Conflict in the Middle East, schoolyard bullying, racial prejudice, stuffing our faces during the holidays…these are some of the unfortunate things in life that will never change. Right? Not so fast says Carol Dweck and her research on mindsets. In 2011, Dweck, well-known professor at Stanford University, received the American Psychological Association’s Award for Scientific Contributions. Her article based on her award address is published in this month’s American Psychologist (Vol. 67, No. 8, pp. 614-622).
Mindsets are our implicit theories about peoples’ attributes or traits. Dweck’s decades of research has produced comparisons between two types of mindsets: fixed versus growth. A person with a fixed mindset basically believes that one cannot change their personality and other attributes. This leads them into avoiding challenges so they do not reveal themselves as less than they believe they are. A fixed mindset also is related to showing less resilience as they interpret failure as reflecting on themselves. They are also quick to stereotype others and reject counter-stereotype information since they believe people do not change. What appears to be healthier is a growth mindset in which we believe that everyone can develop their character over time, which leads to seeking challenges, overcoming setbacks, considering the situation and psychological processes in judging others, and integrating new information about peoples’ attributes. Let’s look at four unique situations and what we can learn from them about mindsets.
1) For Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Israelis, and West Bank Palestinians, does having a growth mindset promote conciliation instead of hatred of the other group in which they are in conflict? The answer, according to Dweck’s research led by Eran Halperin, is yes; those with a growth mindset had a more favorable impression of the other group and were also 70% more likely to interact in a conciliatory manner than those with a fixed mindset. This suggests a growth mindset is likely to lead to conflict resolution. What is encouraging is that these results came from merely priming the research participants by having them read either a fixed mindset article or a growth mindset article. Lesson 1: Negative attitudes are not so permanent after all.
2) Do adolescents’ mindsets about bullying breed aggression in victims? Yes, in studies among Finnish and American adolescents, victims of bullying felt more shame which fueled more hatred which led to more thoughts of revenge. So could a growth oriented mindset be instilled to help reduce aggression? Yes, through a six-session intervention in a school with a high rate of aggression students learned about their brain, how the brain controls thoughts and feelings, and practiced how these can be changed. After the intervention they were 40% less likely to retaliate and three times as likely to offer prosocial behaviors by being kind. This change in behavior was recorded even after several months. In comparison, an intervention successful with pre-adolescents that taught coping skills but not mindsets was not successful with adolescents. Lesson 2: Negative behaviors such as aggression are not permanent but need to be dealt with differently as people age and develop mindsets that perpetuate certain behaviors.
3) If racial prejudice were eradicated would race relations flourish? Probably not. In studies of cross-race interactions, fixed mindset people showed more anxiety and less friendliness regardless of their level of explicit or implicit prejudice. Dweck calls this: prejudice without “prejudice.” In fact, there is evidence that certain policies and practices unintentionally reinforce the idea that prejudice is fixed. For example, by mandating sensitivity training, organizations may be reinforcing that everyone is prejudiced rather than the idea that prejudice is malleable over time and across persons. Similarly, by focusing on the idea of color blindness, people believe that prejudice is fixed as well. Lesson 3: Focusing on the malleability of prejudice makes prejudice-reducing interventions more effective.
4) Is our willpower scarce and easily depleted? Yes say many studies. However, Dweck and Veronika Job conducted several studies that suggests that willpower is “mindset over matter.” In other words, those who believe they have limited willpower are limited and those that believe they are not limited are not. Lesson 4: Our minds are powerful and can create self-fulfilling consequences.
Through Carol Dweck’s research we know that we have a greater capacity for growth and development than we knew before in the areas of conflict resolution, chronic aggresion, race relations, and strengthening willpower. If we can better understand how to create the conditions that activate the growth mindset, the more likely we are to fulfill our human potential. My interest in Dweck’s work is this mechanism of the growth mindset that may help us understand how organizations, in which we spend most of our waking adult lives, may create practices and a culture that can help their members reach their potential and in the process help their organizations create value for all their stakeholders. I will be sharing more of my thoughts on this in the future. If you would like to share your thoughts please let me know.