Apr 25 2014
The idea of intelligence as an innate quality which determines an individual’s ability to learn new skills and perform well on cognitive tasks has gained some widespread popular acceptance. When we find ourselves impressed by somebody’s performance on an intellectual task we often say things like “Wow, you’re really smart,” with the implication that their performance is evidence of intellectual giftedness. IQ tests purport to measure this idea of general intelligence and are pretty robust, statistically, giving relatively consistent results between tests and reliably ranking one individual compared to another. But the idea of general intelligence is problematic and in some ways potentially counter-productive.
Developmental and academic testing has shown that there are two competing ideas of intelligence, and the one outlined above represents what’s called a static, as opposed to a growth, mind-set. The static mind-set defines performance in terms of ability and sees success as evidence of talent. The growth mind-set is focused not on ability but effort, and sees success as evidence of growth. While the jury’s still out on exactly how much of intelligence is based on innate ability and how much can be modified by effort, most evidence points to effort being significantly more important, and there is another benefit of thinking this way. It turns out that if you believe in the importance of effort, you’re likely to gain a wide range of cognitive benefits. Individuals who favour a growth mind-set enjoy a boost in performance on cognitive tests, and children who are praised in terms of effort seem to develop more readily than those who are praised in terms of ability.
Multiple tests have been performed and replicated on children, and the results are quite striking. One of these tests involved children drawing pictures, and then being praised either for their apparent talent or for their effort. If they were told “Wow! What a great picture; you must have worked really hard!” then they were more likely to continue drawing for fun, trying new techniques and developing their skills than children who were told “You have a natural talent for drawing.” Another experiment involved a series of more formal tests, which began with something relatively easy, designed to encourage the students to do well, and continuing with the option for children to select more difficult tests or continue at the same difficulty level. If, after their initial success, children were praised based on their ability, then they were less likely to choose more difficult tasks later on. They tried to play it safe and stick to things they knew they could do well. Children who were praised based on their efforts tried to take on more advanced tasks and challenge themselves.
The results of these experiments and others seem to indicate a pretty clear overall trend. Children praised based on personal qualities such as intelligence, while feeling good about achieving well, also viewed their failures as evidence of stupidity. They were more afraid of performing poorly and more likely to stick to easy tasks. Children praised according to effort were more interested in doing well, not just looking good, and had an understanding that they could change what they were capable of by applying themselves through increased effort. They were also less likely to compare themselves to the other children.
These developmental trends are pretty clear, and the significance for all of us is obvious. Beyond the implications for children, pretty much anybody who thinks this way is more likely to succeed. It may not always be true that intelligence is malleable and you can grow from your effort, but believing in it and acting like you can change what you’re capable of acts like a self-fulfilling prophecy. For children who are still developing, or for those of us who are interested in doing the best we can in whatever tasks we set ourselves, the growth mindset offers significant benefits.