What actually even is a growth mindset?

Not so long ago it seemed that growth mindset — briefly, the idea that your beliefs about ability impact your reactions to failure — might be on the ropes. The so-called “replication crisis” called into question research findings across many different fields, but especially social psychology. “Nobel laureate challenges psychologists to clean up their act,” wrote Ed Yong in 2012 after Daniel Kahneman called out Carol Dweck’s entire field for its underpowered studies, unreplicable work, and habit of spelunking down a dataset to find noteworthy results. (The replication crisis would come for Kahneman soon enough.)

Many of Carol Dweck’s TED talk colleagues have been lost in the reproducibility wars. Remember power posing? There were a number of prominent replication attempts of growth mindset that failed, and it seemed as if mindset was about to be essentially debunked.

But the 2nd Act of growth mindset research has been intriguing, especially once David Yeager got involved. He has helped design the sort of large, pre-registered, independently-monitored experiments that emerged from the 2010s as safeguards against researcher shenanigans. And there is now a fairly plausible story in which growth mindset holds up in a real way as a robust research finding.

“What Can Be Learned From Growth Mindset Controversies?” is the question Yeager and Dweck ask in a recent research article. They list four controversies surrounding mindset:

  1. Do mindsets predict student outcomes?
  2. Do student mindset interventions work?
  3. Are mindset intervention effect sizes too small to be interesting?
  4. Do teacher mindset interventions work?

And, in the spirit of not wasting your time, here is their answers to these questions:

  1. Do mindsets predict student outcomes? YES
  2. Do student mindset interventions work? YES
  3. Are mindset intervention effect sizes too small to be interesting? NO
  4. Do teacher mindset interventions work? NOT YET

There are conflicting findings in the mindset literature, but Yeager and Dweck attribute those to either sloppy methods or heterogeneity in impact, i.e. the fact that not everyone benefits from having more of a growth mindset.

This is crucially important for them, as the controversies have allowed them to clarify who mindset interventions will work for: students who are at risk of doing poorly but whose efforts would be rewarded. If you’re in a school where your hard work won’t be rewarded, mindset interventions won’t help. If you’re not at-risk of academic failures, mindset doesn’t come into play very much.

This sort of picking and choosing about who mindset interventions actually works for may set off your “research shenanigans” radar, and Yeager and Dweck get that. “We are aware that these kind of moderation results might, in the past, have emerged from a post hoc exploratory analysis and would, therefore, be hard to believe.” That’s right, this is the data spelunking mentioned above. However:

“But these patterns emerged from a disciplined preanalysis plan that was carried out by independent Bayesian statisticians who analyzed blinded data using machine-learning methods, and the moderators were confirmed by an independent research firm’s analyses, over which we had no influence.”

In other words, it is now part of the mindset hypothesis that this only matters for these students, and this hypothesis has support from the big, well-designed studies designed by Yeager and Dweck. Mic dropped, end of paper.

***

This is all very interesting, but any skepticism I’ve had about mindset was more rooted in confusion than methodological doubt. It just has always seemed incredibly implausible to me that these interventions should be able to make any real difference at all. So the part of the paper that I was actually most interested in was the succinct and admirably clear bit titled “What is Mindset Theory?”

I’m leaving a big chunk of this section here in case you’d like to read it yourself, but feel free to skip it. What I want to do below is explain as clearly as I can what Mindset Theory is and what it predicts, and why it would only apply to students at risk of failure. I don’t know if I believe it yet, but I now realize that there are two very important ways that people misunderstand what the Mindset Theory involves:

  • It has nothing to do with the belief that “you can get better with practice”
  • It largely has to do with the explanations that occur to people in the heat of a failure, like what happens to pop into their heads
Feel free to read or to ignore.

Here is an observation: when people fail, they react differently. Some people seek to figure out why they failed, seek to improve, etc. And others just throw up their hands and give up. What explains these different reactions?

As an example, take me and my basketball skills. I’ve started taking going to the park sometimes and shooting around. I am, objectively speaking, bad at shooting. My form is garbage. I received one year of basketball coaching when I was in 7th Grade, but the coach pinned a kid to the floor during gym class and got fired, so it was a shaky season. When I go to the park, I miss something like 90% of the shots I take (and 100% of those I don’t?). That said, I do have good days where it feels like my shot it on and things are just going in.

Here are some things that I think are basically objective facts:

  • I am bad at shooting a basketball compared to, I don’t know, people who are good at it.
  • If I practiced, I would get better.
  • Even if I practiced, I would never be an all-time great basketball shooter

None of these beliefs have anything to do with mindset. That’s right, even the second one about practice. That’s not mindset, not relevant here.

Now, imagine that I had a particularly bad day of shooting around at the park (like yesterday). You could imagine me not really thinking very much at all about why I did so poorly. Or you could imagine me trying to figure it out. And if I did try to explain it, to what would I attribute my failures?

In my case, I attribute yesterday’s bad shooting to a bunch of factors. First, it was raining, that’s not my fault. Also, as I mentioned, I’m not very good at shooting a basketball. Like, fundamentally, if you’re not very good at something then sometimes you’re going to be really bad at it. Now, do I think of that ability as a fixed thing? Absolutely not. I understand that I could get much better with practice. But as of now, I’m just bad at it. I think that’s a pretty productive explanation for my failure. I just need to practice.

But this is me being reflective. What about in the heat of the moment, as I’m encountering the failure for the first time? Here I might get emotional — I’m just no good at this, for whatever reason. I can imagine if a lot of people were watching me shoot around or if I was around much stronger shooters, or if I was expected in some way to be better at shooting than I am, I might just give up. And I might explain it as “I’m just no good” even if I also believe that I could get better with practice.

OK, so what does mindset theory say?

Mindset theory says that this isn’t just about basketball or academic performance — that I might have general beliefs that determine the sort of explanations I give for my failures. I might be tempted to think (as they say) “I have a certain amount of intelligence (or ability -MP) and you really can’t do much to change it.” That belief is totally consistent with a belief that you can improve with practice.

But it’s somewhat confusing to call this a “belief” because if so, it’s not a belief that you necessarily will profess all the time or in any situation. Maybe this is something you say on your bad days but not your good days. Maybe it’s something you say about ability 70% of the time, but when pushed you concede that you can do a lot to change your ability. This is a more complex and subtle — maybe more accurate — way to think about what belief means.

OK, but let’s put the pieces all together. From the perspective of mindset theory, if you are doing worse at something that you’re “supposed” to be better at, you will be tempted to explain that in terms of ability being the most important factor. Sure, you might agree that you could improve with practice. But you might believe that this would take an enormous amount of practice, given your ability. The worldview where ability or intelligence is the most important factor is the so-called “fixed mindset.” To the extent that you hold this belief strongly and absolutely, you have more of a fixed mindset. If it’s weaker or there are a lot of exceptions, you have more a growth mindset.

Can you teach people not to see the world in this way? And if you teach them that ability is not the most important factor for navigating life in our world, does that change the explanations they give for their failures? Does it lead to better actions?

Mindset theory says, yeah, it does.

One thing that’s interesting to me about this is the “more or less” or “can’t do much” side of it. There are obviously things that I can’t do because of my ability. I can’t be in the NBA, and while I agree that I can get better at basketball with practice, I don’t think I can do much about that. I think that degree of excellence at a sport is more or less about ability.

But that’s not really a problem for Yeager and Dweck. They don’t have a theory about the NBA — they have a theory about academic environments. That theory is you can teach people who fail a lot but have the potential to succeed that failure isn’t mostly about ability. And their theory is that this changes how they respond to failure.

Is it crazy that you could teach people this in an hour? I don’t know. I guess this is the same as asking whether I believe their research? I think it’s not absurd to say that you could get people headed in the right direction with an hour-long intervention that attempts to teach one big idea: that success in school mostly has to do with how hard you work. And it makes sense that this would only work if it were true — kids don’t benefit from this perspective in schools that don’t reward effort.

Maybe one way to think about why this works only for kids who experience a lot of failure is because they’re super likely to experience failure not long after the intervention. I bet a lot of kids have forgotten about this one-hour mindset lesson by the time they fail for the first time.

Maybe kids who are prone to failure get a chance to exercise this new perspective not long after their lesson, and that makes it stick longer. It gets the ball rolling in the right direction, and if their efforts are rewarded? It sticks for good.

I’m still trying to make sense of it, but Mindset Theory is starting to make some sense to me.

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