Feeling expansive or limited? Your mindset changes your capabilities


Recently,  I was reminded of Carol Dweck’s discovery of Mindset based on her 1970’s research on human motivation focused on helpless and mastery-oriented response patterns in schoolchildren.

Students who view their intelligence as an unchangeable internal characteristic tend to shy away from academic challenges, whereas students who believe that their intelligence can be increased through effort and persistence seek them out. (Dweck, 1999b; Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1988)

Collaborating Minds has spent some time exploring why asking for help proves difficult.  Repeatedly our discussions circle back to perception and the strong association between help and helplessness.  If we were to avoid the use of the word help altogether and substitute a euphemism such as challenge,  the insights Dweck and subsequent researchers have made offer a new springboard to change this behavior.


Self-efficacy begins with our belief set.  In other words, our mindset determines the outcome and impact of our efforts when faced with a challenge.  Outcome and impact doesn’t equate to success, it merely describes the resulting changes, and mindset provides the motivation to assert ourselves to effect change.

Not all individuals live up to expectations. The Peter principle expresses this humorously by suggesting that  individuals in organizations naturally  rise to the the level of their incompetence.  It’s funny because it sums up a great deal of experience which results from something more fundamental at work, and that is the discovery of Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset.

Everyone demonstrates ability in one form or another.   The same way multiple children all born on the same day in similar environments will begin to babble, crawl and grasp objects at different intervals, they will also acquire skills and demonstrate abilities we associate with intelligence at different rates too.   The self-theories of infants and toddlers all demonstrate the importance of interaction in assisting human development.   The brain’s multiple internal processing areas form connections that trigger actions in response to stimuli.

The pattern of connections individuals’ brains form that relate to ability depend on social stimuli and interactions.  More interactions increase the number of connections and distinguish individual learned behaviors.  A simple case being the impulse to cry.  Babies brains quickly connect their crying with the arrival of  voices that bring them food or relieve their discomfort from a wet nappy.  Hearing connections form in the womb whereas vision take a little longer to develop and make a face recognizable let alone familiar.  We don’t describe the baby as a genius for using these natural developing abilities, but the minute  more tangible evidence of  learning emerges we label the behavior as innate intelligence.

Different communities social norms reinforce different interactions. Socially they value behaviors differently, reinforcing some learned behaviors over others. These behaviors may relate to moral values or differentiated skills.  For example, respecting parents, evaluating  multiple sources of information rapidly such as calculating equations in one’s head, or identifying solutions, or physical coordinating mind and body movements to navigate around defensive players to score.

Carol Dweck focused her research on the impact of social expectations on behavior related to individual learning.  The evidence she observed resonated with her own experiences.  Upon reflection she began to question how social expectations impact performance efforts which led her to discover the power of Mindset as a preconditioning self-motivating force.   She found that social expectations do effect the development of persistence,ability to learn and  the degree to which our intelligence increases. In particular, specific  forms of praise increases a growth mindset, the perception that connects changes in our ability to changes in our future.

Power of perception

If you ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink then you can grasp of the power of perception. Unlike the functional tasks occupying our senses , perception serves as our interpreter. It translates information the senses pick up into understanding, transforming what is into what we expect. For example, objects at a distance often appear identical in size to objects in our grasp, or in spite of how our individual eyes each see an object, our brain only sees the  convergence of the images into one.  Perception gives us the ability to connect a voice or  a partial glimpse of a face into a complete representation of a specific person. These abilities come with repetition and practice and indicate advances in development both physical and intellectual. Mindset happens to be an interesting learning driver.

Perceptions impact our judgment, give us a false sense of security or lead us to overreact. On an individual level, our ability to learn and underlying motivation to question our perceptions often depend on context and social pressures.

The Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman observed variation in economic value among those who stay in schools and earn a high school diploma and those who dropped out and later completed a test of equivalence known as the General Education Degree (GED).  Most of us associate the accumulation of knowledge with ability to succeed.  Statistically, advanced schooling correlates highly with increases in earning power.  So what exactly makes the school experience valuable?  If GED s demonstrate equivalent levels of content mastery to a high school diploma why don’t students achieve equivalent levels of earning power?

What Dweck identified as a differential impact on performance in her research of early childhood students as persistence,  Heckmann observed in older students as  differential non-cognitive skills.  Students who possessed a stick-to-itness and willingness to try again repeatedly were found to be more likely to stay in school  and these same skills enabled them  to keep learning.  This research became the subject of a  a much acclaimed book by Paul Tough How Children Succeed.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In spite of advances in research over the last 30 years that explore the inner workings of the brain and express how intelligence is not fixed,  American expectations conducive to increased learning remain largely unchanged.  The benefits of democracy and its system as a vehicle of change make these changes all possible.  In fact , the research has led to policy changes and renewed funding at the Federal level to emphasize early childhood education.

Social changes takes time.  Practicing does change behavior. Increasing the number of helpful experiences  changes the connections in our brains that impact perceptions.  Carol Dweck’s research emphasizes the power of our beliefs to profoundly impact  nearly every aspect of our lives.  Changing our beliefs about  help and the notion of helplessness will go a long way to changing the world.  We can begin by valuing effort, encouraging and praising persistence not outcomes.

One man Salman Khan, created Khan Academy to help others feel less helpless.  He recently blogged about social expectations to his wider readership in the Huffington Post and via Khan Academy in a post entitled The Learning Myth: Why I’m Cautious About Telling My Son He’s Smart

I hope you will be inspired by Khan , or this post to read Carol Dweck’s Mindsets and begin to help change the world by helping others feel less helpless too.

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