“It’s not always people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest” – Carol Dweck
The concept of a growth mindset – and its opposite, a fixed mindset – was pioneered by research psychologist Carol Dweck, now based at Stanford University. Mindsets have received significant scientific and mainstream media attention in recent years. But what exactly are mindsets and what does the science reveal about them?
Before we explain what mindsets are, let’s go back to the beginning of Carol Dweck’s journey. The mindset story begins with failure. Or more accurately, attitudes about failure. Over 30 years ago, Carol Dweck and her colleagues noticed that some students were derailed by tiny setbacks whereas others bounced back from failure. After studying thousands of children and young adults in school and college settings, Dr. Dweck coined the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe the beliefs we have about intelligence and learning (Mindset Works, 2017a).
What are growth and fixed mindsets?
Let’s now consider the most basic question. What is a mindset? As Dweck and her colleague David Yeager explain, mindsets are “implicit theories about the malleability of human characteristics” (Yeager & Dweck, 2012, p. 302). In other words, mindsets refer to whether people believe that a quality or characteristic is changeable.
Growth mindsets are incremental theories: beliefs that things can change gradually over time i.e., incrementally. By contrast, fixed mindsets are entity theories: beliefs that qualities are unchangeable. When we have fixed mindsets, we believe that our characteristics are “fixed, nonmalleable trait-like entities” (Dweck et al., 1995, p. 267).
What does the “implicit” part of “implicit theories” mean? Yeager and Dweck (2012) describe mindsets as implicit to convey they are ideas we hold that are rarely made explicit. They are beliefs we have that we don’t often think about, describe or explain. This means they may be hidden to us.
What does the “theory” of “implicit theories” mean? Yeager and Dweck (2012) explain that “like a scientific theory, they [mindsets] create a framework for making predictions and judging the meaning of events in one’s world” (p. 303). Mindsets are thus “lenses” through which we experience our world; they impact our interpretations and therefore our responses.
To illustrate the difference between growth and fixed mindsets, let’s consider the area in which they are most often discussed, intelligence. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that our intellectual ability is permanent. Someone with a growth mindset believes that we can increase our intelligence incrementally through effort and learning. It is important to recognize that believing intelligence is malleable does not imply that everyone has the same potential or will learn with equal ease. Rather, it means that any individual can develop their intellectual ability further.
Why do mindsets matter? In her book Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential, Dweck summarizes the conclusions from decades of research.
People with growth mindsets:
- embrace challenges
- persist in the face of setbacks
- put in more effort
- change strategies in response to failure and criticism, and
- take opportunities to learn from others (Dweck, 2017).
All of this leads to the main benefit of a growth mindset: better outcomes, that is, higher levels of achievement.
By contrast, people with fixed mindsets:
- try to avoid challenging situations
- give up when confronted with obstacles and failure
- put in less effort
- do not respond effectively to criticism, and
- do not seek out opportunities to learn from those around them.
As a result, even though they may achieve early success because of their natural abilities, they may have lower achievement over time. This is the sentiment expressed in the quote that opened this post.
Figure 1 summarizes the key differences between the two mindsets in relation to challenges, obstacles, effort, criticism, success of others, outcomes and worldview.
Figure 1: The two mindsets (graphic by Nigel Holmes – Mindset Works, 2017b).
While much of the mindset literature focuses on intelligence, Dweck believes that we have mindsets relating to a range of characteristics including personality, character, social skills, creativity, physical abilities, willpower, and motivation. She also thinks a person’s mindset regarding one quality may differ from their mindset about another. For example, “it is possible for a student to believe that intelligence can be changed but that personality cannot, or vice versa” (Yeager & Dweck, 2012, p. 304). Therefore, it’s more accurate to say that we hold mindsets, plural, rather than a mindset, singular. It is also possible, Dweck asserts, that someone can generally hold a growth mindset about a particular quality, but that certain experiences will trigger a switch to a fixed mindset (Dweck, 2017).
How do fixed and growth mindsets show up in your personal and professional life?
- Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Robinson.
- Dweck, C. S., Chiu, C., & Hong, Y. (1995). Implicit theories and their role in judgements and reactions: A world from two perspectives. Psychological Inquiry, 6(4), 267-285. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327965pli0604_1
- Mindset Works. (2017a). Decades of Scientific Research that Started a Growth Mindset Revolution. Retrieved 11 January 2022 from https://www.mindsetworks.com/Science/Default
- Mindset Works. (2017b). The impact of a growth mindset: Why do mindsets matter? Retrieved 10 January 2022 from https://www.mindsetworks.com/Science/Impact
- Yeager, D., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2012.722805