Why should mindset and purpose interventions work equally well?

Screenshot 2018-06-06 at 10.08.41 PM

This figure is from a 2015 paper, Mind-Set Interventions Are a Scalable Treatment for Academic Underachievement, and it comes out of the PERTS group, which generally does great work (as far as I as an outsider can tell).

There’s something fascinating about this study. I think, very quietly, their work represents a conceptual shift in research on mindset. The move is away from mindset and toward interventions as the main object of study.

I have Carol Dweck’s Mindset book, and it’s pretty clear that mindset is a uniquely powerful force in our motivational psychology. There really are two types of people: people who view intelligence as fixed or malleable, and this is a major factor in your motivation and subsequent success in a variety of arenas.

But check out this 2015 paper and check out that figure — there are two interventions that they tested, and only one of them has anything to do with mindset. First, the typical implicit theory of intelligence intervention:

Growth-mind-set interventions convey that intelligence can grow when students work hard on challenging tasks—and thus that struggle is an opportunity for growth, not a sign that a student is incapable of learning.

But then there’s the sense of purpose intervention which has nothing to do with the malleability of anything:

Sense-of-purpose interventions encourage students to reflect on how working hard and learning in school can help them accomplish meaningful goals beyond the self, such as contributing to their community or being examples for other people.

The theory that supports this intervention is entirely unrelated to growth mindset theory. It takes no position on whether someone thinks of human attributes as essentially fixed or malleable. If you thought that growth mindset was a hugely impactful factor that governs motivation, there’s no reason at all why you’d think a sense of purpose intervention works.

(There’s a reeaaaal cool move when the authors call both of these “academic mindset interventions” in that paper.)

And the results of this study found that both of these types of interventions worked about as well as each other. And their benefits didn’t seem to combine, which is also interesting, because why wouldn’t they, if they’re separate motivational concerns?

One possibility: people tend to be demotivated because of theory of intelligence or because of absence of purpose, but not by both. Another possibility is that demotivated people tend to be equally motivated by either intervention.

(I imagine there’s a lot of ways to sort this out with the data they’ve already collected. Which intervention works better for students assessed as having a fixed mindset?)

The second possibility — that both interventions work equally well for at-risk students — would represent a really interesting possibility, which is that the theory behind the mindset intervention doesn’t matter a ton. What if all this under the hood theory doesn’t matter a great deal? What if motivational interventions and their design is the thing worth studying, and the basic theory underlying them doesn’t matter a great deal?

If it’s true, this would make a great deal of sense to me. Dweck’s mindset theory would have not predicted that you could get the same results with an intervention like sense of purpose that uses an entirely different mechanism. (People who underwent the purpose intervention didn’t have changed beliefs about intelligence — they checked.) Mindset was supposed to be the big thing. The fact that it’s being considered as part of a menu of motivational interventions along with purpose seems significant. We’ve already moved most of the way away from seeing it as a uniquely powerful theory for explaining motivation.

And maybe the authors are saying as much in their paper. After all, it seems that now a mindset researcher doesn’t study “mindsets” at all but “mindset interventions,” which is a totally different thing.

I eagerly await something that will help clarify things. Speaking of, does anybody have a copy of this preprint? I wish I’d held on to it before it was taken down. (Update: oh, I think this is it. If so seems like sense of purpose interventions weren’t in play.)