It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen. — Muhammad Ali
Recently, I finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, from which, I learned about a very nuanced man, a leader who committed his life to bettering the lives of others. And although the book as a whole was very powerful and well written, there is a particular anecdote from it that captivated me:
Malcolm X spent a majority of his youth as a criminal, drug addict, and burglar. But while serving an 8-year prison sentence for robbery, he had a spiritual revelation. And with it came an immediate desire to educate himself. However, Malcolm, having only an eighth grade education, could hardly read or even write in a straight line.
To fix this, Malcolm did what many of us would call torture: He read and transcribed every single entry in an encyclopedic dictionary. And once he completed this herculean effort, he poured his soul into books, emerging as one of the best orators and debaters our country has ever seen.
So which social psychological concept does Malcolm X so beautifully illustrate? Grit, yes. But also what’s known as incremental and entity mindsets (also called growth and fixed mindsets) of personal attributes.
To explain, a growth mindset of a personal attribute (e.g., one’s intelligence) means you believe your intelligence is malleable; that is, it can increase, “grow,” develop, expand. In contrast, a fixed mindset of intelligence entails a belief that it will not change—the smarts you were given are the smarts you are stuck with.
Reflect for a moment: what’s your own mindset toward your (and others’) intelligence?
A lot of research has been done on these ‘lay beliefs’ of our personal attributes since their recognition in 1995, for as you’ll see, they’re very powerful.
First, let’s consider some of the implications that follow from either having a fixed or growth mindset. Imagine two students do poorly on a test. For the student with the fixed mindset, s/he thinks, “I failed the test because I’m dumb.” Whereas the student with a growth mindset thinks, “I failed the test because of my effort or strategy.”
Already, you can see where these beliefs could have serious influences on one’s motivation.
Consider another example: Imagine you have a fixed mindset about your inability at math. Here, before you even try answering a problem, you don’t believe you’re going to be able to come up with a solution, so you hardly try in the first place.
But now consider having a growth mindset. In this case, you’d be willing to try new methods to solve the problem, appearing “smarter,” when really you just applied enough effort to access your latent talent.
When considering the empirical research on these mindsets, a study published just this year looked at a “growth mindset intervention” with high school students. That is, the researchers were trying to convince these students to believe their personal attributes were not fixed.
With nearly 3,000 students, the researchers found that those who were taught to hold growth (or incremental) theories of their personal attributes were significantly more likely to request greater challenge in their schoolwork, were more concerned about learning than “looking dumb,” had almost half a grade higher GPA, and even for those students who had once maintained D or F averages, possessing a growth mindset increased their grades by a whole letter.
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: Consider your own personal attributes: are there some you see as fixed while others are capable of growth? Which attributes do you believe are unchanging? Why? For many people, they may view your same fixed attribute as one of growth. What can you do to convince yourself to see that attribute with a growth mindset instead?
Dweck, C. S., Chiu, C. Y., & Hong, Y. Y. (1995). Implicit theories and their role in judgments and reactions: A word from two perspectives. Psychological inquiry, 6(4), 267-285.
Yeager, D. S., Romero, C., Paunesku, D., Hulleman, C. S., Schneider, B., Hinojosa, C., … & Trott, J. (2016). Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school. Journal of Educational Psychology,108(3), 374.
About the Author
Jake Teeny is currently pursuing his PhD at Ohio State University, where he researches how people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people–real or imagined.