performance was compared to the criterion number required, and experimenter verbally attributed the failure to insufficient effort.

So basically, you take the most vulnerable people, set them tasks you know they’ll fail at, then lecture them about how they only failed because of insufficient effort.

Imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever, saying “YOUR PROBLEM IS THAT YOU’RE JUST NOT TRYING NOT TO BE STAMPED ON HARD ENOUGH”.

And maybe this is worth it, if it builds a growth mindset that allows the child to be more successful in school, sports, and in the rest of her life. But you’re not “debunking the myth of genius”. Genius remains super-important, just like conscientiousness and wealth and health and privilege and everything else. No, you’re telling a Noble Lie to the children because you think it’s useful. You can make it palatable by saying “Well, we’re not denying reality, we’re just selectively emphasizing certain parts of reality, but in the end that’s what you’re doing. If you can square that with your moral system, go ahead.

But I remain agnostic. There are some really good – diabolically good? – studies showing that it works in certain lab situations. There’s a lot of excellent research behind it and a lot of brilliant people giving it their support. But there are also other studies showing that it has no long-term real-world effects that we can measure, and others that might (or might not?) contradict its predictions in other ways. I have only the barest of ideas how to square those facts, and I look forward to hearing from anyone who has more.

I haven’t read Dweck’s book, but it’s an obvious next step for anyone who wants to look into these issues further.

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269 Responses to No Clarity Around Growth Mindset

  1. DrBeat says:

    I think you should have a minimum quota of “boot stamping on a human face forever” analogies per week. I want more of them.

  2. The Anonymouse says:

    Useful. I have an ability mindset, and I will continue being successful by avoiding Carol Dweck. At all costs.

  3. Daniel Speyer says:

    Hmm…

    > Indeed, there has recently been some growth mindset studies done on gifted students, at elite colleges, or in high-level athletics. All of these dutifully show that people with fixed mindset respond much worse to whatever random contrived situation the experimenters produce. But thus far nobody has pointed out that there seem to be about as many of these people at, say, Stanford as there are anywhere else. If growth mindset was so great, you would expect fixed mindset people at Stanford to be as rare as, say, people with < 100 IQ are at Stanford. Given that you will search in vain for the latter but have no trouble finding a bunch of the former for your study on how great growth mindset is, it sure looks like IQ is useful but growth mindset isn’t.

    > This is a nothing intervention, the tiniest ghost of an intervention. The experiment had previously involved all sorts of complicated directions and tasks, I get the impression they were in the lab for at least a half hour, and the experimental intervention is changing three short words in the middle of a sentence.

    So how’s this for a theory. Growth mindset is fundamentally ephemeral: more like a mood than a personality trait. When you measure Stanford students, you find out what their mindset is today. This is not correlated to their mindset yesterday, and only weakly correlated to what fraction of days in their lives they’ve had that mindset.

    Does this help explain the data? Has anyone studied it directly?

    • Daniel Speyer says:

      Alternative theory: perhaps growth mindset has a dark side. To succeed at life, you need to Know When To Fold ‘Em, at least with regards to instrumental goals. The people who made it to Stamford are the ones who found the right balance of challenges that were just hard enough to make them grow but not hard enough to drown them, and the prerequisite for that is an accurate view of your own innate talents.

      • 5ghostfist says:

        In other words, ” winners never quit, and quitters never win, but those who never quit and never win are idiots.”

        • Artemium says:

          That is surprisingly good one-sentence summary. Being persistent is a virtue but when you are hit with the sunk-cost situation, persistence is a surest way to disaster.

      • Harald K says:

        There’s that old humanitarian/liberal/libertarian assumption, that people are the best judges of their own interest. Or at least, that no one as a group are worse and making sensible decisions. John Stuart Mill argued against the racists of his day that if the liberated slave was content with growing gourds for himself rather than “nobler products” such as sugar and spices for export, then it was probably because they quite reasonably valued certain things (such as freedom from dependence on traders) highly. Maybe not everyone is a perfectly rational homo economicus, but we are at least equally capable of knowing what we want and making sensible decisions to get there given our circumstances.

        But for that reason, I’m also skeptical of theories that some groups have the “wrong mindset”. Isn’t mindset a lot about making sensible decisions in our circumstances? So if some people seem ill-equipped to handle frustration, maybe that’s a tradeoff in their mindset, one that lets them take more advantage when the road is smooth. And those who cope comparatively well with frustration, well, maybe that’s because they feel a lot of it.

        • haishan says:

          John Stuart Mill argued against the racists of his day that if the liberated slave was content with growing gourds for himself rather than “nobler products” such as sugar and spices for export, then it was probably because they quite reasonably valued certain things (such as freedom from dependence on traders) highly.

          Important context. (CW: fairly long and super racist, albeit in a highfalutin’ 1850s way.)

          I will actually attempt to defend Carlyle here, because if I can’t defend a pro-slavery screed, what have I been hanging out with neoreactionaries for? We humans are complicated and have complicated methods of measuring value; as a side effect, our preferences can be contradictory or antisocial. If I’m a heroin addict, I have a short-term preference to use heroin so as not to feel sick, but this clashes with my longer-term goal of being alive to meet my grandchildren. And if I prefer to get loaded and bash the holy heck out of random people’s cars, well, that’s a legitimate preference, but it’s one I sure as hell shouldn’t be allowed to act on. (It may also conflict with my goal of being alive more than a couple of months from now.)

          Carlyle points out that if all the West Indian blacks do nothing but grow and eat pumpkins, they’re kind of screwed if something wipes out the pumpkins: “Our own white or sallow Ireland, sluttishly starving, from age to age, on its act-of-parliament ‘freedom,’ was hitherto the flower of mismanagement among the nations; but what will this be to a negro Ireland, with pumpkins themselves fallen scarce like potatoes?” But this is a minor point compared to the fact that Carlyle believes that working is pro-social, indeed perhaps the most pro-social thing you can do. If the West Indian black won’t work naturally, Carlyle says, he must be compelled to do so for the good of himself and of society.

          I would suggest that a similar argument could be used for mindset. People with fixed mindsets may be trading off future success for present laziness in a way they don’t even realize, much like the West Indian pumpkin-eater; much more importantly, it may be that a fixed mindset is inherently anti-social. Even if talent is important and immutable, there are ways to improve various things; therefore, we should promote a mindset that encourages improving those things.

          • Deiseach says:

            You are really going to quote Carlyle giving my nation a kicking and expect me not to retort? 🙂

            Ah, the stupid, lazy, useless Irish, content to gnaw on potatoes and so screwed when the blight hit – unlike the virtuous, hard-working English who were thrifty, clean, reverent, and dined on the roast beef of Old England.

            Er – what’s that about the Corn Laws? And if the Irish labouring poor subsist on potatoes, the English labouring poor subsist on bread? And a bad harvest means starvation in England as it does in Ireland?

            Soon afterwards, repercussions of the 10 April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, compounded by four preceding big eruptions, caused the 1816 Year Without a Summer and caused famine by disastrously reducing crop yields.

            So what sluttish mismanagement in the face of natural disaster reduced the English poor to beggary and hunger, Mr Carlyle? How was it the virtuous English could be as hungry as the rascally Irish? Could it possibly be not the effect of national characters and their respective flaws, but political jiggery-pokery intentionally sacrificing the masses to the interests of the few and keeping a certain class (the large landlords in England, the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland) in power? And that if you spend centuries rendering people poor, ignorant and unsuccessful, this will tend to mean that they become poor, ignorant and unsuccessful?

            This reminds me of the quote to the effect that it was good of God to arrange for Mr and Mrs Carlyle to marry one another, and so make only two, instead of four, people miserable.

            It’s also interesting to see, in the context of discussing racism, that there have indeed been times when the Irish were not considered to be white or rather, I should say, “White”.

          • Harald K says:

            Whatever preferences and time preferences you have, you arrive at them in basically the same way as a rich man, or a slave, or a heroin addict – that’s the humanistic side of homo economicus that Pearl and Levy argue for, after Mill.

            Yeah, maybe it’s shortsighted of the slaves to just grow pumpkins for themselves. Maybe the pumpkin blight wipes them all out.

            But so? Maybe the ex-slaves think that’s a risk worth taking. Maybe they think “that’s OK, I’ll take that risk as long as I never have to work for a white man on a sugar plantation again, whip or no whip!”.

            You might disagree with their preference, but can you honestly say you wouldn’t have made the same choice in their stead? No. So you can’t really say their preference is wrong. You can maybe try to educate the ex-slaves about the horrors of monoculture, but if they reject that as sneaky propaganda to make them work in plantations again – you can’t blame them. You can try to help them make a good choice, but the choice must stay theirs.

            But the heroin addict proves that argument wrong, maybe you would say? No, insofar as it is about time preferences, it is no different. You have a time preference yourself, and while yours may be longer, it’s not infinite either. If some long-lived alien came and enslaved you for the good of your descendants, you’d be justified in being upset – even if in the aliens’ eyes, you are only marginally less shortsighted than the heroin addict seeking his next fix.

            Indeed, I think that in helping heroin addicts, it’s necessary to admit that they aren’t dumb, they didn’t necessarily end up with those horribly short time preferences through any mechanism very different from how you arrived at yours.

            Time preferences are hard. If you actually have a short time preference, you can’t rationally argue yourself into getting a longer one. This is both a philosophical truth, and an empirical observation that addiction researchers have made.

            But I don’t think it’s necessary to invoke your own preferences, time or otherwise, to say that getting loaded and bashing the holy heck out of random people’s cars is wrong. Moral judgments are not (in most moral systems) about preferences.

            The addiction researcher who made the above point about the futility of reasoning yourself into a longer time preference, also thought that an escape from that addict’s dilemma was that you could choose to see patience as a goal in itself (a kind of virtue ethics), quite independent from the “goal” of getting heroin free.

          • haishan says:

            Deiseach: I’d have been disappointed if you didn’t retort! (Note that of course my interpretation of Carlyle’s views do not necessarily reflect my own views.)

            Harald: We agree that Corner Man shouldn’t be allowed to act on his preference to do something morally wrong, despite the fact that he also acquired it in the usual way. On various ethical accounts, it’s similarly morally wrong (though perhaps not to the same degree!) to be lazy, or to use heroin, or to hold a certain mindset.

            I mostly agree with you; I’m on record as being skeptical of “wrong mindset”/”wrong preferences” arguments. But at the same time there are really good reasons to care about people’s mindsets and preferences, and even try to improve them.

          • Caelestis says:

            When haishan says

            If I’m a heroin addict, I have a short-term preference to use heroin so as not to feel sick, but this clashes with my longer-term goal of being alive to meet my grandchildren

            I think this misrepresents the way addicts and non-addicts process these preferences. I don’t think the preferences are at conflict, just possibly weighed against each other. By that I meant that these preferences aren’t really opposed or mutually exclusive, people don’t disregard one and choose the other, people just allocate their limited preference-points (for lack of a better term) differently to all sorts of options, and you picked two at random. From that example it is clear that you see those two options as related, but it isn’t clear that when making decisions people necessarily make very good connections between things like that all the time. Testing for temporal-preference when you ask things like “Would you rather have $10 now or $20 in a week?” sorta falsely presents the choice as if all sorts of discounting differences involve choices between comparable things, as if there are always these dollar amounts. That sort of question is a super standard test/index in addiction research (delay-discounting), but it is used to measure the trait of ‘impulsivity’ in general and might not be a good model for overall decision making. Your dollar amounts for heroin now and grandchildren later may be different than a heroin addicts, but it isn’t clear that addicts or really anyone else assign a dollar amount on any level in the first place. That sorta plays into your ‘everyone has their own preference thing’, but I think the distinction is important.

            This is specifically relevant to something Harald K says

            If you actually have a short time preference, you can’t rationally argue yourself into getting a longer one. This is both a philosophical truth, and an empirical observation that addiction researchers have made.

            which I’m not entirely sure is an accurate representation of prevailing attitudes in addiction research, re: time-preference or time-discounting or delay-discounting or temporal-impulsivity or whatever else you prefer. Specifically a pretty big issue in the field is whether people start out with a short time-preference and then get addicted to things like heroin, or if the heroin “teaches” people to adopt a short time-preference. That in and of itself doesn’t mean that one can think one’s self into a longer time-preference, but you can definitely manipulate the way people discount things. To reference the example used by haishan, if you reorient a heroin addict by specifically telling them “Heroin now or grandchildren later”, then you force the comparison that might otherwise be unclear or oblique, and people are more likely to pick grand-children.

            Edited for Clarity

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            But this is a minor point compared to the fact that Carlyle believes that working is pro-social, indeed perhaps the most pro-social thing you can do. If the West Indian black won’t work naturally, Carlyle says, he must be compelled to do so for the good of himself and of society.

            Ah, idle hands.

          • Deiseach says:

            I think Carlyle’s view breaks down into (a) it is good for slaves to be made to work, because that teaches them virtues of thrift, perseverance, independence, self-reliance, and gives them self-respect and self-esteem.

            Which is fine, but not much good if you’re a slave who is going to be worked until you’re incapable of labour or die, whichever comes first. Slaves who are independent and full of self-esteem are the kind who are troublesome and need to be kept under strict control or killed off. Also, the benefits of self-reliance etc. accrue to the slave-owners, since if the slaves work hard to earn money to buy their own freedom (and the freedom of their families), that’s a bonus for the slave-owner who gets extra labour plus a payment at the end of it.

            So the second part is (b) the labour of the slaves is of benefit to society. Which is pretty much naked self-interest; so what if you are enslaving fellow humans, carting them hundreds and thousands of miles from their native cultures and lands, and using them as beasts of burden? You get to make money, society gets sugar, cotton, tobacco and coffee, and we’re all pretty much in the case of Omelas, where we know the Nice Things come from the suffering of another but it’s in our interests that those others should continue to suffer.

          • Harald K says:

            Caelestis: I did not mean to suggest it’s the prevailing attitude of addiction researchers. I mostly keep track of what’s going on in my own country.

            The man I keep referring to with regard to rationality and time preferences is Ole-Jørgen Skog, late sociology professor at the university of Oslo. I know at least some other in the field share that view on rationality and time preferences, because I found it in a festschrift for him.

            if you reorient a heroin addict by specifically telling them “Heroin now or grandchildren later”, then you force the comparison that might otherwise be unclear or oblique

            Most drug addicts, and all sorts of addicts, have at one time or another tried to tell themselves this or something very close to it. Society, from policemen to social workers to everyone, also try to force reorientation by telling such things. But it just doesn’t work very well.

          • Caelestis says:

            Harold K, jai vorstor lit norsk, but my German and English are much (much) better, so I tend to spend more time reading things that a come out of English/German-speaking countries. That being said I am vaguely aware of Ole-Jørgen Skog, especially because I do alcohol abuse/addiction research, but I land more on the Neuroscience/Psychiatry side of things, so his sociological research is definitely not something I follow extremely closely.

            Having not read the Festschrift (schönes deutsches Wort) I can’t comment, specifically on those essays yet, but that seems interesting and is definitely on my reading list now. Nonetheless from what I know of Ole-Jørgen Skog he was pretty against the rational addiction theories, which is I think what you’re saying. By that I think he means roughly what I said in regards to the delayed-discounting “$10 now or $20” in a week (he actually has specifically critiqued that form of test). My understanding is that he argued that addicts are inherently irrational and (as you said) “have a short time preference” so they “can’t rationally argue [themselves] into getting a longer one[s]”, but only in as much as arguing themselves into longer ones is an explicit, rational, cognitive effort. What I mean is that I think Skog leaned towards an addiction-is-learned model, and so would (maybe possibly) endorse the idea that you can’t ARGUE yourself to a longer time-discounting but you can train or reorient yourself to a longer time-discounting. I get this mostly from his book Getting Hooked: Rationality and Addiction which I just checked out, and from some of his articles on learned alcohol abuse in Scandinavian countries.

            As far as society working to reorient addicts, I’m not sure that society is doing a very good job of it. One fairly effective campaign to “reorient” addicts is the anti-smoking one. Beating the steady tattoo of “Hey, just so you know, cancer” over and over and over has been reasonably effective. To be clear I think it takes more to reorient someone to different time-scales than general disapproval of an activity, and I think anti-smoking campaigns make a good concrete case that other anti-drug campaigns don’t. There is definitely a pervasive societal “Heroin is bad” attitude, but there isn’t the same sort of easily-associated-and-often-repeated consequence for other drugs.

            I guess we aren’t really disagreeing substantively on most of these points. I appreciate the discussion though, and the book recommendation.
            Edit: I was going to fix my misspelling of ‘litt’ above, but I think it helps make my point.

        • Tracy W says:

          @haishan: The simple answer to Carlyle is that forcing people to work, not just for a short period of time, but their entire life, is far more anti-social than that person not working. I mean, you have to take people away from doing something directly useful to set them to whipping people, and stopping people from escaping, and there’s typically a whole system of violence set up to try to deter slave revolts (eg IIRC under Roman law if a slave killed their master all the slaves in that household got killed, which is rather horrible and wasteful). Whereas if people just don’t want to work, well, they’ll be poor and eventually either die out or decide to work on their own accord.

        • Jaskologist says:

          JS Mill, as a man of his times, makes some poor arguments, but fortunately we now know better. Thanks to our widening circles of empathy, we can clearly see the holes in his logic.

          If the liberated slave is allowed to choose what to produce based solely on his own values, there is a very real chance the he might choose not to deliver those gourds to a gay wedding when requested. This cannot be allowed to stand.

          Checkmate, Mill. Advantage: Carlyle.

    • Deiseach says:

      I’m glad for the explanation, because I’ve seen the phrase “growth mindset” but never understood what it was. My notion of it was that it was all about “every day, in every way, I am getting better and better” and that it inculcated constant striving: don’t stand still, don’t settle, keep reaching, keep working, you can go from the log cabin to the White House!

      I can see why politicians like it and wouldn’t speak against it; it says nothing about “some races/classes are just smarter/better than others” while at the same time saying nothing about “fixed social inequity means some races/classes are oppressed”. Work hard, stick to it, and anyone can be Prime Minister or President!

      • Xenophon says:

        “…Stick close to your desk
        and never go to sea
        and you may be the ruler of the Queen’s Navy!”

        with apologies to G&S

        • Deiseach says:

          Or take the short-cut and marry a rich attorney’s elderly, ugly daughter? 🙂

          • Salem says:

            Hey, don’t insult his fiancee. She could almost pass for 43, in the dusk, with the light behind her.

      • Magnap says:

        Minor nitpick: “I am getting better” can be interpreted in two ways. First through an ability mindset, e.g. “every day, I am (through no action of my own) getting more intelligent”. Second through a growth mindset: “every day I am working and thus improving my situation”. Grammatically, the difference is between the indicative and subjunctive mood.

    • Jordan D. says:

      I like this.

      It’s pretty obvious that, in most cases, working hard will get you further than not working hard. It’s also pretty obvious that some people work harder than others on average. But I don’t think it’s obvious that people consistently put the same quantum of effort into different tasks.

      If I’ve woken up after four hours of sleep and I have a day of interminable lectures ahead of me, I will probably coast. Firstly, I’m tired! Secondly, I know that some lax note-taking for a day has negligable detriment in the long term. Anecdotally, it seems to me that this attitude is determined at the outset of my day and is only altered through a sudden, exciting occurance or intake of sugar/caffeine.

      On the other hand, if I’m going to be meeting with a load of people I respect or competing in an event or something, I will wake up full of determination and ready to go the extra mile in everything I do!

      Obviously those are extremes, but I think everyone has a daily variance in how much slack they’re willing to cut themselves. That said, this still doesn’t seem like a powerful enough effect to explain that anomalous chart. Mephestophiles is looking pretty plausible!

  4. Will says:

    In my experience with tutoring, higher IQ seems to correlate with “ability” mindset to the extent that a lot of smart people never get challenged, and so breeze through on their ability. However, as soon as they hit any kind of obstacle, they fall apart- suddenly they aren’t good enough to continue. They can’t do it, they quit.

    In an extreme example, I’ve helped with tutoring a home-school kid whose parents pulled him out of 8th grade because he was failing everything all of a sudden. He encountered hard material and gave up completely. He told me he was too stupid for 8th grade.

    On the other hand,some less intelligent kids probably do get used to the cycle of finding something difficult, working hard, and then learning it. So I imagine talent might be inversely correlated with growth mindset, but the effect of growth mindset might well be real- if you give up rather than work on hard problems you are unlikely to seek out real challenges.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks, that’s an excellent point and I’ve added it to the article.

      • Gbdub says:

        As a “gifted” student who could mostly coast to As all through high school, I had a similar experience of hitting a wall in my sophomore year of college. (My mom described something very similar)

        But it wasn’t because I thought that all success was predicated on innate talent that could never be improved, it was that I just had never encountered anything academically challenging enough to force me to learn good study habits. Once I forced myself to study harder, I started doing well again (and belief in my own innate ability was a big confidence boost encouraging me to work harder).

        If anything, this strikes me not as an argument for ignoring innate ability, but rather acknowledging it, and making sure innately talented people get challenged early on so they ingrain good habits for dealing with adversity.

        While I can see how “innate talent is all that matters, so if you don’t have it you’re bound to be a loser forever” could be toxic, that doesn’t imply we should wave away talent. Rather, I think the message ought to be “innate talent matters, but no one is perfect and what is virtuous is making the best version of yourself that you can. Therefore, work hard at improving – if you are not working hard, you are not challenging yourself as much as you could, even if you are generally successful, and should consider applying to a bigger challenge”.

        • Anthony says:

          My experience is very similar to yours, except for the “forced myself to study harder” bit. I managed to force myself to do enough work to graduate, but by college I’d had enough setbacks socially as well as academically that I was pretty depressed, and had lots of trouble motivating myself to do things I didn’t directly enjoy.

          • Caelestis says:

            I appreciate the fact that someone else had this experience. It made me very happy to see your post, which was kinda weird.

        • Hear Hear says:

          YES. This is precisely the issue I have with the conclusions of the growth mindset crowd as an either/or proposition. Not having had the chance to adjust to small “failures” due to ability will nearly almost always lead to a “whoa, what now?!” moment once a roadblock is reached. It doesn’t mean that high ability people don’t want to work at growth, but rather, that growth has come too easily given the circumstances until then.

        • illuminati initiate says:

          This is basically what I’m going through right now, including the sophomore year of college part.

          • Gbdub says:

            Well, then I’ll add one thing I did poorly and one I did well, as advice.

            Because things were generally easy for me, I didn’t build very strong relationships with professors (I rarely had to go to office hours). As a result I probably missed out on some opportunities for research positions and such.

            On the other hand, I had a bit more free time, and got to take advantage of a lot of clubs and such that you just don’t have access to after you graduate.

          • illuminati initiate says:

            Thanks for the advice.

        • Meg says:

          I’m having this experience right now too. I think I’m just about on the other side of it, but one weird mental quirk I think I managed to acquire is a total unhooking of effort from achievement. The thought that I could do better on assignments by actually doing the textbook work was novel for me. I was stunned the first time I just pomodoro’d a few hours of just looking over the reading and found the ensuing tests easier. (Sounds dumb, but true.) I still don’t have the sense that I’m getting anything out of studying– I just have to push myself through it and tell myself it’ll help. I don’t know, maybe that’s the feeling of most people with regards to studying, though!

        • Desertopa says:

          This was also more or less my experience, but I should note that some of my teachers did try to “challenge” me, and I resented their efforts, because while I fully understood their intentions, they failed to grasp that they were attempting to “challenge” me by adding additional work on top of the pile of numbing busywork I already had to deal with from all my combined classes, and I didn’t have the motivation left over to address with any enthusiasm projects which were intended to fully engage my reasoning abilities. If they had coordinated to replace the busywork with work that challenged me, rather than adding it to the work I already had, it probably would have been a great deal more meaningful.

    • DensityDuck says:

      I had a similar experience. In high school I’d do my calculus homework in the class right before; in my first freshman semester I had to drop a math class because I couldn’t understand what was going on. (I re-took it the next semester and passed.)

      • Murphy says:

        I had sort of the opposite experience. I always breezed through math classes, for basic arithmetic I didn’t even really need to think about it, the answer would just seem obvious.

        Ditto programming.

        I did occasionally hit things I didn’t understand, where suddenly things just weren’t working or making sense that would cause me to stumble for a short time like the switch from real numbers to algebra, the switch to calculus or the switch from normal languages to Haskell and prolog.

        But because I knew I was “good” at these things I would just assume there was some little moment of enlightenment that I’d failed to grasp yet. I have strong memories of relaxedly sitting up with a Haskell book until 5.30 in the morning until I had the “of course!” moment. Ditto calculus, ditto probability, ditto… you get the idea.

        At the time it never occurred to me that it was beyond me, after all: some of these people who I knew I could outperform were “getting it”.

        Typically within a couple of weeks I’d be back at the front and giving tutorials to those still struggling.

        One thing the experiment leaves out is realistic perceptions of how your peers are doing.

        Failing at something that you know literally everyone else in your peer group is failing at brings no shame.

        Failing at something that bob and a couple of others managed while almost everyone else failed when you know you can do better than bob can drive you to push harder.

        Failing at something that everyone else breezes through that you can’t understand at all can make you believe it’s something you just fundamentally lack the ability to handle and give up.

        As such I’d be curious whether the ability/effort experiments would turn out the same changing perceptions of who in your peer group has managed a task.

        • Deiseach says:

          I’ve sort of had both experiences: for most subjects, particularly English, it was so easy for me that yes, I coasted by on ability and didn’t learn the good study habits. I, too, have done the “only did the homework the class before” bit. I’ve also done the “writing four different pieces, including my own, the class before for classmates who begged me to help them since they were stumped by the assignment” 🙂

          So when I needed to dig deep and work at things, it was tough for me to overcome the “but I should be able to get this without all that work!” mindset.

          On the other hand, mathematics is my bête noire. I hit my limit there at age eight, when I was literally crying in class over a problem that I just could not get while everyone else handled it. And, since I was good at my other subjects, I got the “you’re just not trying hard enough” treatment from the teachers and my family.

          I did try. I bashed my brains against it, and I never could and never can get my head around maths (were it not for my Victorian-era grandmother who taught me the way she’d learned to do long division, instead of how we were learning it in school, I still would not be able to do long division). I do not have that ability and worse, the amount of ability I do have is so small, all the hard work in the world is not going to get me above “scraped a D in Pass Maths in the Leaving”.

          Hard work and sticking to it is important, but so is native talent. I’m 5′ 4″ and (ignoring the fact that I have no hand-eye co-ordination and two left feet), no matter how good I am at basketball, I’ll be out-performed by an opponent who is 5′ 8″ or taller (unless I go the “play the man, not the ball” route and clatter into her every minute of the game).

          Some things – a lot of things – hard work and practice will get you over. Some things you need the gift for.

          • Harald K says:

            I did try. I bashed my brains against it, and I never could and never can

            Am I a bad person for seeing this as a challenge? All the more when you tell about your grandmother’s method working for you.

            When it comes to helping people with specific disabilities (something which, remember, the IQ model doesn’t really leave room for), pedagogics has actually made progress. We are as a society far better at helping dyslectics than we were 70 years ago. Not to mention what we’ve done for people with stuff like cerebral palsy.

          • Murphy says:

            Hello fellow irish person.

            Oh I’m familiar with that side of the coin too. Apparently on my first day of baby-infants in primary school at age 4 I walked up to the teacher and declared that I didn’t understand Irish and that wasn’t far from my peak on that score.

            I tried, I cried, I spent probably 50% of all effort during my years in school on irish, passed pass level irish.

            It probably didn’t help that it’s taught pretty terribly compared to other languages. (nobody even thought to actually tell me what “Bhí” “an” “na” and “tá” actually meant for the first 7 years)

            Since I was good in other areas I got stuck in the honors irish class until near the end of leaving cert, switching to pass was such a blessed relief.

            I experienced the same frustration and tears trying to rote-learn reams of irish pros that you did with math.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            (were it not for my Victorian-era grandmother who taught me the way she’d learned to do long division, instead of how we were learning it in school, I still would not be able to do long division)

            Please, please instruct me on, or give me key words to search for, that method! I have only vague ginger-scented memories of my grandmother’s addition and subtraction. “Well, the expense will be something between X and Y, and better we estimate it too high than too low, and if we get it to >X1 there’s no point in going further because we only have X1$ anyway.” Okay, that’s the semi-Vulcan translation of the first step.

            I do know that the following steps began at the left side, adding the hundreds before the tens before the ones. None of this “carry and borrow” stuff, which made big mistakes more likely than small mistakes.

          • Deiseach says:

            Hello, other Irish person!

            I agree, the First Official Language is taught dreadfully; it’s no wonder most people don’t have a word of it despite years of schooling. I think it was a very bad application of the immersive method; nobody explained things to you (like vocabulary) because you were supposed to Just Pick It Up by using it (the way you’d learned English). This is not even taking into which dialect you were learning and which dialect your teacher had learned; I have Munster Irish because that’s my part of the country (and we did some Ulster Irish for the second choice book in Leaving Cert) so I have a terrible time trying to understand Connacht Irish, which seems to be the standard used in most government versions. My nephews are in De Midlands and learning Connacht Irish, which means when my sister and I try to help them out with speech practice, we’re running into “No, that’s – what did you say? How did you pronounce that? I have no idea what that word is supposed to be and your teacher is wrong, bhíos-sa is completely correct as a verb form” on both sides 🙂

            Which means everyone learned things off by rote which they didn’t understand, grammar was never properly explained (I still get confused about which of the five declensions any particular noun belongs to) and I swear I have a better grasp of French than my own (ostensibly) native language.

            On the other hand, since my father’s side of the family has a weird quirky knack for language, I was able to understand more than I could speak, and since my father liked teaching me odd things, this led to occasions such as one time in Sixth Class, there weren’t enough of the new textbooks so they had to use some of the old textbooks, and I was the only one in the class who was able to read the old-fashioned Gaelic typeface they were printed in (rather than the new, Latin alphabet books) 🙂

            What Irish language teaching needs is:

            (a) Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary.
            (b) Grammar – and I don’t mean shoving “GRAIMÉAR GAEILGE na mBRÁITHRE CRÍOSTAÍ” at the pupils, I mean explaining the parts of speech in English first before telling them “And now, Irish has five declensions of nouns. Yes, Donnelly? What’s a declension? Don’t be a smart-arse, turn to page 36 and learn off by heart those lists of prepositional pronouns”.

          • Murphy says:

            *shudder* That account if bringing back bad memories and is an utterly accurate description or how irish is taught.

            Add to that, my GF grew up in a gaeltacht and when her father tried to speak to the teacher in irish all he got was a blank look. The standard of irish teaching is far bellow that of every other language taught and far bellow that of every other subject.

        • Jaskologist says:

          When my sister was entering college, I gave her the following advice: “Everybody is faking it; nobody really knows what they are doing. You are easily smarter than 95% of everybody else. Therefore, if they can muddle through, you can muddle through even better.” She found that “oddly comforting.”

          I do believe that hard work and tenacity are essential. But then, I also believe that they will pay off for me specifically because I am much smarter than most people, and so far the universe has richly rewarded this mindset. Not sure where that puts me on the ability/growth spectrum, but if I had to choose a camp, I’d go with growth, if only because that’s the factor we know how to change. Until we know how to boost IQ (beyond “feed your kids Omega-3s,” which I do), I’m going to target the area I can affect.

          • I do believe that hard work and tenacity are essential. But then, I also believe that they will pay off for me specifically because I am much smarter than most people

            This.

            Has anybody tried to investigate the extent to which “belief in growth midet being helpful” correlates with IQ? Because I’ll bet it’s positive and strong.

            I mean,.of course hard work and persistence pays off for me – because my IQ amplifies the hell out of the investment. For a dimwit, not so much.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            “Has anybody tried to investigate the extent to which “belief in growth midet being helpful” correlates with IQ?”

            Doesn’t “belief that growth mindset is helpful” sort of collapse to “growth mindset”?

            If so, then the study cited above showing growth mindset has a negative correlation with SAT scores suggests it correlates negatively with ability, probably because people who have ability have a personal-pride incentive to say it’s important.

          • Elissa says:

            (Lol no block quote, can’t cut and paste anything because tabbed out of UWorld)

            About the negative SAT correlation– it looks like the study was done on Stanford undergrads, who are already selected for a certain level of good-student qualities, right? Berkson’s paradox where, if both smarts and growth mindset make you more likely to be at Stanford, Stanford kids are more likely to be either smart or have growth mindset than both?

          • Princess Stargirl says:

            Doesn’t “belief that growth mindset is helpful” sort of collapse to “growth mindset”?

            Pretty sure the answer is definitely no. I had never looked arefully at the evidence so right until I read this article I thought growth mindset was very useful.

            However I also thought the “growth mindset” was basically false. And that innate ability was the significantly more important factor than hard work. Especially given that “how working hard feels” is itself probably genetic.

      • vjl110 says:

        I had exactly the same experience.

        Assumed I could just “figure it out during the exam”, and that worked great all the way through high-school. Scored below random chance on my first University math exam and had to drop the class.

        That said… I am definitely in the “ability” group, but I responded by actually trying and did fine when I retook the course.

    • Harald K says:

      I am skeptical of large groups having maladaptive mindsets, so I like this theory.

      But I’d like to also point out that the people who you know score high on IQ tests are a subset of those who would, and probably the most ability-oriented of the lot.

      If you (would) score high on IQ tests but think ability is overrated, probably you don’t go around boasting of your high IQ as much as someone very ability-oriented would.

    • Nathan says:

      I noticed that you had an example in mind for the first type of person, but had to speculate as to the existence of the second type of person.

      • loki says:

        As a data point, I’m quite likely to be in the second category.

        Obviously there is no way of proving a person would score highly on an IQ test if they’ve never taken one, but I can say that multiple educators throughout my life encouraged me to take one in the belief that I would achieve an impressive score.

        I think my score would be lower than they anticipated (because I have a particular weakness in certain kinds of maths that, from example questions, seem to be popular in IQ tests) but still higher than average.

        But I don’t want to take an IQ test. Partly because I believe that in my particular case, my innate ability in terms of IQ is not the important factor for my success. My most important factor will be ability to treat and control success-jeopardizing mental illness symptoms.

        I wonder if that skill is innate? I mean obviously mental illness varies, but could there be an innate factor that says, given the same degree of crazy, one person will cope with it better than another? It seems obvious to me that there is a factor of ‘good at cope’ but not obvious how much of it is learned or hard work or whatever.

    • Lambert says:

      Yeah. In the last year, Maths has got really hard and learning it is significantly less fun than reading the comments on SSC. Ozy also mentioned this effect once.

    • Svejk says:

      Will’s comment comports with my own experience. Additionally, it appears that these experiments are performed primarily on children and students – I suspect that the greater difference between ‘growth’ and ‘fixed’ mindsets would appear in response to the challenges of adulthood. I also do not believe a growth mindset is incompatible with a significant degree of determinism. I recall a post Scott did several months ago which touched on the idea of being ‘the best’ versus being ‘the best version of yourself’. I think the latter life-perspective is how a growth mindset more often manifests itself. Alice making it to A2 is a greater success, in this view, than Carol’s output at C1. This is indeed the gist of the ‘parable of the talents’, and is quite influential in society [interestingly, the parable suggests that it is the least talented who are most likely to bury their talents]. I strongly suspect that it has salutary effects on human happiness, especially at midlife and beyond.

    • Swanknasty says:

      I’m not sure that’s the same thing. It seems like you’re referring to “grit.” Fortunately, “grit” also shows either no relationship or a slight negative relationship to IQ.

    • Mike says:

      It seems to me that the problem is less one of a growth mindset than that it takes time to adjust to being challenged.

      One group of people has never been challenged in their lives, the other has been challenged every day. The gifted person entering college handles a challenge about as well as the normal person did entering sixth grade. I think most people who have played t-ball remember the kid who cried at his first loss.

    • lunatic says:

      In my experience teaching, “appearing talented to friends” is very important to just about everyone, even if “doing well at school” is not. That is, if they think they can do something they’ll most likely just do it, and if they think they can’t they’ll go to amusingly extreme lengths to look like that’s what they wanted to do anyway.

      The students’ “can/can’t” estimation is often more accurate than not, though I’ve seen more exceptions of the “assume can’t but with a bit of concentration can” than the other way around, though not with any obvious correlation to ability.

      Two ideas regarding study results:
      First, mentioned a bit here. Bright students obviously tend to assume “can” more often, and so often just do work on their own, whereas struggling students more often take some coaxing and guidance to get going. Therefore, they are simply better practised at struggling and not always getting a result.

      Second, similar to Scott’s explanation. Some students include teachers and authority figures in the “people they want to appear talented to”, while others don’t. The latter category are fine admitting to experimenters they don’t have the ability to do some really hard question, while the former are not, and will engage in the evasive behaviour that most people seem to do when they know that engaging with the question will demonstrate their lack of ability.

    • 1212 says:

      Maybe high-iq people are high-iq people because they are already pushing themselves

  5. Cole says:

    Another way of interpreting Table 2 in section II of your article is also in favor of the point you made about kids trying to please the experimenter.

    The ‘helpless’ kids all tend towards giving what could be considered the correct answers to the experimenter’s question of ‘why did you do worse.’ They either said they weren’t good enough, which was correct because the experimenters made sure the questions were impossible for them. Or they said the questions had gotten much harder, which is also clearly true.

    The ‘mastery oriented’ kids seemed to all split evenly among different answers, and had far more kids giving no reason at all. They all seemed to collectively shrug and come up with any semi plausible reason that didn’t blame themselves.

    For any study that uses responses from kids I feel like it would be useful to first measure how willing they are to lie to experimenters.

    • Deiseach says:

      That’s the bit I hated reading about the experiments: the problems were intentionally impossible to solve, or the bar was set deliberately high and worse, the child was stopped before completion and blamed for not winning, when set up to fail by the experimenters.

      How on earth did they think this was going to influence the children? If I expected that I should be able to solve a problem, because my experience up to now has been that all the tests I got in school were solvable, then of course I’m going to think I’m stupid if I can’t solve it. The idea that this is a cheat and nobody can solve it wouldn’t enter my head. And for children who have been able to solve problems by understanding them (rather than by, as I did with maths classes, blindly learning off formulae I didn’t understand and plugging them in like a trained parrot), then they will blame their failure on lack of intelligence.

      It could equally be that the ‘mastery-oriented’ children were accustomed to not understanding what they were doing, simply going by rote, and if they failed so what? It was the same as every other test, they didn’t expect to know what they were doing, so they weren’t discouraged.

      • Gbdub says:

        Yes, it does seem odd to count it as a negative when children CORRECTLY identify a problem as impossible and stop wasting effort on it.

  6. It’s a well-known fact (see “An Ornament to His Profession” by Charles L. Harness) that the Devil can be summoned by rewinding a tape of the Lord’s Prayer while standing inside a model of a cyclopentane molecule.

  7. Dennis Ochei says:

    Consider. We know from countless that strong religious belief…

    Countless what??

    lol, idk your policy on us pointing out typos so im gonna just do it. Feel free to delete this comment.

  8. glorkvorn says:

    It seems like there’s two competing questions here:

    a) What is the optimal strategy for teaching/coaching children, in order to maximize their success as measured by standardized tests?

    b) What is objectively true in determining what makes students successful?

    It could very well be the case that a student’s success is determined *mostly* by genetics but also a little bit by hard work, and that the best way to make them work hard is to lie to them and tell them that hard work is the only thing that matters (a lot of psychological studies seem to involve blatantly lying to children). So we should forget about the truth, and lie to our kids to make them work hard. Except that’s only true if the *only* thing we care about is success and not, say, the children’s happiness.

    Personally, I think that one of the most important keys to happiness is to learn to accept your flaws, and I’ll trade a small amount of success for a large amount of happiness any day.

    • Viliam Búr says:

      It’s not just a dilemma between success and happiness. Even if we ignore the happiness part and focus only on success… a part of success is doing the projects you are actually able to finish.

      As an example, let’s suppose that maximum hard work is equivalent to +20 IQ points. So if you have a child with IQ 120, and you make them believe that hard work is all that matters, and they will work hard… then they will be able to succeed at level-140 tasks. The problem is, if they literally believe that hard work is all that matters, and if they (correctly) reflect that their work ethics is superior, instead of the level-140 tasks they will probably choose some level-200 tasks… and fail. So now the conseqence of the “Noble Lie” is failure.

  9. Nathan says:

    I feel like “ability” is way too broad a concept to be useful in this context. The attitudes and attributes that lead to you being good at sports (maybe high pain tolerance, motor skills, a love of being outdoors and active) are not going to be very useful in academics. And even within academics there’s a huge amount of variation. Math ability vs language ability, or memorisation power vs problem solving.

    I feel like the growth mindset idea has a hard time explaining the existence of people who work hard and excel in one area and shrug and accept mediocrity in another. Or people who are effortlessly brilliant in one area and struggle hard to achieve competence in another.

    • William O. B'Livion says:

      IDK, when dealing with academics I’ve always found a high pain tolerance to be useful.

    • Countless says:

      On this topic, have there been studies using other types of tasks (reading a difficult book, or playing Super Hexagon, or something) or do they all just use math/logic questions?

  10. William O. B'Livion says:

    Working hard at something you suck at will only make you suck less. I am 5’9, and I have a lazy eye that gets worse as I get tired, which means my depth perception changes as a function of sleep, stress and exertion.

    What this means is that there simply is *no* amount of effort that would have gotten me to the point where I would have made the cut for my highschool basketball team and gotten to boink cheerleaders. *NONE*.

    Or Football (my entrance physical for the Marines put me at 129 pounds. Yeah, I wasn’t big enough to be the tackling dummy).

    One thing that bothers me is that you use the word “success” but never tell us what that is.

    In todays society if you pay attention and work hard you *can* be a success for values of success that are “Own a modest home, a late model car and not a huge amount of debt”, but not “own a 3500 square foot house in a tony neighborhood and have a late model luxury car”.

    Everyone (even me, sort of) wants to be in the later category. Of course for me it’s not a 3500 square foot house in a nice neighborhood, it’s land up in the mountains I can go shooting on, and it’s not a late model car, it’s a UJ100 land cruiser set up for traveling. But I’m weird.

    There are *many* paths half way up the mountain that are amenable to hard work and require not more than a modicum of talent.

    Resilience, at least in the people I’ve seen, tends to be orthogonal to talent or industriousness and come more from an internal attitude of Illegitimi non carborundum.

    • Harald K says:

      Interesting that you mention getting worse under stress.

      I am a lot like my brother, but he’s an extremely conscientious worker compared to me. I almost always “took advantage” of the things that were easy for me, didn’t stress out before exams for instance, if I knew I’d do well anyway. He’s at least as clever, but he never did that. He always, always did his homework right after school, and practiced viola for an hour or so.

      I asked him about that quite recently. He’s played viola for 20+ years, in good amateur orchestras. He’s a quick study and sight reader, he can study for a part on very short notice, for that reason he occasionally gets hired for project orchestras. But for all that, he has practically no solo ambitions. I asked him why, and the answer should have been obvious when I think about it: he gets nervous. He has to study a lot more to play as well when all eyes are on him, he says.

      I can go on stage and act and sing and risk making a fool of myself. But that confidence probably has made me a lot more messy compared to my brother, who relies on hard work to feel confident even when he has plenty of ability. It has probably been worth it for him, even if it limits him from things such as solo performance which he has the raw ability for.

      • William O. B'Livion says:

        Interesting that you mention getting worse under stress.

        My depth perception gets worse under stress.

        My 3 main jobs since Highschool were Marine, Graphic Designer, Unix admin. It’s not that I work better under stress, it’s that if I don’t feel stress clearly there’s nothing to do.

    • > What this means is that there simply is *no* amount of effort that would have gotten me to the point where I would have made the cut for my highschool basketball team and gotten to boink cheerleaders. *NONE*.

      Piffle. You just weren’t thinking creatively enough, which is another form of not trying hard enough. All you had to do was put in the required effort to kill or otherwise incapacitate the better basketball players without getting caught.

      • William O. B'Livion says:

        Fair enough, but [pick whichever of the following makes you happiest] the goal was boinking cheerleaders (or really any attractive females), and it’s hard to do that when 1/3rd your time is spent in class, 1/3 your time is spent playing basketball, and 1/3 your time is spent burying bodies of every male in the school taller and more coordinated than you. I went to a “5A” highschool, do you know what kind of body count I’d have had to rack up *BEFORE* joining the Marine Corps?

        -or-

        I started wearing glasses at 2 year of age. By the time I was old enough to start killing off the competition I’d already realized that I had a better chance of *buying* sex from the cheerleaders than winning it in sporting competition (and I was from a poor family) so it really wasn’t even in my list of choices at the time.

        • Deiseach says:

          William, it’s plain that your problem was that you were insufficiently devious. You don’t need to kill off all the rival players.

          Start with the guy one rung above you. Arrange an accident or give him food poisoning, anything so that you get onto the subs’ bench (start small, work your way up). Once you’re actually in the squad, this gives you a foot in the door. Maybe you need to kill your first rival to maintain your place (because as soon as he recovers, the coach will take him back in preference to you) but all you need to do is hang on to that spot.

          After a while, you’ll be kept on because you’re good enough for the spot (not great, you don’t have to be great, just good enough to hold on). Then you can start the weaselling and conniving in earnest. Small steps: don’t need to do anything fatal, but bouts of illness or slipping on steps just before key games, so that you – the sub and/or lower ranked squad member – can step up and take the place.

          Gradually your popularity grows as you become an accepted part of the squad, and the reflected glory of the star players shines around you. Date the lowest-ranked cheerleader, or highest-ranked girl who wants to break into the cheerleading squad, at first. Work your way up there, as well.

          Besides, all that physical work hauling bodies and digging graves will help condition your physique and give you muscles, thus increasing your attractiveness and athletic prowess 🙂

          • InferentialDistance says:

            I think that the probability that the school closes down due to the sudden string of mysterious disappearances of basketball players is sufficiently likely to make most devious plans unsuccessful.

  11. Inna says:

    Here’s an alternate explanation, which I have extensively studied with a sample size of n=1 (myself).

    Ability-mindset people have a longer recovery time after failure.

    I am definitely an ability-mindset person, and I’ve actually noticed it getting in my way in various contexts: when I can’t solve a problem I will get very upset, overly focused on my failure, and stressed out enough that I can’t think about the problem. Which obviously leads to a cycle of not being able to do anything, which brings me back to the beginning. I have SPECTACULARLY crashed and burned because of this cycle.

    However, I have found that if I force myself to focus on this mindset, think carefully through all of the evidence that I am not in the middle of a permanent failure, and then try again, I can often succeed. What this means practically is that when I am in the middle of completely failing to do something, I will generally need some downtime in order to get my brain out of the cycle. Thus if someone set me up to fail, then immediately gave me another problem to do I would fail again. However, if they gave me an hour to think through things (or maybe two, depending) I would do fine. I can definitely see myself as one of the “helpless” kids in one of these studies.

    It’s also true that I needed a couple of years to come up with the thinking-things-through method, after realizing that it was a problem at all. If you took me as a kid I didn’t have this kind of method, which generally meant that I had to take a bit longer to sort things through. (After a few days I would generally come out of the evil cycle just because of the passage of time, for example.) So if the kinds of tests they did were in the course of a couple of hours, I probably would have crashed and burned; if they’d been over the course of a week I would have done fine.

  12. Shmi Nux says:

    > Imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever

    Interestingly, another famous Scott A just published a book on the topic you are discussing, with a cover that has nearly the image you are describing.

    • Lambert says:

      Has Scott Adams complained in a long blog post about feminist attitudes to nerds yet? 😉

      • loki says:

        Actually yes, but I don’t have the link right now.

        I also recall him doing something that was described by feminists (I don’t know the truth for reasons that become apparent in a moment) as writing a blog post they felt was sexist. When they argued that, he claimed it was a joke but they said it didn’t sound like a joke, then he deleted the original post.

        He can be a bit of a smug git generally though.

        • suntzuanime says:

          IIRC his famously sexist blog post was one in which he suggested that when feminists bring up bogus sex discrimination statistics that you should just humor them, as you would an idiot or a child. One can understand why feminists might have found this upsetting.

          Our own beloved Scott has little patience for feminists pushing bogus statistics. It would be interesting to see how he treats idiots and children.

          • loki says:

            I think writer-of-SSC-Scott would be more likely to come up with a decent way of explaining how to identify a bogus study that is understandable by said idiots or children.

            Principle of Charity and all. And from my experience in various feminist groups, the people using the bogus statistics almost always don’t know they’re false, or how to identify if they are (a skill that, sadly, the majority of people have not learned because we stupidly don’t teach it in school).

            But y’know, I will read this blog and people who prefer what Adams writes will read his blog, whatever. But this blog would actually have the potential to help the problem.

          • Steve Johnson says:

            suntzuanime says:
            April 9, 2015 at 7:23 am

            IIRC his famously sexist blog post was one in which he suggested that when feminists bring up bogus sex discrimination statistics that you should just humor them, as you would an idiot or a child. One can understand why feminists might have found this upsetting.

            Because they’re overly emotional and child-like?

          • Cauê says:

            And from my experience in various feminist groups, the people using the bogus statistics almost always don’t know they’re false, or how to identify if they are (a skill that, sadly, the majority of people have not learned because we stupidly don’t teach it in school).

            Yes, they aren’t different from the general population in this.

            The problem of bogus statistics is worse in advocacy groups because they’re more motivated to use them, and especially because of the tendency to assign moral value to belief in them, so that questioning becomes a thing-only-bad-people-do.

          • That’s an obvious troll/joke. Guess he should have stayed out of the kitchen 🙂

          • Nestor says:

            He seems to have turned that around

            http://www.projectada.co.uk/interactive-influential-womenintech/

            4. @dilbert_daily

            Yes, this is Dilbert’s creator Scott Adams’ Twitter account.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t know why he’s on that list, but it doesn’t mean that he’s pushing the party line. It could be that he’s using the hashtag sarcastically or that people are attacking him under the hashtag. Or, it could be because he just hired a bunch of women to blog about tech.

          • Nestor says:

            It’s because of posts like this one

            http://blog.dilbert.com/post/110816085436/what-is-the-right-percentage-of-women-in-technical

            I think everyone agrees there are not enough women in technical careers. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I started having meetings with other start-ups in the San Francisco Bay area. In the past year I’ve met perhaps a hundred male entrepreneurs with impressive technical experience who are launching their own companies. In that same year I have met zero women with technical backgrounds doing the same.

            Pause for a moment to let that sink in. I didn’t say I have met few women in those types of jobs, or not as many as I would have expected. I am saying I have literally met zero. None.

            (…)

            I want to be perfectly clear that I am speaking about my personal, flawed, biased, observation, which I hope is not representative. But seriously, how could I spend a year in an industry without meeting one female technical genius/entrepreneur while meeting about a hundred men I would label that way? I know plenty of brilliant women, but they don’t work in that field.

        • Anonymous says:

          He reposted the deleted post. I wouldn’t say it’s about nerds, let alone feminist attitudes towards anyone.

          • loki says:

            What I said was that he did talk about feminist attitudes to nerds but I didn’t have a link, and also, this other thing. Not that they were the same.

      • Nestor says:

        You do yourself a disservice by accepting a drive by caricature of the man based on internet hearsay. I have no interest in the Dilbert comic, but Adams’ blog is interesting, in fact he covers a lot of the same areas this one does, but from a different perspective. I do find him occasionally smug and or/irritating but also insightful.

        He’s tackling the issues of “thorny subject debates” using a method of open discussions with a moderator (himself) with a known public bias, here’s the one on workplace discrimination.

        http://blog.dilbert.com/post/114055529676/my-verdict-on-gender-bias-in-the-workplace

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          I have no interest in the Dilbert comic, but Adams’ blog is interesting, in fact he covers a lot of the same areas this one does, but from a different perspective. I do find him occasionally smug and or/irritating but also insightful.

          I wonder how much better his doubtless excellent blog might be, if he had spent more time learning about issues rather than drawing pictures. Otoh, maybe the (I assume) relaxing time spent drawing, helped his thinking about issues.

          • Dude Man says:

            He got famous drawing pictures, and most of the readers of his blog are there because they enjoy his cartoons. If he didn’t learn to draw pictures, how many people would have found out about the blog?

          • Whatever happened to Anonymous says:

            To be fair, he also writes books.

  13. aerdeap says:

    I wonder to what extent grown mindset itself is heritable.

  14. ddreytes says:

    So, I have a complete lack of any kind of intellectual standing to even begin to talk about this: but just to be clear here: the idea is that, in these models, if someone were to recognize that the task they’ve been set is impossible, and give up, that would be interpreted as a sign that they are unmotivated, a failure, bad and nasty, etc?

    • Deiseach says:

      Yeah, that’s the silly part: if the child is smart enough to realise “Hang on, this question is impossible to solve” and they abandon it, because there’s no point trying to solve what is impossible, that makes them troublesome and on the bad side of the “helplessness versus mastery” fence.

      I think maybe the experimenters didn’t like being outsmarted by an 11-12 year old 🙂

    • Harald K says:

      Who says the task has to be impossible? Via Marginal Revolution (and it may be via Slate Star Codex too), I found this list of questions used in Russian maths departments to discriminate against Jews or other groups they wanted to keep out. They’re not impossible, in fact they have “simple” solutions, but good luck getting to them.

      I don’t know if the questions the growth mindset fans used were of this caliber, but anyway: it’s not too hard to come up with a technically solvable problem that even very gifted kids would have a snowball’s chance in hell of solving on time.

      • HeelBearCub says:

        This is impossible = the game is rigged.

        If the problems are chosen so that the children are extremely unlikely to have the ability to complete them, it doesn’t matter if they are actually impossible or not.

        For example, if I, a 45 year old male in poor physical shape was tested by asking me to a complete chair traverse, it wouldn’t matter than a professional rock climber could do it. I would correctly perceive it as impossible for me to complete.

    • Leonard says:

      I had the same thought. It is certainly possible to have “impossible” questions that are possible for some people, but merely too hard for the targeted population. I wonder if the studies in question here documented the questions they used?

      In any case, it would seem to me that part of “ability” as versus “doggedness” is in being able to recognize when you cannot make progress. It seems to me that giving up is a smart response sometimes, just as trying hard is a smart response sometimes.

  15. Ishaan says:

    >Noble lie

    What they want to say

    “Don’t focus your cognitive energy on self-monitoring immutable factors like intelligence. “I’m smart/stupid” is generally not useful information to notice, regardless of whether or not it’s true. Focus those resources on factors which benefit from the attention. “I need to practice more/I’ve practiced enough” is a useful thing to learn to notice. Train yourself to notice it.” (1)

    What comes out

    “Intelligence doesn’t matter. Hard work does.” (2)

    Which is then mentally confounded with:

    “Intelligence isn’t the major explanation of individual variance. Hard work is the explanatory variable”. (3)

    …and since humans categorize things using language, even the person who originally meant (1) unintentionally ends up coming to believe (3) because somewhere in their minds they accidentally translated fuzzy notion (1) into verbal statement (2), which proceeds to activate fuzzy notion (3).

    I don’t know if it’s fair to call this low resolution thinking a “lie”. It’s just that the resolution of these thoughts is not actually high enough to represent things accurately, so they just go with an instrumentally useful one.

    If you had a small child, and you wanted to communicate (1) without suggesting (3), how would would you say it?

    • Levi Aul says:

      Unless, of course, you’re trying to apply maximum leverage to optimization problems through comparative advantage. If you have an IQ of 100, you should not be trying to do the math to solve Friendly AI. You should be working on the much easier problem of finding and employing very-high-IQ people to do said math, and getting rich enough go afford to do that.

    • Deiseach says:

      If you had a small child, and you wanted to communicate (1) without suggesting (3), how would would you say it?

      Talent and practice get you further than talent alone? Point out examples from sports (that’s what comes to mind immediately) of good players who would be even better if they practiced, because this (pick a concrete example from a game) is where they failed when they didn’t practice e.g. kicking the ball with their left foot? Or English football clubs being notoriously bad at penalty-taking, because they don’t practice taking penalties because of the culture of the game in that country, which means if the game goes to penalties, they get beaten by Continental clubs who do practice?

  16. Alex says:

    I’m not in a social science, but I am a college professor, and ideas related to growth mindset certainly get a lot of circulation. I don’t know that everyone is necessarily familiar enough with the specifics to name Dweck or whoever else, but the general idea that effort matters far more than ability, and that believing otherwise is counter-productive, is certainly in the air. A few observations on it:

    1) First, anybody who has spent more than a day or two in higher ed has encountered numerous examples of “smart but lazy”, and those types tend not to do very well. (Unless they have a very well-calibrated sense of when they need to actually buckle down and when they can let it slide, but I said only that they “tend not to do very well”, not that they “never do very well.”) This, and the general fact that time and effort certainly do matter for many things, even in academic pursuits among the very smart, help to make us receptive to these sorts of ideas. I mean, it seems pretty plausible that, all else being equal, a person with a growth mindset might have better odds of success than an otherwise similar person with a fixed mindset. Trying is essential for success, even if it isn’t all of success.

    2) The word “ability” tends to get easily confused with “innate ability”, especially among academics who are not trained in psychology, and “innate” tends to be read as “biological”, and ideas of ability being biological, especially academic ability, have a very ugly history that make most of us want to steer clear. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s easy for people who don’t know what they’re talking about to start spewing nonsense on subjects like ability and biology. So staying away can be a good thing.

    3) Somehow, in many discussions the idea gets further distorted from “growth mindset matters more than ability” to “growth mindset matters more than a track record of academic performance.” Again, there’s a benign root for this–part of the goal of an educational program is to help people grow and improve, so you kind of have to hope that at least some fraction of your students will exceed the level of performance that you might have expected from prior performance. At the same time, though, if a growth mindset (or whatever other sort of mindset) is not translating into successful actions, whether the problem is lack of ability, lack of good habits, or lack of whatever, if it isn’t working then it isn’t working.

    4) I think a lot of this goes into cultural and political attitudes about “book smarts”, and it might help explain why the idea is so widely accepted. On the left, racial inequality and injustice are major concerns, and all sorts of ugly theories concerning ability, IQ, etc. have been concocted and pressed into the service of racism, so growth mindset being more important than ability has a natural appeal on the left. On the right, academics and all their “book smarts” (which the man on the street often conflates with innate intellectual ability) are not exactly held in high esteem; far better to believe that anybody can figure something out if they just apply their common sense and work at it. (This also supports a narrative in which the unsuccessful have nobody to blame but themselves.)

    5) I like your observation that people with the fixed mindset fail in contrived situations set up by psychologists but do fine in real life. It adds a layer of irony to the academic embrace of growth mindset over ability: The academics who prefer growth mindset over “book smarts” (whatever that means) usually argue that book smarts only matter in highly contrived situations (like the academic institutions in which those academics are sitting as they say it…). It would be hilarious if growth mindset also only mattered in highly contrived situations (like academic studies set up by psychologists).

    • Anonymous says:

      1) First, anybody who has spent more than a day or two in higher ed has encountered numerous examples of “smart but lazy”, and those types tend not to do very well. (Unless they have a very well-calibrated sense of when they need to actually buckle down and when they can let it slide, but I said only that they “tend not to do very well”, not that they “never do very well.”)

      “Smart but suffering from Depression” and/or “Smart but suffering from Atypical Depression aka ‘Probably has adult ADHD’ ” seems to cover my case.

      I am very smart so I graduated anyway. “Lazy” seems the wrong monicker – I can work very hard on problems. I just fear the shame of failure too much to start. I don’t start until failing-to-start also begins to look like it might become shameful. I remember one time I had to turn in a paper on a subject and didn’t get started until two in the night. Sixteen perfect pages later, I turned up at school with an excellent product. It’s not laziness, a category I am less and less convinced even exists, it is a terrifying anxiety and an immediate instinctual flinch away from starting something that might fail.

      Also: Watch as I take my name off and post anonymously to avoid being associated with mental illness. Wee stigma.

      • Viliam Búr says:

        Seems to me very likely that most people labeled “smart but lazy” actually have some kind of depression… maybe often not the full clinical form, only something milder but in the same direction.

        So, is the society more or less sending these people a “positive” message of “not being depressed is the only thing important in life, none of your other traits matter”?

        Then I guess it is nice to know the message is false.

      • Anonymous says:

        Well, there’s also “smart but terrible executive function”. Fortunately these people can knuckle down if they have good schooling and actually enjoy learning (‘effort’ isn’t ‘work’)…

        …but if you’re constantly trying to remember whether you last showered or brushed your hair, because you can only maintain two daily routines at a time and you definitely want to go to school every day and you can’t let your teeth get any worse, forget normal-person things like ‘eating at mealtimes’ or ‘sleeping at bedtime’ or ‘cleaning anything, ever’, you… will probably find it extremely taxing to do anything that’s work and not just effort.

    • Steve Johnson says:

      The word “ability” tends to get easily confused with “innate ability”, especially among academics who are not trained in psychology, and “innate” tends to be read as “biological”, and ideas of ability being biological, especially academic ability, have a very ugly history that make most of us want to steer clear.

      The “ugly history” is what keeps academics away – somehow the ugly history of communism and a belief in equality never has the same effect.

      Your explanation predicts the opposite outcome. Time to search for another one.

      • Held In Escrow says:

        Ugly, socially unacceptable history. Communism is not socially unacceptable.

        If you want to ask why one became socially unacceptable that’s a whole different story (notably that communism and socialism have some decent ideas while racism has none), but it’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.

        • Steve Johnson says:

          “Racism” has Rhodesia going for it.

          Anti-racism has Zimbabwe.

          • totally not multiheaded says:

            See: “Empire/forest fire”

            Edit: woo hoo, I’m unbanned and have the privilege of talking to a person who… this locally well-known person above me.

            fml.

            To be clear: in Zimbabwe’s case, Smith’s regime and its policies set some… very unambiguous tactical and strategic incentives for the opposition. Mugabe went along with them and got into power.

            The actual question is, what made South Africa so lucky as to essentially get an irrationally happy ending. The ANC is many things, but it’s not Mugabe.
            (besides the opportunity provided by coordinating around the figure of a saint?)

          • Steve Johnson says:

            The actual question is, what made South Africa so lucky as to essentially get an irrationally happy ending.

            Ah yes, #1 in the world in rape rates and rapidly headed towards the third world – an irrationally happy ending.

  17. theotherguy says:

    it reminds me of a quote:
    “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”

    My sense is that coupling a growth mindset with some sort of ‘poker sense’ really is the core idea here. It’s probably too nuanced and sophisticated to become a mass meme though.

    A key benefit of the growth mindset, is it makes people ok with, and even embrace struggle, rather than feeling bad and having to put up with sniping comments from ‘peers’.

    The big IF is: if they are ok with folding hands they realize they can’t win / shouldn’t pursue (easier said than done — discuss with a poker player), then they can feel free to randomly sample different realms of activities to see what they may excel at and enjoy. (Also variety may or may not be the spice of life, and all that)

    Adding some degree of randomness to a process has been known to significantly improve many algorithms (by not getting stuck at a local maxima, etc.)… and this fact has been known by mathematicians and computer scientists for decades.

    I don’t really see how people can embrace struggling with initial learning curves of most brand new activities (or work to improve their Achilles’s heels) without something that kind of looks like a growth mindset. (Some of this may have some other framing issues that go beyond the scope here — if they may think they are doing better than peers so they’re not struggling, or think of it as tinkering not ‘growth’, etc..)

    As I see it, memes that do well with general public can’t be this nuanced so instead you just get sound bites about effort is good and innate characteristics don’t matter.

    Oddly, this is starting to remind me of diet crazes.

  18. Conspirator says:

    One thing to note is that people who put more effort in to IQ tests (e.g. because they’re being offered monetary rewards) tend to score substantially higher. So if growth mindset hypothetically makes you try harder at everything, we should expect to see people who score highly on IQ tests to be a mixture of people with high innate ability and people with moderate innate ability and growth mindset. (Hopefully I’m recalling these study results correctly.) Anyway, this could extend to e.g. Stanford students being composed of a homogenous continuously varying mixture of students with high ability and poor work ethic and students with slightly less high ability and a slightly stronger work ethic etc.

    It may be that people are able to correctly diagnose what has made them successful; high effort people correctly realize that effort has taken them far and are believers in growth mindset, high ability people correctly realize high ability has taken them far and are believers in fixed mindset.

  19. Douglas Knight says:

    You give a quote and a table from “the second study…in Part I.” I can’t find it in that paper. According to google, it is from a different paper. Both are titled “An Analysis of Learned Helplessness,” but the quote is from Part I (alt), while you earlier cited Part II.

    ━━━━━━━━━

    Without accessing that, it looks to me like the weirdness in the table and the change in the literature are both due to compressing a high-dimensional space into a single dimension. Invoking ability only helps you compared to people who invoke luck, so if the two groups are binned together, it stops helping. In particular, if you define “mastery” as people who invoke hard work and “helpless” as everyone else, that’s what happens.

    Similarly, the table compares 6 causes people invoke to two categories. How were the categories defined? Presumably the paper says, but half of the “helpless” said ability, so probably the definition in that study was to ask if ability matters. Then ask again a similar question and half of the people who previously said it repeat. (But, strangely, no one switches to ability the second time.) If the other category is defined by not invoking ability, then they should be more likely to invoke other reasons, such as luck. Anyhow, half of the “helpless” pick ability and none of the “mastery” pick it, so regardless of why, that leaves room for a lot more “mastery” people to pick everything else.

    I have much more faith in the existence of Bielefeld than of Germany.

  20. Anonymous says:

    American self-help theories trigger me.

  21. Morgan says:

    I’ll readily admit that I’m biased in favor of growth mindset, largely for anecdotal reasons. Before I had ever heard the term “growth mindset” or read of the relevant studies, I had reached the same conclusion from my observations of myself and many of my friends. We all fit roughly the same description: people who were praised for our intelligence (or criticized for our lack thereof) early in life who have failed to do much with ourselves as adults. I’ve had several conversations about this with my closest friend, who struggles with this to an extreme degree – responding to failure with shame and avoidance exactly as described in Dweck’s three rules. Another friend, who has disabilities and was expected from an early age to have low intelligence, actually does have difficulty with certain cognitive tasks (largely related to mathematical and spatial reasoning – they’re quite intelligent in other ways) but also tends to give up in some contexts where more effort would likely yield success. I’m not a person who believes that innate talent doesn’t matter at all – clearly it’s quite important – but I suspect mindset is also important.

    I haven’t read all of the studies in question and I have only an educated layperson’s knowledge of psychology (never did finish that degree). Bearing all that in mind, I have a few thoughts:

    1) Your model depicted in the Alice/Bob/Carol graph seems quite plausible to me. A great deal of the discussion of mindset seems to conflate the question of growth-minded people as a group vs. ability-minded people as a group with the question of whether given individuals would benefit from a growth mindset. It’s entirely possible that the people most inclined to adopt that mindset are the ones that benefit the least from it.

    2) Many of these discussions (and some of the studies, going by their descriptions) seem to posit that growth mindset and ability mindset are inherently opposed, rather than two separate beliefs that are independent of each other. Has anyone studied people who believe that ability and effort are both very important, to an equal degree?

    3) I suspect that if one’s beliefs about the relative importance of ability and effort affect how successful one is, then how one feels about those beliefs likely matters as well. “If I try harder next time, maybe I’ll succeed,” sounds like a much more useful attitude than, “I failed because I didn’t try hard enough.” Even though the underlying logic is pretty similar, the conclusions are different: “I can achieve anything if I work at it,” vs. “My failures are the result of laziness.” Which side of that you choose to focus on probably has an effect on.

    Likewise, one could draw both positive and negative conclusions from a fixed mindset. “My superior abilities give me an edge,” is probably a more productive thing to believe than “I am doomed to perpetual failure because of my inferior abilities.”

    • Morgan says:

      Er, “…has an effect.” One thing that doesn’t seem to be affected by effort is my ability to detect grammatical errors before hitting “Post Comment”.

  22. Albert G. Ingram says:

    Maybe a tool AI isn’t smart enough to break out of its box because it lacks a growth mindset.

  23. grort says:

    I don’t think your table, “Exam results by poverty”, proves what you claim it does. We need percentile bars on that chart. If it turned out (for example) that the middle 90% of the poorer children had an FT score between 5 and 35, and the middle 90% of the richer children had an FT score between 15 and 45, then I would conclude that household poverty was not actually explaining much of the data, and level of effort actually mattered a lot.

  24. Levi Aul says:

    Your hypothesis at the end reminds me of the concept of a “scrub” in competitive gaming (see e.g. http://www.sirlin.net/ptw-book/introducingthe-scrub). Some people never really try, in order not to (be seen to) fail. Or, they try, but only with extra self-imposed restrictions making their actual competitive success, or lack thereof, illegible.

    Everyone does a bit of this to explore a game at the beginning; this is where the whole concept of “play” comes from. But some people never get serious; never stop exploring the game-space to start trying to achieve within it. It sounds to me like the “growth” mindset is effectively a “play” mindset—that the subject sees the provided tests as effectively a sandbox to learn and experiment within without consequence.

    On the other hand, the “fixed” mindset seems like the “playing to win” mindset in the above article. I wonder if the students with the ability to somewhat-objectively measure their ability against the difficulty of the current problem, just know when forfeiting has a higher ROI than “playing to a loss”?

  25. Hurrow says:

    Is there anything stopping growth mindset and innate ability being important from both being true, and is growth mindset theory being promoted as an absolute? For example if someone believes that they can improve through hard work they will get better than if they believe it is all down to their own innate ability, but still won’t necessarily be as good as someone whose innate ability is higher. I can’t say I’ve read any of Dweck’s work directly, just articles about the theory but none of them seem to be saying that innate ability isn’t a factor, just that having a growth mindset helps improve performance on a relative basis.

    • BD Sixsmith says:

      Indeed. Living things grow and living things stop growing. Give kids education and encouragement as you would give them food and clean surroundings, for without them anyone’s progress could be stunted, but do not pretend that their growth will continue like Jack’s beanstalk.

      Perhaps this should be known as the limits to growth mindset…

  26. Anecdote 1. I’ve always had a strong “ability mindset”. It has primarily played out that I egotistically assume I have the ability to solve a problem, so I keep at it until either I do solve it or the rest of life intervenes. So the connection between ability-beliefs and hard work isn’t straightforwardly negative.

    Anecdote 2. In high school in a poor rural area, many of my classmates had zero interest in academics. But if I talked with them about academic subjects, then at least for the length of the conversations they were perfectly capable of staying interested in the subjects and saying insightful things about them. My conclusion at the time was that ability was different from an inclination to use that ability, and that most high schoolers just mirrored the interests of the people they hung out with.

    Both anecdotes fit with your alternative theory that the kids in the experiment just wanted to please the researchers, got different ideas what the researchers wanted, and otherwise reacted normally.

    Has anyone done an experiment to test that? Say, we get a bunch of kids who are “ability mindset” in groups A and B, and a bunch of kids who are “growth mindset” in groups C and D. The researchers tell A and C that they want the students to show their ability by solving the problems. The research tell B and D that they want the students to show their hard work by solving the problems. Then otherwise make the same measurements that Dweck did.

    Dweck’s theory predicts C and D doing well and A and B doing poorly. Your theory predicts B and D being calm and doing well, and A and C getting anxiety and doing poorly. Other effects between the four groups would show unexpected weirdness.

    In the event that your theory were to turn out right, it might go similarly viral because it would be an equally good tool for guilt-tripping mothers over their parenting decisions. Instead of “Why I’ll Never Tell My Son He’s Smart”, it would be “31 Ways You’re Giving Your Daughter Test Anxiety”.

  27. Harald K says:

    It strikes me that the kids in the growth mindset studies are exposed to deliberately frustrating tasks. In a good school environment, they try to avoid that for pretty obvious reasons. But it’s probably a lot easier to avoid frustrating talented and advantaged kids than the others.

    Maybe there are different strategies, one well-adapted to dealing with frustration, one well-adapted to taking full advantage of the times when you’re not frustrated.

    In real life, you run into genuine frustration, problems with all bad solutions, a lot more often than you do in school – at least, I did.

    Somewhat unrelated anecdote time: I did not take the physics specialization in high school(roughly), so I took a course needed to begin engineering studies. The teacher wasn’t big on lecturing. What he was big on was assigning his homemade exercise sets.

    The nice thing about those sets, they were big, but they were also well-made. If you did them in order, you’d never really meet any challenge in trying to understand stuff. They were impressively gradual. You would understand new stuff and marvel at how easy that was to understand. I’m not usually very frustrated by coursework, but for this I was downright surprised at how easy he made it. It was highly time-consuming, though.

    I had earlier been one of those good results for comparatively little effort students, but for this course I decided, I’d damn well do everything (even if it was by no means mandatory).

    I had huge problems not falling asleep. I had to go to the washroom and dip my face in cold water. I had never had that problem before (should perhaps mention that a lot of things happened in my life just before that time, including a bad case of mononucleosis). But I went through with it.

    Then a year without physics due to how things were scheduled in the engineering school, then I get the same professor teaching Physics at college level. I was not nearly as conscientious that time around, doing little more than the mandatory work. I got a good grade, but the professor accused me of “surfing on my intelligence”. The irony! The one time in my life I don’t do that, but instead surf on the hard work I did earlier (which he had assigned himself) I get accused of that.

  28. Michael vassar says:

    As long as this sort of thing is the order of the day,
    http://l.facebook.com/l.php?u=http%3A%2F%2Fnypost.com%2F2015%2F04%2F06%2Ffacts-matter-left-sticks-to-narratives-evidence-be-damned%2F&h=JAQGQmvj_AQFjY5p24XlNXRRVFLIX4w5TBAZIS8-aogkaJA&enc=AZPei3KDkun3go3ztTHKEjDn4K8viVcW1gbLJADPA3exi7Gfon1t66retSsrSZwybzSD9OPVrTya7e2HjwnkyxvOVMsdV3QUKAI62RMWv4ECOCZNs2CKkzU_75PsXjHIDdrcbpmkVap1IhGoIiKv6Nm7Xret3UY6NcTlC1BOjGpQbM_Mny0kN1Vufd5aAzriyrxK3efjKPtBhceSQiO2bnDp&s=1

    Isn’t the most likely sort of academic and media fraud that successful people are just making stuff up whenever the positive attention associated with doing so is greater than the probability of getting caught times the likely penalty? Nothing complicated with publication biases etc.

    • Anonymous says:

      That link doesn’t work for me. this does

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You can’t just lump psychology studies and an article complaining that ‘the poltiical Left has abandoned facts’ together as “this sort of thing”! STOP TRYING TO BRING SOCIAL JUSTICE INTO UNRELATED THREADS. I AM ON TO YOU.

  29. DiscoveredJoys says:

    It’s the ‘Blank Slate’ in a different guise. If you (unconsciously?) assume that people start life as blank slates then you feel free to apply the ‘growth mindset techniques’ as a positive intervention, or the ‘grovel useless minion’ as a negative intervention, and validate the results as if only your intervention worked.

    Perhaps if we conflated the ‘growth mindset’ business with star signs….

  30. Peter says:

    Does anyone actually have a pure growth or ability mindset? The Alice/Bob/Carol model seems so obviously true (or at any rate the best starting point for further nuance and elaboration) that I’m having a hard time seeing either model as anything other than a silly strawman. Yet it looks to me like people are promoting the pure growth model; I could be doing my usual failing of taking people too literally of course. What’s going on here?

    • Bill Openthalt says:

      I have observed people take a different approach to physical and mental performance.
      If you take running, it is clear that some people are built for endurance and some for speed. To become champions, they need to work hard. No-one argues Usain Bolt (194cm, 94kg) could just as easily have become a marathon runner, or that Dennis Kimetto (171cm, 55kg) only needs a lot of training to beat Bolt (or that equal amounts of training would result in identical performances of both athletes). Furthermore, athletes are revered for their performances, even though they are, for normal folk, unattainable and linked to innate abilities.
      But the tune changes when mental performance is concerned. We’re happy to admire niche-type (and rather useless) abilities such as playing chess (which is considered a sport), but far less tolerant of exceptional intelligence. Our school systems spend far more resources on trying to get Alice to the level of Bob, than ensuring Carol doesn’t remain stuck at Bob’s level. If our society would have the same attitude to sports performance, we would send people with lousy hand-eye coordination to tennis schools, and let those with obvious aptitudes for tennis fend for themselves (but still play better).
      Somehow, as a society we seem to be scared of people with superior mental abilities, which would explain why the pure growth model is so attractive.

      • Anthony says:

        Only a very few athletes become rich because of their highly unusual level of ability, and most people understand the kind of effort they put into developing their abilities to reach the point where they can make a living or become rich purely on their athletic performance.

        Very smart people, however, are often able to become rich, and in fact are somewhat expected to do so (“If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”). And people who aren’t as smart generally don’t understand the kind of effort that needs to be made to go from smart to rich. So between the lack of understanding, and the much larger population which sees direct material benefit from being smarter compared to those who benefit from high athletic potential, it’s not surprising that people don’t want to credit intelligence as a factor in success.

        • moridinamael says:

          Also, chess and the 100 m sprint are clearly defined and delineated competitions with clear metrics of success.

          “Success” at “life” is neither a clearly defined contest, nor are there unambiguous metrics of success. Perhaps your uncle Bob, who is a total idiot, became a multimillionaire by bumbling into real estate speculation at exactly the right time. (You can’t accidentally become a chess grandmaster.) Perhaps your aunt Myrtle is a genius who invented the notion of pants but was screwed out of her company PantsCo by a treacherous board of directors. (You can’t out-smart all conceivable obstacles in reality, no matter how brilliant you are, but an athlete or chess player can rely on the rules not changing mid-game.)

          Additionally, when I look around my local peer group, success doesn’t really correlate very well with intelligence. That’s another way of saying, we’re all pretty much the same level of intelligent and have earned pretty much the same level of success, plus or minus some random noise. But my peer group doesn’t include people with 40 fewer IQ points than me, so I can’t possibly get at a gut level what those 40 points mean. All I perceive is the apparently flat *local* properties of IQ-success space.

  31. JK says:

    This is not an isolated finding. For example, Furnham (2003) finds in a sample of students at University College London that mindset is not related to academic performance. (IQ, in contrast, shows the expected very large effect).

    There is no large effect for IQ in that study. The effect is very small. On the other hand, the sample is small and restricted in ability range (University College London accepts only 8% of applicants).

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’ve changed it to note that the effect of IQ was significant, contrary to most of what they’ve studied. I’ll look again when I have more time to see if I can get a feel for how large that makes it.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Here are the correlations. As the abstract says, IQ is not significant as a predictor of grades, worse than 4 of the 5 factors. Mindset even lower, really shockingly low. Conscientiousness is a good predictor of both grades and mindset, despite their complete independence. Not mentioned in the abstract is that introversion is the second best predictor of grades…

        • Scott Alexander says:

          Either I was misreading the table (mixing the conscientiousness and cognitive ability lines?) or I was looking at hierarchical regression, in which cognitive ability does show up as one of the most important predictors.

          I still don’t have a good feel for how much to trust hierarchical regression, so I’ll remove that part.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            I think you are misreading the hierarchical regression. β=0.08, same as in the multiple regression. I think you’re looking at the F(7,62) line, with p<0.01. But that's saying that the multiple regression as a whole is significant, not specifically about IQ. Indeed, the R² is lower when you add IQ than when you just use mindset+CANOE.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Here is the paper.

      Restriction of range applies just as much to conscientiousness as to IQ, and yet the paper finds a large effect of conscientiousness on grades. I find the results bizarre.

  32. Lambert says:

    For people who were in a field doing studies looking at the effect of changing 3 words of a sentence, the terms ‘Mastery oriented’ and ‘Helpless’ are extremely leading.

  33. loki says:

    I would be really interested in seeing not how growth mindset does against innate ability mindset, but how growth mindset does against people who identified the *factually correct* reason for their failure.

    It seems to me that the people who were actually smart, whether or not they believed that was the cause of their success, would be more likely to be the people who identified correctly that the researchers were mucking around by giving them impossible questions. Giving up quickly on an impossible task (I would hypothesize) might actually be a predictor of future success because that person knows where is best to focus their energy and where it is wasted. They may have a great work ethic in a situation where they do not believe their hard work is wasted.

    I think this could be a big enough factor to make it a very bad idea to use impossible problems in experiments such as these. (maybe use ones that are merely very very hard for the age group)

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      It seems to me that the people who were actually smart, whether or not they believed that was the cause of their success, would be more likely to be the people who identified correctly that the researchers were mucking around by giving them impossible questions. Giving up quickly on an impossible task (I would hypothesize) might actually be a predictor of future success because that person knows where is best to focus their energy and where it is wasted. They may have a great work ethic in a situation where they do not believe their hard work is wasted.

  34. JK says:

    And a meta-analysis of all growth mindset studies finds more modest, but still consistent, effects, and only a little bit of publication bias.

    So – is growth mindset the one concept in psychology which throws up gigantic effect sizes and always works?

    ???

    If the meta-analysis found only modest effects, then growth mindset research does not always find gigantic effects and does not always work. I don’t understand how you could write those two sentences back-to-back.

  35. Soumynona says:

    This read somewhat strawmannish. Isn’t the concept of growth mindset exactly what you express in point V? That beliefs about the importance of ability vs effort affect your performance? (Also: does it really have to be about beliefs or would saying “I don’t even care if I’m stupid or smart, I’ll just work hard and see what happens” also count as growth mindset?)

    I firmly believe in the importance of inborn ability but I also feel that the growth mindset idea contains some important truth that isn’t inconsistent with that belief. Am I giving the idea too much credit and in reality it’s just repackaged intelligence denialism?

    Mastery-oriented children were about six times more likely to attribute their failures to the most uncontrollable factor of all – bad luck. They were also about six times more likely to attribute their failures to the task “not being fair”. This contradicts every previous study, including Dweck’s own. The whole field of attribution theory, which is intensely studied and which Dweck cites approvingly, says that attributing things to luck is a bad idea and attributing them to ability is, even if not as good as effort, pretty good.

    I wonder what attribution theory says about Stoicism. All outcomes are because of luck (or possibly, Zeus not being fair, though Stoics wouldn’t say it like that) but you have the ability to do things the best way you can and not be perturbed by the results.

    Is there some research that tries to distinguish between effects of beliefs and effects of goal structure?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “This read somewhat strawmannish. Isn’t the concept of growth mindset exactly what you express in point V? That beliefs about the importance of ability vs effort affect your performance?”

      Here’s what I consider the fundamental points of growth mindset that seem controversial and not just the model in Part V:

      1. People who believe ability is important are less likely to work on challenging tasks because they’re desperate to protect their self-perception
      2. People who believe ability is important are more likely to lie and cheat, again to protect self-perception
      3. People who believe ability is important are less likely to enjoy learning
      4. People who believe ability is important are less likely to practice and more likely to self-sabotage

      All these things seem different from just “Yeah, both ability and effort are important, and it’s important to work hard.”

      • Irrelevant says:

        1, 2, and 4 all appear to be a gigantic and obvious confusion over cause: people who are desperate to protect their self-image will be extremely failure-adverse, to the point of self-sabotage and cheating, and will also attest the compatible belief that ability matters more than effort, because that’s the one that justifies their maintained self-image despite their other behavior. This should be easily testable, since if this is the correct causal relationship then you should be able to induce your victims people to claim that effort is what matters instead by creating a situation where attesting a belief in hard work would protect their ego. Do you know if this has been tried?

        3, I don’t see an obvious explanation for.

      • Benito says:

        I’d be interested to know what Robin Hanson thinks of the growth mindset. I really enjoy reading his writing, but I’ve not read enough of other sorts of cynicism to start seeing distinguishing features, so to me those sound like the sort of things he might say.

  36. vV_Vv says:

    What if the ability to work hard and be resilient to failure is mostly innate and positively correlated with IQ?

  37. Rebecca Friedman says:

    So, not to focus too much on a single note but…

    The results of the first study cited here are strongly consistent with Judith Harris’s group socialization theory. She reports studies finding that if you put people (specific subjects were students, I forget how old) into groups, they will identify with their own group, prefer it over others, and even change their behavior to match their group’s internal image of itself (my clumsy phrasing – she put it better). The first study Scott cites (Dweck and Mueller 1998) reports that students told they were smart (assigned to the group “smart kids”):

    1) Decided that intelligence was most important (because it’s the identifying trait of their group; see prefer their group over others),

    2) Blame their failure on not being smart enough (because they’re seeing intelligence as most important; see point one),

    3) Are less likely to keep trying once they’ve discovered they’re not smart enough (because if they actually believe point one, which seemed to be the effect described, then they perceive banging their head against a problem they aren’t smart enough to solve as unproductive; if they aren’t smart enough to solve it, they aren’t),

    4) Don’t like this (no one likes finding out they’re not good enough at the thing they’re good at), and

    5) Do worse on further problem sets (was this worse than the control group as well? It’s given as compared to the group assigned as “hard workers”, which makes sense; people identify with their group, and people trying hard to be hard workers are more likely to improve their success that way than people trying hard to be smarter, because how hard they work is something people have more control over than how intelligent they are).

    6) Were collectively less likely to set challenging learning-oriented goals for themselves. I don’t understand what precisely that means in this context well enough to see whether it fits into this theory or not, unfortunately. Did such goals involve assuming that they could accomplish things they had previously failed to accomplish by putting in lots of hard work which would significantly improve their performance?

    Not at all sure this accounts for everything, but it was the first thing that occurred to me. If people try to identify with their groups, and act as a member of their group should act, specifically when those groups are salient (like on a test, right after being told you were smart), that could create a temporary increase/decrease in working hard depending on what groups people were sorted into, without necessarily having much long-term effect.

    Also not sure, mind, that this is an argument against growth mindset – if thinking of yourself as the kind of person who works hard makes you work harder, there may be a definite advantage to thinking of yourself that way. I don’t think it’s precisely the same thing either, though…

  38. Jazi Zilber says:

    Dweck did an experiment arguing that beliefs have an effect on self control (Job, Dweck et all 2010)

    For anyone familiar with Ego depletion studies, it was not a big finding. We know that ego depletion is sensitive to multiple parameters (autonomy support – … rest – … motivation … etc. etc. )

    Then Dweck went on to publish a piece in NYT (Dweck 2012) arguing that Ego depletion is
    nothing but a belief thing.

    I found this NYT piece to be very disingenuous act. The Ego depletion phenomenon is known for 15 years with hundreds of replication. Dweck did some three studies showing a parameter that can counteract its effect, and hey, she is going to NYT to denounce the phenomenon…..

    Then came a replication of her study by Vohs et all (2012) and found that her study was probably more of an epiphenomenon. They show that while beleifs counteract ego depletion on a second task, they will not help on a third task. That is, beliefs will reduce weak depletion (on the second task), but not strong ego depletion (on a third task.

    Most alarmingly. Dweck continued for a long time to ignore this study weakening her result. I am pretty sure I saw her writing in papers and publicly that beliefs are everything, WITHOUT MENTIONING the baumeister and Kohs work refuting her allegation….

    References
    Job, Dweck et all, 2010. Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation. Psychological Science
    September 2010. doi: 10.1177/0956797610384745

    Dweck 2012 The Misconception: Willpower is just a metaphor.
    http://youarenotsosmart.com/2012/04/17/ego-depletion/

    Vohs et all, 2012. Motivation, personal beliefs, and limited resources all contribute to self-control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
    Volume 48, Issue 4, July 2012, Pages 943–947.
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103112000509

  39. Quixote says:

    Suppose Bob belives that ability is the major contributing factor towards success. Suppose Bob also has a firm and unshakable belief that he is naturally talented at literally everything. As a result Bob believes that hard work / level of effort is the only thing that differentiates his performance in different fields and on different tasks. Would Bob then get the benefits of growth mindset?

  40. stillnotking says:

    Seems like yet another social-psych thingy that works amazingly in the lab and yet fails to predict much of anything in the real world.

    Asking successful people what made them successful, especially on the record, is a mug’s game — who’s going to answer “Well, I’m naturally talented” when asked the reason for their success? That sounds arrogant and invites opprobrium. But my experience of successful people is that all of them believe very strongly in innate differences of ability, and reveal this especially through their assessments of others. Academic types, for example, are obsessed with comparing intelligence, whether they will openly admit it or not. Talent scouts for sports don’t look for the kid who works the hardest, they look for the kid with an arm like a cannon, or the kid who’s 6’8″ with a 4′ vertical.

    Everyone praises the virtue of hard work; that’s easy, and besides, you can hardly exhort someone to be more talented.

    • Jiro says:

      Talent scouts look for the kid with the best arm rather than the kid most willing to work hard because measuring the arm is much easier than measuring the tendency to work hard.

      • stillnotking says:

        That’s one hypothesis. The other is that a kid who doesn’t have the talent isn’t going to make it competitively, no matter how hard he works.

        I went to high school with a kid named Mike who loved basketball. Lived it, breathed it, practiced for six hours a day. He’d been shooting hoops since he was eight years old. His dream was to be a professional basketball player. Unfortunately, no one had the heart to tell him that an average, kinda dumpy 5’8″ white guy with a decent-but-not-superhuman ability to sink three-pointers was never going to make it in the NBA. I wish, for his sake, someone had. “Growth mindset” would need to be a great deal more literal to help people like Mike.

        • Harald K says:

          He might have had a chance, if in addition to his “growth mindset”, he had a little supplement of a “growth hormone “. Not saying it’s a good idea on the whole, but I’m quite confident it would do a lot for him in that one area.

    • Jaskologist says:

      I think there’s a danger here of looking at the people at the top, rather than those clustered around the middle. To get to the right tail of the bell curve, you need to have all factors working for you. But if we’re formulating public policy/cultural memes, we need to think of how to uplift the average man. Hard work will not make him a Fortune 500 CEO, but that doesn’t mean it won’t make him better off than he would have been otherwise.

      • stillnotking says:

        I’m not sure how we could meme “work hard” harder than we currently do. In America especially, that might as well be the Eleventh Commandment.

        • Salem says:

          You think Americans fixate on working hard? Wow, let’s just say cultural perspectives vary. Americans (and Westerners in general) seem incredibly lazy, no doubt because generations of affluence have meant that they don’t have to worry so much, and have made them soft.

          Spend some time in the Far East, and you will see what hard work looks like.

  41. BPGnarls says:

    I have known high ability people to respond to finding a task too difficult for themselves in (generally) two ways: 1. Giving up as described by the studies and some of the comments, or 2. Noticing that failure in general is a roadblock and not a death sentence, and coming up with strategies to work around it. Overcoming the failure modes just becomes another challenge to deconstruct and “outgrow”. [I have not looked at the research, but I would expect to find that it is difficult to group high ability people by the strategies they develop since the methods would be so personal.] The type 2 ability group includes the kids you would expect to see at Stanford.

    One possible “growth” structure for people to use as a model is clearly athletics (specifically individual athletics like swimming, track, tennis, etc.). [Maybe structured music learning fits here as well.] We may even have a rough data set to test this (yes there are obvious confounders): Take the top X students in the running for valedictorian at the top universities in the country and check the percentage with an official athletic history. I would estimate around 75% individual+team athletes from my four years at college…

  42. Jaskologist says:

    The thing that bothers me about the studies you mentioned is that they gave the students an impossible task, which seems the wrong way to go about it. They should have picked a task which gets increasingly difficult, such that everybody will fail eventually, but we can say that one person did better than another, rather than saying that one person beat their head against the wall longer than another. I’m sure psych students have come up with many such tests that could be used.

    My experiment would administer the test, record scores, and then randomly attribute that score to either ability or work (I would be interested in four group here: those whose high scores are praised for ability/work, and those whose low scores are blamed on lack of ability/work. I suspect the positive and negative attributions would come out differently. Oh yeah, and a control, too). Then you can administer the test again, or something like it, and see what change there was.

  43. Jacob says:

    >Normally I would assume these results are falsified, but I have looked for all of the usual ways of falsifying results and I can’t find any

    What are these usual ways?

  44. Jazi Zilber says:

    A few points.

    1) Multiple kinds of beliefs can be manipulated and have an effect. The most known is the industrial experiments that eventually found that any experimental change increases productivity, by the very power of experiment/tracking/change (not sure about what exactly worked, but that was the gist of it)

    2) The million dollar question is not what works in the lab, but what works ecologically over the long term.
    Short term, faking works. “one more second and you are there” etc. and a person exerts maximum effort evey minute.

    But one cannot exert effort all the time.
    Also, the motivation and belief system will not sustain it forever.

    So, even if the growth mindset works at times. It is not clear how applicable it is for real life – long term.

    3) the decision making cost.
    Knowing one’s limits is useful. “I am good at this” – “I am bad at this” is very useful to decide on jobs, etc. etc.
    how much is it worthwhile to lose on realism for the sake of increased effort – motivation (assuming there is an effect).

    4) Positive illusions literature.
    there was a paper (taylor & Brown 1988) showing positive illustions to be part of a healthy psyche. But up to a point as The same authors qualified in later work (http://web.psych.utoronto.ca/psy430/Taylor%26Brown_Positive%20Illusions%20and%20Well-Being%20Revisited.pdf)

    5) The work on Hope shows similar results. Namely that the effect of having high hope is pretty much just positive. http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Hope-Theory-Measures-Applications/dp/0126540500

    Taylor, S. E. & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health.( Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193—210.)
    http://humancond.org/_media/papers/taylor_brown_88_illusion_and_well_being.pdf

  45. AcidDC says:

    Interesting. I’ve pretty much been assuming that the whole ‘growth mindset’ thing is just part of the larger right-wing project to convince people that success is strongly correlated with level of effort in order to justify social inequalities. It’s easy to be against the welfare state if you think poor people’s problem is that they just aren’t trying hard enough. It’s a beautiful mindset, because instead of helping people you get to feel superior and yell at them for being lazy. Plus, if you can get people to internalize this mindset, they are more likely to focus on pressing their nose harder against the grindstone, rather than questioning the social system they’re in.

    • Right wing? I can think of an equally right-wing way to spin either result:

      Growth-oriented right: “The poor are just lazy and need to try harder.”
      Growth-oriented left: “The poor can be just as good as the rich if we can offer them the right kind of social help.”

      Fixed right: “The rich are intrinsically better, which is why they’re rich.”
      Fixed left: “The poor can’t help themselves and so deserve our support.”

      • vV_Vv says:

        Fixed right: “The rich are intrinsically better, which is why they’re rich.”
        Fixed left: “The poor can’t help themselves and so deserve our support.”

        These positions don’t appear to be in conlfict.

        • InferentialDistance says:

          You’re not extending them out to their conclusions:
          Fixed Right: the poor suffer because they suck, and that’s exactly what they deserve (because they suck).
          Fixed Left: the poor suffer because they suck, which they don’t deserve (because they can’t not suck).

          • Jaskologist says:

            Fixed Left: The poor suffer because they suck. They need somebody who doesn’t suck to make their decisions for them, or at least nudge them in the correct direction. Somebody like me.

          • Anonymous says:

            Fixed Right: The poor suffer because they suck. They need somebody who doesn’t suck to make their decisions for them, or at least nudge them in the correct direction. Somebody like me.

          • vV_Vv says:

            Horseshoe theory strikes again.

            I’m starting to postulate that all sufficiently extreme political positions converge towards a fixed point.

  46. Wes says:

    Dweck’s studies seem to prove that growth-mindset children will put in more effort when faced with a very difficult obstacle. This can sort of the same thing as saying “children who believe in the power of hard work will work harder!” Not exactly breaking news. The more interesting part is that *telling* students that their success is due to hard work helps to create the growth mindset, but that doesn’t really say anything about real-world effects.

    I feel like most of the results, because they test performance on impossible or extremely difficult problems, fail to measure success. A student who gives up when faced with an impossible problems is making the right decision. A student who keeps trying is making a bad decision.

    I think it would be more relevant to test performance on possible-but-difficult problems, and measure who actually succeeded. That seems like it would be more correlated with real-world success.

  47. moridinamael says:

    I don’t entirely get why growth-innate is depicted as a spectrum or a dichotomy.

    Like, I believe that I could learn to (hypothetical exampel) skateboard pretty well if I put in the effort. I also believe that I’m pretty maladroit and injury-prone and don’t have the “natural talent” to be a great skateboarder.

    The latter belief wouldn’t cause me to give up learning to skateboard, but it keeps me grounded. The former belief causes me to strive even when the process is difficult. I can hold both beliefs without experiencing any internal strife.

    It seems that these concepts can only mean anything when framed in terms of direct competition between human beings. “You can’t ever be as good as Tony Hawk. Don’t delude yourself.” Ok, why do I have to see myself as in competition with Tony Hawk? I just want to get around faster and maybe do some tricks. “If you work hard, you can be as good as Tony Hawk!” Maybe, maybe not, but how is that comparison even relevant to my day-to-day practice? Do you think Michael Jordan was constantly looking around and making sure he was better than other people? My understanding is that the only person Michael Jordan was in competition with was Michael Jordan.

  48. Josh says:

    Let’s assume for a second that success in an endeavor requires some minimum threshold of persistence, some minimum threshold of talent, and maybe some overlap zone where one can compensate for the other. Sounds pretty reasonable to me re how life actually works.

    The following observations fall out of this:

    As an individual, since you can’t control ability, the only meaningful thing you can do is to increase your own persistence. This is why people like growth mindset as a theory.

    Your other option as an individual is to opt out of the game / throw a revolution. This option is not a good individual response unless a) you’re very confident you are below the ability threshold, which usually requires persistence to ascertain, and b) your revolution / escape plan is viable. Practically, even if you are below an ability bar, persistence with open eyes is probably your best option.

    Sociologically, looking at other people and determining policy, both factors should be accounted for. The conversation about other people is NOT the same as the conversation about yourself.

    The relationship between talent / persistence and how you explain success to yourself is going to be bi-directional. Talented people are probably going to be inclined to attribute their success to talent, since it’s true–if you are talented, you usually know it. So I would predict especially talented people would likely not have a “growth mindset”. However, they would be better off if they did, which is why growth mindset research tends to get the kind of high achieving people who engage in conversations about research excited.

    So I would expect: in situations where talent is controlled for, growth mindset would have a strong correlation with success; in situations where talent is not controlled for, I would expect mixed results because of the talented-but-not-growth-mindsetty people.

    • Murphy says:

      Most people are not talented at all things. a very few unfortunate people will have no talent for anything but most people have *something*.

      When faced with a child who isn’t doing well at something you could *could* take a “growth mindset” approach and assume the reason they’re failing is because they’re *just not trying hard enough*. You could tell them this. A lot. You could insist that they just need to keep trying and keep trying until they’re totally certain that their failure is utterly due to a lack of effort on their own part. (the preferred position of the existing school system and many teachers)

      Or you could be a decent human being and let them try something else that they might have more talent for, allow them to spend the limited hours of their life on something that *might work out better for them* on the basis that there’s more than one thing people can try in this universe.

      Your post implicitly assumes zero cost for sinking massive amounts of effort into endeavors which are utterly doomed to failure. This is of course not the case, there’s a real cost in hours, days, weeks months and years of unnecessary suffering.

      TL;DR:”winners never quit, and quitters never win, but those who never quit and never win are idiots.[or being forced to keep trying by sadistic idiots]”

      • Dude Man says:

        Most people are not talented at all things. a very few unfortunate people will have no talent for anything but most people have *something*.

        Are most people talented at things that are lucrative or socially beneficial? What if someone is in the 95th percentile of whatever skill they’re talented in, but can’t do anything with it unless they’re in the 99th percentile? Are they still considered talented? Should they try to pursue something else?

        Similarly, if there was one skill that most people need to succeed, then shouldn’t you be pushing everyone to try and get better at that one thing even if they aren’t talented?

  49. In some ways I’m like the poster boy for the ability mindset, but in other ways I don’t fit it at all. So I don’t really know what to think about the whole subject. Growing up I was always the smartest kid in my class, and I definitely definitely built up my self-image and sense of self-worth around being intelligent. And I can see in retrospect how I shied away from a lot of things that would have really tested my ability because of a fear of failure. But at the same time I didn’t really fit the “smart but lazy” stereotype – I always did my homework and worked very hard in all my classes. I suspect mostly I just wanted to be praised or be viewed as the “good kid”, and had I gone the “smart but lazy” route I maybe would’ve been able to keep my protective self-image of being intelligent, but I wouldn’t have gotten the same accolades from my parents and teachers.

    Anyway, with my “smart kid” identity you would think I would have been set up to fail in university when I was really tested for the first time. But when I found my courses getting tougher, I…buckled down and worked harder than I ever had, and got the same outstanding grades. And then when the courses got even tougher than that, I…did exactly the same thing. And then I ended up graduating first at the university.

    Now, I guess you could say that since I didn’t shun hard work (or view it as something that intelligent people shouldn’t have to do) I actually had a growth mindset all along. But it really didn’t feel like that – throughout university I still viewed myself as having a fixed amount of intelligence, and still based much of my self-esteem on the fact that I seemed to have a lot of it.

    Anyway, probably more relevant to the topic at hand: I can say for sure that I have far more of a fixed mindset when I’m being watched. When someone is looking over my shoulder it’s all of a sudden a referendum on my abilities and I pretty much can’t learn or do anything. Usually in cases like that I just want to retreat to a place of a solitude where I can learn the skill in question without someone judging any failures I might have along the way. Does anyone else have a similar reaction to being watched?

    This seems like it could be highly relevant since it seems like all of the growth mindset studies are heavily supervised.

    • Bill Openthalt says:

      I cannot function if watched, or when under pressure. This is a huge disadvantage, as I always under-perform on tests. It stopped me from pursuing a career as a musical performer (I simply cannot play in front of an audience).

    • Deiseach says:

      Yes. I work away fine on my own; put someone looking over my shoulder, and I drop my pen, fumble on the keyboard, and generally have trouble remembering the correct way to spell “cat”.

  50. switchnode says:

    Miscellaneous thoughts:

    1. As some people (Murphy, Belabored Yearning) have mentioned above, belief in one’s own ability can actually be protective against the fail-and-quit pattern.

    2. Higher intelligence is linked to more accurate perceptions of one’s own abilities (Dunning-Krueger).

    3. If belief in one’s own ability is high, and confidence in that belief is also high, one may be more likely to notice, and be suspicious of, contradictory external descriptions of that ability—whether it’s too much praise for something that was obviously easy, or too much disappointment for something that was obviously quite difficult. (You don’t get out of the habit of challenging teachers if you’re right at least half the time.)

    4. As others (Cole, ddreytes, loki, Wes) suggest, the “helpless” students may well have been those who correctly identified the nature of the situation.

    5. The perception that one’s chain is being yanked is not conducive to effort. (Requisite smart-kid schooling anecdote goes here.)

    6. Here’s the thing that really worries me. Suppose the growth mindset really is true; skills are only a tiny initial variation and practice is everything.

    Is practice a skill?

    • onyomi says:

      “Is practice a skill?”

      Yeah, this is always the wrench in arguments about effort and will power–the idea that they themselves may be genetically determined.

      That said, I do think practicing hard at one thing teaches you how to practice hard in general, and that will power can be built up almost like a muscle; nevertheless, that only defers the problem: maybe genetics determine whether or not you have enough will power to start the virtuous cycle of hard work–>more will power–>hard work.

      • vV_Vv says:

        and that will power can be built up almost like a muscle;

        But the ability to build up muscles has also a genetic component.

        • onyomi says:

          And no one would deny that. More controversial, perhaps, is the idea that the degree of motivation to work out is also genetically determined.

  51. Adam says:

    I’m not entirely sure I understand what you’re trying to say is wrong here. There’s something I’m missing, I think.

    To me, the growth mindset is presenting itself as the way to get the best we can out of any individual. Ability mindset has a tendency to stop people from achieving their best. Example: high intelligence makes school easy so intelligent students get trained that everything should be easy because their smart. Then, when they encounter something hard, they give up and blame something else instead of trying.

    I don’t think growth mindset is saying that effort will make you the best of all people and that those at the top are simply those who worked hardest. I think growth mindset is saying that effort will make you the best that you yourself can be. Effort makes the best use of talent, I guess is what I’m saying. Alternatively, an ability mindset can have the tendency to avoid effort.

    • Bill Openthalt says:

      The growth mindset helps people make the best of their abilities, but it is also used to claim there is no such thing as talent. I guess it is this aspect Scott has issues with.

      • Murphy says:

        Or that if you fail at something it means you *just weren’t trying hard enough* which is just pointlessly cruel to some people who can work their asses off and still fail.

        • Jaskologist says:

          Cruel, but not pointlessly. It gets to work their asses off and consequently not fail.

          • Murphy says:

            It’s lovely for the people who will do OK.

            But I see you missed the “and still fail” part. Because some people will. Life is cruel like that. There’s no benevolent fairy who’ll see them trying really really hard and grant their wish that they not fail.

            For such people taking a “growth mindset” and telling them that it’s all about how hard they try: that their failure is due to them not trying hard enough is literally nothing but cruelty, utterly unnecessary cruelty.

          • social justice warlock says:

            It’s not at all clear to me that being told your work ethic sucks is harder than being told your brain sucks. The “Parable of the Talents” comment section is full of people feeling bad about feeling dumb.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Every system has cracks that people will fall through. I think this problem is Goedelian: every exception you build in to catch somebody who falls through will result in a new crack for somebody else to fall through elsewhere.

          • Deiseach says:

            The cruelty of being told “your work ethic sucks”, rather than “you’re just too dumb to succeed” (and I agree, both are cruel) is that in the first case, any setbacks can be dismissed with “We don’t need to change anything, you just need to work harder”. Look at that guy in China who started off with one leg, living in a hole in the ground, and subsisting on leaves! He worked twenty hours a day and now he’s a millionaire, so you can do the same thing!

            You just need to work harder and do more than you are already doing and you’d succeed, and if you’re not succeeding, it means that you’re not putting in enough effort.

            Limits of IQ and natural ability can be accepted as “Okay, you can’t help it, you’ve done as much as you can with what you have”, but you can always (in theory) put in more effort. Working two jobs? Here’s a woman working three! Studying six hours a night? Here’s the Number One student at the Number One university in the country who studies ten hours!

          • vV_Vv says:

            It’s not at all clear to me that being told your work ethic sucks is harder than being told your brain sucks.

            The difference is that “your work ethic sucks” is considered a moral failing while “you are too dumb/too short/etc.” is not. This is related to the discussion of the “Chemical Imbalance” post.

            I think there is a social tradeoff here: to the extent that performance responds to social incentives like praise and scorn, it may be useful to consider performance problems as a moral failing, even if this means throwing under the bus some fraction of people who can’t improve enough by social pressure.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I feel like Dweck makes much stronger claims. Not just “you need to remain cognizant of the role of effort so you can achieve your potential”, but “if you think ability is important, even to the tiny degree you get when someone offhandedly calls you smart, you will stop trying and start lying and cheating because you hate learning for its own sake and only want to convince other people of your smartness”.

      • Bill Openthalt says:

        People tend to project their own feelings and motivations on others, so I guess Dweck is (subconsciously) jealous of people she perceives as smarter, and you are afraid people will dislike you because you are (observably by a disinterested 3rd party) smarter than most.
        What about this: being part of society is more important than being clever, so clever people tend to hide their cleverness if they fear it would disconnect them from society.

    • Deiseach says:

      those at the top are simply those who worked hardest

      I have to disagree, Adam; whatever it was intended to mean, I think (as the links to mass media articles Scott provided), in popular parlance it has come to mean exactly that. Joe Bloggs is CEO of the top-ranked Fortune 500 company because from the moment he started his career, he deliberately devoted every waking hour to getting ahead (he has three failed marriages behind him, his kids hate him, and his employees think he’s an absolute bastard, but hey, he’s rich and successful!)

      That fact that Joe Bloggs is Joseph Malthouse Bloggs IV and his family background gave him access to education, networking opportunities, and contacts that Tom Brown from Green Street will never have, is not brought up. I think it’s appealing in that it ties in to the foundation myth self-image in America of the brave pioneeers who struck out and conquered the wilderness and achieved a place as the world’s greatest nation through hard work, grit, and stick-to-it-iveness.

    • ddreytes says:

      To be frank, it seems to me that if all growth mindset amounts to is the claim that practice and effort are really important, it’s not worth jack shit as a theory. That’s an incredibly banal, obvious result.

      That also does not seem to be what many of the people involved are actually claiming. There is (as everyone else responding to this has pointed out) a whole bunch of other stuff that goes along with it. Which is good, in the sense that it means that growth mindset is an interesting theory, but it also does leave it open to criticism.

  52. social justice warlock says:

    Another factor that might convert ability mindset to a functional version of growth mindset is signaling. I’ve mostly been praised for intelligence throughout my life, and in my case it’s encouraged me to work hard at seeming smart. An hypothesis that I take seriously is that most actually prosocial behavior is an attempt to signal virtue and most actually interesting ideas and intellectual performance are the result of attempting to signal intelligence. This can nicely work even if virtue and IQ or whatever are illusive; Max Weber provides a nice argument about signaling divine election in Protestant Ethic.

  53. Anthony says:

    Before reading any other comments:

    When people are in a psychology study, the fixed mindset individuals universally crash and bomb and display themselves to be totally incapable of learning or working hard. At every other moment, they seem to be doing equally well or better than their growth mindset peers. What’s going on? I have no idea.

    First guess: time. These studies, by and large, set up the subjects to fail, then test them on a new task right away. Is it possible that the short-term differences in performance are larger for “fixed-mindset” people, but that given a little time, the differences wash away? Enough so that in most of real life, the differences don’t matter? Differences in sports performance would support this theory, as most sports really don’t allow recovery time – if fumbling a pass knocks your performance down for 30 seconds, you’re going to blow something else in that time, and you’ll wash out of the game.

    • Deiseach says:

      These studies, by and large, set up the subjects to fail, then test them on a new task right away.

      All of which would seem to indicate that if you are a child being tested in a psychological study, and the tester offers you a choice of one marshmallow now or two if you can wait fifteen minutes, grab that marshmallow now because the rotter will probably make you wait and then still not give you any marshmallows at all! 🙂

  54. Baby Beluga says:

    Well, if it makes you feel any better, now, when I google “growth mindset debunked,” I also get your article!

  55. Swanknasty says:

    Regarding talent, I don’t really know what definition of “a lot” we’re using here. IQ correlates with performance at around .4. That means it can explain only about 16% of the variance in performance.

    There are other traits that have been shown to be better predictors of performance than “talent” or “IQ.” “Grit” is one of them. And “grit” is the ability to persevere in the face of challenge.

    • JK says:

      Your sources for the superiority of “grit” as a predictor?

      • swanknasty says:

        “Self-discipline measured in the fall accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in final grades, high school selection, school attendance, hours spent doing homework, hours spent watching television (inversely), and the time of day students began their homework. The effect of self-discipline on final grades held even when controlling for first-marking-period grades, achievement-test scores, and measured IQ”
        http://pss.sagepub.com/content/16/12/939.short

        “Across six studies, individual differences in grit accounted for significant incremental variance in success outcomes over and beyond that explained by IQ, to which it was not positively related.”
        http://rrhs.schoolwires.net/cms/lib7/WI01001304/Centricity/Domain/187/Grit%20JPSP.pdf

        • Anonymous says:

          Your first link is broken. correct link.

        • JK says:

          Both of your studies are marred by range restriction in IQ. In the first study, the participants were magnet school students admitted on the basis of high GPA and standardized test scores. The SD for IQ was 10 points, compared to 16 points in the standardization sample. In contrast, self-discipline appeared to show as much variation in the study sample as in the standardization sample — suggesting, interestingly, that variations in grit had had no effect on who got into the magnet school (i.e., grit was uncorrelated with GPA and IQ in unselected samples). Sackett et al. have criticized the misleading way Duckworth and Seligman presented their results:

          For example, Duckworth and Seligman (2005) were interested in the relative impact of self-discipline and IQ on a variety of indices of academic performance. Because standardized IQ scores were used to select the sample, the IQ measure was range restricted. The study’s abstract states that self-discipline accounted for more than twice as much variance in each of six outcomes than did IQ. That conclusion, however, was based on observed
          correlations and did not take range restriction into account. It is interesting that Duckworth and Seligman acknowledged the range restriction issue and documented the degree of restriction on the IQ measure in their discussion. They applied a range restriction correction to one of the six
          outcome measures (GPA) and reported that whereas the corrected IQ–GPA correlation (.49) was larger than the uncorrected value (.32), it remained lower than the selfdiscipline–GPA correlation (.67). Although this is true,
          note that their conclusion (self-discipline accounts for more than twice as much variance as IQ) no longer holds after one takes range restriction into account. In addition, we applied range restriction corrections to other outcomes; in the case of predicting procrastination (as measured by the
          time homework was begun), for example, IQ had a higher correlation (.28 corrected, .18 observed) with procrastination than did self-discipline (.26) after we corrected for range restriction, which is clearly at odds with the authors’ conclusion. Thus, whereas Duckworth and Seligman
          (2005) made a strong case for the value of studying self-discipline as an additional predictor of academic outcomes, a clear picture of the relative value of self-discipline and IQ requires careful attention to range restriction. In selection settings, the question of interest is generally one of estimating a value for an applicant pool, and thus range
          restriction corrections are often an essential aspect of evaluating
          selection systems.

          In your second study, the predictive validity of IQ and grit were compared in samples consisting of Ivy League undergraduates and National Spelling Bee finalists. Again, selection into these samples is based strongly on high IQ, so the conclusions one can draw from these analyses are limited. In the Ivy League sample, SAT scores were a better predictor of GPA than grit (corrs 0.30 versus 0.25, difference probably ns). In the Spelling Bee sample, IQ appears to be at least as good as grit as a predictor of success, although the small sample size and somewhat muddled analysis preclude any strong inferences. The study also analyzed West Point cadet samples and online volunteer samples but IQ and grit were not compared in those analyses.

          In sum, your studies provide very little evidence for the superiority of “grit” compared to IQ. Grit appears to be closely related to Big Five conscientiousness, and meta-analyses show that while conscientiousness is a good predictor of many outcomes, IQ is better.

        • swanknasty says:

          These critiques are addressed in the papers….

          “In contrast, for the only self-discipline
          measure for which normative data for the same age group are available—the EJI—the variance in the present study was typical of a normative population. According to classical test theory (Lord & Novick, 1968), the unattenuated population
          correlation (r) between IQ and final GPA in the current study is estimated as .49, still smaller than the observed correlation between self-discipline and GPA (r 5 .67).”
          http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/PsychologicalScienceDec2005.pdf

          “An additional concern is that Studies 3, 4, 5, and 6 involved select populations in which there was restriction of range on IQ, resulting in attenuation of correlations between IQ and both grit
          and achievement. Our findings suggest that among high achievers, there is likely some degree of restriction of range on grit as well.
          Thus, we may have underestimated the correlations among grit, IQ, and achievement. Further, by focusing our attention on individual
          differences among relatively high-IQ individuals, we have necessarily limited the external validity of our investigation. We are hesitant to extrapolate from the conclusions made here to less talented populations, but our suspicion is that grit, like IQ, is of ubiquitous importance in all endeavors in which success requires months or even years of sustained effort and interest. To the extent that the temptation to give up is greater for individuals of modest ability, grit may matter more, not less.”
          http://rrhs.schoolwires.net/cms/lib7/WI01001304/Centricity/Domain/187/Grit%20JPSP.pdf

          Your cited passage only quibbles with degree to which ‘grit’ outdoes IQ as a predictor (it no longer explains twice as much of the variance), rather than whether ‘grit’ outdoes IQ as a predictor. It’s a minor quibble: .67^2 = ~45% variance explained, vs. (corrected) .49^2 = 24% of variance explained.

          • JK says:

            In the first article, the differences between IQ and self-discipline correlations are not statistically significant given the small sample size, and some of the range-restriction-corrected point estimates for IQ appear to be larger than the estimates for self-discipline.

            In your second article, IQ and grit are directly compared only in the two sub-analyses I discussed above. In both of them IQ is similar to grit as a predictor. The other analyses either don’t have IQ measures or mash IQ together with other measures so that its independent effect cannot be discerned.

            In the meta-analysis of Judge et al., the correlation between IQ and job performance was 0.51, while the correlation between conscientiousness (which is closely related to grit according to your second article) was 0.28. If you want to make a case for grit, cite meta-analyses or big, representative studies, not small cherry-picked studies.

          • swanknasty says:

            How do you conclude the difference isn’t statistically significant?

            Error = 1/sqrt(n – 3). FT = arctanh(.67) = .81 1/sqrt(n-3 = 137) ~ .08, x 2 for 98% confidence = .16.

            So the confidence interval = tanh(.97) and tanh(.65) = .57 – .75.

            Conscientiousness is not “grit,” even though it’s related to grit.

            I’ve already made a case for grit. A trait that is related to it is nearly as good of a predictor as IQ is, a multi-study analysis at worst showed it to be as good as IQ, and another study shows that it is better than IQ as a predictor.

          • JK says:

            Using the values in Duckworth & Seligman’s Table 2 and Sackett’s corrected IQ-GPA correlation, the 95% CI for the self-discipline-GPA correlation is 0.58 – 0.77 while the same for the IQ-GPA correlation is 0.37 – 0.60. The CIs overlap. To properly assess the significance of the difference, you would also have take into account the correlation between IQ and self-discipline (it appears to be very low though, thus ignorable) and the fact that range restriction correction increases sampling variance (and therefore CIs), but in any case there is very little chance of the difference being significant. Point estimates for the other outcomes they studied generally show smaller differences between self-discipline and IQ or favor IQ when using corrected values, so there is no evidence for a superiority of self-discipline there, either.

            Conscientiousness is not “grit,” even though it’s related to grit.

            In your second article, they report correlations of 0.64 and 0.77 between grit and conscientiousness. Considering that the correlations are attenuated by measurement error, we can conclude that grit and conscientiousness are very closely related if not isomorphic at least in these samples.

            From Duckworth et al. (2007):

            Our findings suggest that among high achievers, there is likely some degree of restriction of range on grit as well.

            They don’t provide any evidence for range restriction in grit in any of their studies. The only relevant analysis, in the first article, indicates that there was no such range restriction among high achieving students. In contrast, both their research and that of any number of others show that high achievement is associated with range restriction in IQ.

            By the way, I find it somewhat suspicious that Duckworth et al. don’t report correlations between the SAT and their outcome measures in the West Point samples even though they clearly have the data to do that. Instead, they use a composite variable called Whole Candidate Score, which is “a weighted average of SAT scores, class rank, demonstrated leadership ability, and physical aptitude.” Combining the SAT with uncorrelated or anticorrelated variables obviously dilutes the signal.

            I’ve already made a case for grit. A trait that is related to it is nearly as good of a predictor as IQ is, a multi-study analysis at worst showed it to be as good as IQ, and another study shows that it is better than IQ as a predictor.

            Your first article was about something called self-discipline, not grit. It showed that in a small sample of cognitively selected school children, self-discipline and IQ were not statistically significantly different as predictors of various outcomes.

            Your second article contains only two analyses that compare grit and IQ. The first sample consisted of 139 self-selected undergraduates whose average SAT score was above the 96th percentile nationally. The second sample was a self-selected subsample of National Spelling Bee participants, N=79. In these highly atypical samples, IQ and grit appeared to have similar predictive power.

            For a comparison, here’s some validity data for IQ from Sackett’s article:

            r=.48: SAT Verbal + Math with GPA, with no correction for course difficulty (N=1.2 million)

            r=.55: SAT Verbal + Math with GPA, with correction for course difficulty (N=165,000)

            r=.68: general cognitive ability with performance in job training (N=1.1 million)

            r=.47: general cognitive ability with job performance (N=300,000)

            The idea that you can establish the equality or superiority of some construct vis-à-vis IQ by referring to a couple of studies with N~100 convenience samples is self-evidently absurd. It would be so even without the fact that psychology is plagued by publication bias and questionable research practices, which make the evidentiary value of small studies in particular even more meager than it already is.

            “Grit” appears to be a rebranding of older constructs like conscientiousness, self-discipline, self-efficacy or whatever. Previous research has established that IQ is superior to such constructs as a predictor of desirable outcomes. There is no question that conscientiousness and related constructs are good predictors of many outcomes, but the evidence does not bear out the claim that they are equal to, let alone better, than IQ in this respect. A LOT more evidence is required to make any such claims about grit.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            JK, while I generally agree with the above, your statistics in the first paragraph are incorrect. An overlap of confidence interval is not the same as insignificant difference. For example, the joint probability that A is up by a single standard error while B is down by a single standard error is already less than 5%. Try playing around with a t-test to see the relation.

          • swanknasty says:

            CI for the self-discipline-GPA correlation is 0.58 – 0.77 while the same for the IQ-GPA correlation is 0.37 – 0.60. The CIs overlap.

            If confidence intervals don’t overlap, then the variables are necessarily statistically different, but the opposite is not true.

            Between both IQ/GPA and SD/GPA, we’d conduct a z-test between both transformed correlations. The variables appear to be independent, so I’ll just treat them as two different samples. 81-.54/.11 = 2.45 z difference, well above .05 significance. So I disagree that there’s “little chance” the difference is significant.

            There’s no indication that the variables are correlated at all, and if anything, they are negatively correlated.

            And the other outcomes they studied weren’t performance, so they aren’t particularly relevant.

            In your second article, they report correlations of 0.64 and 0.77 between grit and conscientiousness. Considering that the correlations are attenuated by measurement error,

            Even with measurement error, there is some portion of difference within each. So again, while they are highly related, the small part of difference that remains between them may and indeed appears to make a large difference.

            They don’t provide any evidence for range restriction in grit in any of their studies

            Yes, it’s an inference: if institutions select for higher IQ and higher IQ is associated with lower grit, then it’s plausible to conclude that grit was at least restricted.

            The only relevant analysis, in the first article, indicates that there was no such range restriction among high achieving students.

            Without knowing the specific criteria for entrance into the magnet school, i.e. relative weights placed on GPA and test scores, we can’t conclude much from this fact, beyond the near-tautology that receiving high grades and high test scores has some sort of cognitive floor.

            The idea that you can establish the equality or superiority of some construct vis-à-vis IQ by referring to a couple of studies with N~100 convenience samples is self-evidently absurd.

            Your main quibble is that there hasn’t been enough research. Maybe so, but there is definitely reason to believe grit is either as good or better than IQ as a predictor.

            You’re casting my statement as an absolute to attack it: research has definitively established that grit is superior to IQ, when I actually said that there are traits that have been shown to be superior to IQ as predictors. Grit is a new construct, the research on grit is new, whereas the research on IQ is old. Consequently, there’s much less of the former than the latter.

            Your first article was about something called self-discipline, not grit.

            It was a precursor to the later brand of “grit.”

            It showed that in a small sample of cognitively selected school children, self-discipline and IQ were not statistically significantly different as predictors of various outcomes.

            See above for my comments on that.

            My statement in the beginning was “there are other traits that have been shown to be better predictors.” That statement is supported by evidence.

          • JK says:

            Douglas, you are correct that the overlapping CIs do not necessarily mean that the difference in non-significant. To properly assess the significance, you would also have to adjust for the increased sampling variance induced by the range restriction correction, and I’m not sure how to do it.

            Swanknasty’s perspective seems to be that it is proper to give the same weight to the one or two small studies using eccentric samples that support “grit” as a strong predictor as to the 100-year-old research tradition that has established IQ as the best predictor of life outcomes across hundreds of studies, many millions of research subjects, many cultures, many domains of life, etc. I disagree with Swanknasty.

          • swanknasty says:

            What do you mean by sampling variance? The variance due to sampling of the mean, the SD, etc.?

          • swanknasty says:

            Swanknasty’s perspective seems to be that it is proper to give the same weight to the one or two small studies using eccentric samples that support “grit” as a strong predictor as to the 100-year-old research tradition that has established IQ as the best predictor of life outcomes across hundreds of studies, many millions of research subjects, many cultures, many domains of life, etc.

            Oh please. I didn’t say any of that. Once again –>
            “You’re casting my statement as an absolute to attack it: research has definitively established that grit is superior to IQ, when I actually said that there are traits that have been shown to be superior to IQ as predictors. Grit is a new construct, the research on grit is new, whereas the research on IQ is old. Consequently, there’s much less of the former than the latter.”

            Further, the gripes you have brought up are endemic in the research on IQ: constant corrections for range restriction, non-representative samples, imperfect measures of ‘IQ,’ (such as the SAT; or using culturally biased tests on non-Western populations), shoddy methods (all of Lynn’s; failure to consider whether IQ and job performance are correlated because IQ correlates also with height and attractiveness), and “eccentric” samples. So, as I said, your only quibble is that more studies are necessary.

          • JK says:

            If the uncorrected correlation between IQ and GPA is 0.32 and the range restriction corrected one is 0.49, then the standard error for the latter is larger than for the former because the range restriction correction procedure adds more sampling error to the estimate.

            This is what you wrote originally:

            There are other traits that have been shown to be better predictors of performance than “talent” or “IQ.” “Grit” is one of them. And “grit” is the ability to persevere in the face of challenge.

            You said that other traits have been shown to be superior to IQ. Quite reasonably, I interpreted this as a claim that it has been established that these other traits are superior. Now you seem to be saying that you only meant that a couple of small studies have weakly suggested that “grit” or “self-discipline” may be awesome predictors. Of course, by that standard, lots of things have been shown to be awesome predictors, given the proliferation of large but unreplicable effects in psychology.

            By the way, what are those other traits that are superior to IQ, besides grit?

            In this study, with a sample larger than any of Duckworth’s, grit was a poor predictor of high school outcomes, with no predictive validity over the Big Five. Why didn’t you cite this study?

        • swanknasty says:

          Now you seem to be saying that you only meant that a couple of small studies have weakly suggested that “grit” or “self-discipline

          That’s not what I said, either. In the first study, we don’t have much reason to believe the difference between the corrected correlation and SD isn’t significant, and the current difference exceeds the .05 significance threshold by so much that I doubt the increase in error (from what I presume is the reduction in dofF from correcting range) will change that.

          The study you cite shows grit correlating at .20 and conscientiousness correlating at .39. This supports what I originally said. Both grit and conscientiousness are reliably good predictors of success, and the fact that the correlations of these closely related traits range from .2-.67 is more support of that fact.

          FYI, IQ’s relation to job performance isn’t a static .5. It ranges from .2-.6.

          So here we have other traits that are at least as good of predictors as IQ, if not better.

  56. Sichu Lu says:

    I had some of the same difficulties reconciling what I knew about the importance of innate ability and hard work when it comes to accounting for the ease which skills are learned and the level of competence achieved. Let me offer the following meta-level observation without going into the laborious arguments that bringing up the relative role of nature and nurture always seem to provoke. It’s the observation that there are many different paths towards being good at something. For every example of a Saul Kripke and Von Neumann, you have a Darwin. Now I’m not saying that Darwin wasn’t smart, he only come up with one of the most influential theory in the history of science but that compared to Von Neumann, he wasn’t nearly as bright. Yet, arguable Darwin has had much more impact on science than Von Neumann. I’m not trying to diminish anyone’s achievements here but evolutionary biology is much less of a niche than the foundations of set theory or quantum mechanics or even game theory. Darwin only published his ideas late in his life and spent decades accumulating evidence for his insight. The lesson that I’m trying to illustrate here that if as a young man, Darwin went to the library and read up on all the marvelous child prodigies and brilliant people in history who seemed like they were born being able to prove theorems and do science and juggle with ideas, he might have reasonably concluded that he wasn’t nearly in the same league as the rest of them. In short, if he didn’t believe that he could be as good as them, why would he bother with his studies then? Well, that’s fallacious because lots of people don’t do things because they think they could be exceptional at it, but because they enjoy it. But in situations where a growth mindset would make a difference is the situations where someone would believe doing something wouldn’t be worth it if they can’t come up with something on par with the best people in that field, or at least to be better than average than the other practitioners. It seems like a really trivial point, but no matter where you are in the intelligence pyramid, you still don’t know what you can do. Sure you can practice ten years and not be as good as someone who have played for five, but for every person that practicing and hard work fails to result in gains, there are people who are rewarded by it. Now contrary to all the critics, g is a reliable and overall important factor linked to mortality rates, jobs attained, level of education reached and even GDP of countries and stable at r=.6 through lifetime and there are kinds of studies showing these things. However, g is not a measure of what you can possibility attain in life or even serving as a limiting threshold for what you can attain.(excluded people on the extreme lower end of spectrum) The proper way to think of it is of course ability matters, we have an overwhelming amount of evidence on this specific point, but that ability isn’t the only thing that matters or even the most important factor. It’s not that ability doesn’t matter, but that we humans have no idea what we can achieve with what abilities we have. Also just because someone has more ability at something doesn’t instantly mean they will stumble upon the better idea or end up a better musician. Maybe someone is really bad at fractions and arithmetic but can instantly grasp the idea of proof by contradiction or induction, maybe the kid who has trouble spelling words is actually great at portraying realistic characters and writing thrilling plots. Maybe the kid who instantly understands everything in textbooks and lectures won’t be a better scientist than someone who had trouble understanding the same books and have to spent more time learning these things because learning how to struggle is a best fit for research than instant comprehension where the former doesn’t happen. Cognition and learning and coming up with ideas are complicated things that we don’t understand very well. Everyone has innate abilities, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be better. That’s the real lesson of the growth mindset.

  57. Swanknasty says:

    If the only thing that affects success is how much effort you put in, poor kids seem to be putting in a heck of a lot less effort in a surprisingly linear way. But the smart money’s not on that theory.

    I don’t believe anyone holds that “the only thing” affecting success is effort, and also, a child needs a piano before he or she can expend effort in learning how to play a piano. The resources to buy a piano != effort. The resources required to access a piano != effort.

    And characterizing the treatment as “you just aren’t trying hard enough” is similarly unfair. “If you practiced at this hard enough and long enough, you would become proficient” is different than “you have failed because you haven’t tried hard enough.” You could have failed because you had no means to “try hard enough.”

  58. Albatross says:

    I admit I coasted through college (don’t be like me kids). To me the growth mindset is a useful lie. Sure, effort never mattered much in MY life, but I’ve managed people who were unwise or low IQ. Their effort was critical because I was smart enough to detect it and I adjusted my expectations for IQ. I knew their employment test scores, GPA, etc. The smart people who coasted were held accountable. The smart people and dumb people who gave me their full effort I worked to get promoted where we both thought they could succeed. The teacher, boss and other devious people can evaluate effort and hate excuses. This biases the experiments, but it is also the real world.

  59. macrojams says:

    This might be an over-particular criticism of the experimental setup, but it is unclear to me that reducing effort in the face of an impossible task is a meaningful failure mechanism. I think that a lot of being successful is recognizing the activities that have a low reward/effort ratio and systematically avoiding them to focus on the few areas where your particulary talents are the highest leverage.

    There is a particularly good Ribbonfarm post that provides a very good conceptual framework for thinking about search strategies in effort/payoff space in a high uncertainty environment (contrasted with the linear, no-skipping steps, well-defined task structure of school) with the money quote “If you run into an obstacle, it is far more likely that it represents a weakness rather than a meaningful real-world challenge to be overcome, as a learning experience.”

    I think this is probably basically true, and I would also be surprised if there was not a correlation between ability/intellegence/whatever and a preference for finding a clever way around obstacles rather than powering through.

  60. Alex says:

    I read Carol Dweck’s book last year, and in my daily life I gained just about nothing. I guess it’s just tough to force yourself to believe a lie.

  61. AFC says:

    There’s something about this that’s just silly.

    Talented people tend to focus on expanding and capitalizing on their talents.

    In other words: if you think you have an innate ability to do something, you will generally work _harder_ on doing it _better_ than if you think you don’t. People who believe they are talented at math practice their math skills more; people who believe they are talented at basketball practice basketball more; and so on.

    Everyone knows this, right? People expand on their talents. And usually they don’t even try (very much) to compensate for their weaknesses, because it would be wasted effort.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      In other words: if you think you have an innate ability to do something, you will generally work _harder_ on doing it _better_ than if you think you don’t. People who believe they are talented at math practice their math skills more; people who believe they are talented at basketball practice basketball more; and so on.

      Wasn’t this discussed not long ago, with this difference. The discussion iirc spoke of people/kids spending a lot of time on what they enjoy — thus getting a lot of practice and picking up skills and knowledge which other kids might have to work for. Believing, or being told, that one has natural ability for a field and could succeed in it, can justify the time and expense zie is putting into it.

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  65. onyomi says:

    The idea that there may be some lies which are more psychologically beneficial than the truth reminds me of the idea that there may be some problems for which the violent solution is the best one. That is, as Scott mentioned in the review of David Friedman’s book, wouldn’t it be convenient (but unlikely) if the voluntary, free-association solution was always the best solution? It usually is, but probably not always.

    Similarly, wouldn’t it be convenient if the truth was always the most useful mindset? It seems like it usually is, but one can imagine cases were it may not be. Candidates for possibly false but possibly helpful mindsets include belief in an afterlife, belief that average differences among groups are not significant, and, of course, belief that talent is not important, etc…

    But maybe, as I feel about violent, government-based solutions to problems, the number of cases where lies work better than the truth is fairly limited, and, moreover, we have no good way of determining who gets to decide when it is good to lie to people, and so avoiding expedience as a justification for lies may be the best general policy.

    • gavin says:

      Wheres the damn upvote button on this blog?

      Also I am copying your quote, its an excellent and well worded point.

    • Kevin C. says:

      As to “possibly false but possibly helpful mindsets”, I’m reminded of the interesting paper on trial by ordeal linked in the comments of the recent links post, which argues, via public choice theory, the utilility of “superstitions” like iudicium Dei, and that trial by ordeal worked when and as long as people believed in them.

      This further ties back to arguments in the comments on the extreme ethics thought experiments post. Namely, that the primary effect of these experiments is to encourage questioning, and thus erosion or elimination, of such socially-useful fictions, producing a social cost which outweighs the (almost certainly small) benefit of whatever we might learn from such thought experiments.

      I also note that commenter Alex, earlier on this page, argues that investigation into ability leads to ideas with a “very ugly history” of which we should “steer clear”, and that “staying away can be a good thing.” Every society has its “sacred” ideas that are to be left unquestioned, and which publicly “blaspheming” against invites a forceful, negative reaction; there may in fact be an important reason for this. As many people have argued in various ways, too much truth, too accurate a perception of reality, may be harmful to human beings, both individually and collectively; there are, perhaps, biases which it is counterproductive to overcome.

  66. Jess Trig says:

    I’ve actually had both a growth mindset and a fixed mindset in the past. I grew up with an fixed mindset, it did hold me back. I’ve been praised about my intelligence for as long as I can remember. It’s a huge part of my self esteem to the point that I did not challenge myself for fear of not succeeding and therefore not actually being smart.

    I eventually decided that this was extremely flawed and decided to change to a growth mindset in tandem with making other significant changes in my life, such as becoming a strong feminist and switching career paths from law to therapist. I did become more successful at first, my grades improved and my social, emotional life improved. However, over time I found it exhausting and limiting to pretend everyone was on equal footing to me in the things I was talented in. My self esteem started to take a hit again when I denied I had better reasoning capabilities than most because I legitimately don’t have skills in many other areas. And I’ve found that other areas are more praiseworthy among growth mindset people, like physical, mechanical or artistic skills. Those are much more likely to be attributed to hard work than being able to think critically and reason well.

    Now I think about it more as a spectrum. I think it’s important to recognize skill level and innate aptitude while also being willing to grow and learn. You should also know which situation calls for which mindset.

  67. Buckyballas says:

    It has always bothered me when a highly successful person (professional athletes, entertainers, politicians, whatever) tells a group of kids that “You can achieve your dreams if you believe and work hard. Look at me!” The reality is that the vast majority of these kids could not replicate that success no matter how hard they try and that the successful person is underselling her innate ability.

    • onyomi says:

      Yeah, sometimes lost in this conversation is the potential damage done by giving people unrealistic expectations. If everyone tells you from the time you’re young that you only need to work hard and you can have an amazing, fulfilling career, then anything less than that feels like a failure.

      “Work hard and you can get a tolerable job that pays the bills well enough for you to have a nice house, a family, and some leisure time” might be a healthier attitude to instill, uninspiring though it sounds.

      • swanknasty says:

        then anything less than that feels like a failure.

        What leads to this attitude is working hard at something you DON’T love or care about and working hard just to work hard.

        An individual who is doing what they love won’t get caught up in how well they’re doing relative to others in the field. Instead, they will work hard because they want to. And that hard work will enable them to thrive in that field.

        It’s hard to feel like a failure when you get paid to do things you enjoy.

        • onyomi says:

          But do you think everyone has the ability to get paid to do what they love if they just work hard enough? I am pretty skeptical.

          Most of the things that need doing are things few people love (this will get better as robots do more menial work). Most of the things people love are crowded fields with room for only the most talented. Moreover, many people aren’t really passionate about ANYthing (you might say they are passionate about eating, sleeping, and sex, but even that is debatable: how many food lovers can succeed in the restaurant industry, for example).

          I don’t think it’s realistic, at least at the current level of technology, to think that everyone can make a living doing something they love. The best most people can hope for is to work hard enough at a tolerable job to then afford to do what fulfills them in their spare time.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          An individual who is doing what they love won’t get caught up in how well they’re doing relative to others in the field. Instead, they will work hard because they want to. And that hard work will enable them to thrive in that field.

          I suppose it’s too late to call General Semantics? Spending long stolen hours at something you love, seeking out obscure variations, etc — to later onlookers may be indistinguishable from ‘working hard’. (And may produce better results, imo.)

          Other onlookers at the time, may call it ‘playing’ or ‘wasting time’.

        • swanknasty says:

          But do you think everyone has the ability to get paid to do what they love if they just work hard enough? I am pretty skeptical.

          Why do these discussions always get bogged down in black-white characterizations?

          “Anything less” than world-class success must feel like a failure, and this advice is only worth it if “everyone” can get paid to do what they love, etc.

          These are cartoons.

          The majority of individuals, provided they work hard, can get paid to do what they love. Now, they all won’t get paid the same amount or be rich, but they will make a living doing what they love. That is not a failure.

          he best most people can hope for is to work hard enough at a tolerable job to then afford to do what fulfills them in their spare time.

          ONLY because people are taught stupid things in school like work hard JUST BECAUSE or ‘these are the careers that are good careers.’ Not everyone should be or wants to be a doctor or lawyer or scientist or whatever. By the time they realize how silly it is to not do what you love, these people are so far down their career track that they can’t turn back and can only hope for a tolerable job.

          ‘I suppose it’s too late to call General Semantics? ‘

          It’s not semantics. The “feeling of failure” only comes from a) chasing “success” as defined by others and b) not getting that “success.”

          You’re right that an individual who loves something will effortlessly put in a lot of hard work. And that’s the point. The true outliers don’t put in their hours consciously. They just live, eat, and breathe what they love to do.

          Feynman’s IQ was 125 as measured by the Stanford Binet. A verbal-non-verbal split makes no sense because the disparity would have to be enormous to justify a stratospheric nonverbal IQ. Instead, we know that Feynman lived, ate, and breathed math and physics. He was divorced because all he did was math. And people wonder how he was able to excel…it’s right there in front of you.

          • onyomi says:

            “The majority of individuals, provided they work hard, can get paid to do what they love.”

            What makes you say that? It does not seem plausible to me. Of all the jobs out there, how many are jobs anyone loves doing? Shooting from the hip, I’d say less than 10%? And that’s including non-glamorous jobs which may yet be fulfilling (and discounting lucrative jobs which are not fulfilling).

          • swanknasty says:

            Job satisfaction has a relationship to job prestige.
            http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/07/pdf/070417.jobs.pdf

            But, note that even in the least prestigious and unskilled jobs, > 25% reported “very satisfied” with their jobs. Even in the least prestigious jobs, > 10% reported themselves as being “very happy.” So every single job out there has the potential to be a job that someone “loves doing.”

            The lowest decile of occupational prestige had 33% very satisfied and 25.5% very happy. That’s a far cry from the number you guessed.

            Go look at the list of “most prestigious” occupations. Some seem to have high cognitive floors, and others do not. I’m thinking of Firefighter, Minister/Clergy, and Police Officer.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @ swanknasty

            Referent: The many hours that zie spends doing X.

            Zie and family call it “playing with X”.

            Outsiders call it “working hard”.

    • swanknasty says:

      Why do they have to experience the same level of success?

      So, can everyone be a world-class X or Y? Probably not. Can most people, with hard work, be a competent X or Y? In most cases, probably so.

  68. Butler Reynolds says:

    When I started college way back when, I thought of myself as above average. I primarily had a growth mindset. I told myself that if I worked hard enough, I was smart enough to learn anything.

    At some point I experienced a few courses where I started hitting my IQ limit. No matter how hard I worked, I could not master the material given the amount of time that I had to learn it.

    You’d think that persevering would have built up my confidence, instead it was a humbling and confidence eroding experience.

    Towards the end of my college career, I did not have the same grit that I had when I started. When learning a new thing, something in the back of my mind (even today) questions if I’m smart enough to learn it.

    When I do learn something new, I am often surprised at my intelligence. Whereas when I was young and foolish, I took learning new things for granted as long as I was willing to work for it.

  69. gavin says:

    I love the appalling departure from reality and sanity in the study. No one seems to mention that they deliberately assign an IMPOSSIBLE task, and think that it is somehow preferable to have children who work harder at the task, and come up with inaccurate reasons for non-completion. Instead of lying to the children and themselves, they should accept that the kids who understood the task was impossible were actually doing the correct thing, and in the real world those people would have more quickly moved on to a POSSIBLE and manageable task, and completed more actual work in the same period of time than the idiots who slaved away at an impossible task with “a go getter attitude”.

  70. Anr-X says:

    I feel like the biggest problem with these studies is that they’re only looking at half the situation.
    Which is to say that what they’re finding is that growth mindset is good for *people who are being successful*. Which, sure, let’s go with that.
    But the place where this stuff does terrible harm is precisely the *other* side. For the people who are failing because they *literally can’t do the thing* and are being told it’s because they’re not trying hard enough. (Or, of a different kind of concern to me – people who need accommodation and aren’t being given it because it’s being blamed on them not trying, instead).

    (And, note that from what you’ve said, the studies in fact find stuff relevant to this, they just don’t interpret it in that direction
    “After a further trial in which the children were rigged to fail, children in the effort condition were much more likely to attribute their failure to not trying hard enough, and those in the intelligence condition to not being smart enough (p < 0.001)"
    The effort condition children are attributing their failure to not trying hard enough – and note that *they are completely wrong* – it's not due to that at all!

    Similarly with the IAR impossible problem – the effort people keep working, because they think they're not trying hard enough – which *isn't true*. So if this was a real task, and no one would come along and tell them it had been an impossible problem, they would go away from it feeling like this was all their fault because if they'd only tried harder the might have gotten it – *which wouldn't be true* since it was an impossible problem!)

    (Sidenote, why is people trying harder/keeping trying on impossible problems considered a good thing? At best, it's a waste of time and effort).

    So it seems to me that all this is finding is 'if you can do something, then believing you can do it if you try hard enough is beneficial'. And the rather important companion of 'and if you can't do something, then believing you can do it if you try hard enough is *really bad* and it would be better to go do something else' is being left out.

    (Which is also leaving out the rather important topic and personal skill of 'how to make good decisions about whether you can or can't do a thing' that actually tries to balance type I and type II errors in a good way).

  71. Douglas Knight says:

    the experimental intervention is changing three short words in the middle of a sentence.

    That’s what they claim the intervention was, but it is impossible to double-blind a spoken intervention.

    • undermind says:

      Yes. This. Double-blinding is important. The intervention could in fact be quite large, due to the experimenters’ biases about how they think each group *should* behave.

      Even so, it seems like a large effect size. I wonder if the importance of this double blinding is testable — somehow have researchers who don’t know about the growth mindset claims and just say the words, or have another experiment where the researchers say nothing different, but have one group mentally marked down as failures/quitters and another group as set for success.

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  73. Don’t ever look too close at education research, especially if someone is making money from the “research-based” practice. Lots of people just keep doing research over and over to get grants, publish, and to keep their jobs. I searched Dweck in the Dept of Ed What Works Clearninghouse and there isn’t anything in there. Here is what is typical with education research: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/interventionreport.aspx?sid=19

    You see they reviewed 66 research studies on this practice, and only one was considered valid.

    Growth is two things right now in education. It is a new way to structure schools, where you try to move everyone forward from where they are. You don’t need to decide if you believe in Fixed vs. Growth Mindset to explain why kids are in different places. We are just going to do education differently now. Even if you are proficient, we are going to try to teach you more instead of having you waste a year. If you can’t read by the end of 3rd grade, we are going to keep trying to teach you how instead of saying that time is up.

    Educators get the sense that something new is happening and it has to do with growth. They keep hearing the word growth. So, they need some professional development having to do with growth. Dweck’s stuff has the word growth in it. Her theory is not necessarily what is driving the education reform, but both share the word growth. So, schools are buying her book for everyone and doing training on the Growth Mindset. She is probably getting rich and doesn’t care if you say her research doesn’t look right. That has never mattered in education. People like those posting her examine her theory and wonder if they believe it should guide how we educate kids. It is not guiding anything. Race to the Top funds are doing the guiding. This is a parallel flavor of the day fad training because it has the word growth in it.

    Pretty soon, people will pick up on the Growth idea and see it is selling, and we’ll see a whole slew of new stuff about growth come out for educators: How to Promote Growth of Poor People; Understanding How You Feel About Growth; Leadership and Growth; etc.

  74. this posted twice

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  76. Scott, could you comment further on:

    Most of the growth mindset experiments have used priming to get people in an effort-focused or an ability-focused state of mind, but recent priming experiments have famously failed to replicate and cast doubt on the entire field. And growth mindset has an obvious relationship to stereotype threat, which has also started seeming very shaky recently.

    Which priming experiments are you thinking of in particular?

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  78. P. George Stewart says:

    Coming to this on the back of your citing of it in the recent links article. It seems to me that the central problem with a lot of this stuff is the idea that praising kids verbally has some kind of substantial effect on self-esteem. I think that self-esteem comes from success – little successes, big successes, each success is a moment of happiness (Csikszentmihalyi) and a building block for self-esteem (note that videogames are deliberately-designed “happiness machines” in this sense).

    I should think that maximizing children’s self-esteem is definitely desirable, and is likely to help lead to them to maximize whatever innate ability they have. But while verbally telling kids they’re good might be healing coming from people with whom there’s a bond of love (mum, dad, close friends), it seems to me to be more likely that the bulk of what a child thinks about itself comes from its own inner reasoning (conjecture/refutation) and the evidence of its senses (whether they have or haven’t actually succeeded in things), so just being told by teachers, etc., that they’re good (when their own reasoning tells them that’s false) is more likely to cause suspicion and inner retreat.

    So the right path to maximizing children’s self esteem is to do it the way videogames do it – to give them ranked series of fun learning tasks that incrementally challenge them, that are just on the edge of their ability, that they can succeed in, and keep building on that success, thereby gradually building self-esteem.

    Haven’t we heard of something like that before though – isn’t it something called … “teaching”?