Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Science: Your Kid’s Not Special

 

OK, I may have taken a little bit of a shortcut there in the headline. What Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck is actually saying in the pages of Scientific American is that if you actually want your children to be special, just about the worst thing you can do is tell them that they already are:

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

I know, I know. Right now this sounds like one of those “different people have different skills” homilies that gets used to buck up the kid who eats paste. But that’s not what she’s saying:

The result plays out in children … who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities … reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on “process” (consisting of personal effort and effective strategies) rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

In other words, you don’t tell your kids they’re smart. You tell them they have to work hard to be smart.

Explaining the results of a 2007 study she was involved with, Dweck writes:

As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with less regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

OK, we’re a political crowd around here, so I’m going to make the point that might be crass in other settings: don’t these fixed mind-set types sound a lot like the kind of people who staff the Obama White House (and the guy they work for)? Especially when Dweck later notes that “A belief in fixed intelligence also makes people less willing to admit to errors or to confront and remedy their deficiencies in school, at work and in their social relationships.”

We all know these types. They’ve mastered the acoustics of erudition — the smoke signals of the bien pensant — but, when confronted with evidence of their own shortcomings, it’s inevitably the fault of someone else or the vast impersonal forces of the universe. They don’t need to investigate what went wrong, because it can’t have had anything to do with them. They had this stuff mastered a priori. We’re governed by people whose every subpar finger painting exercise went up on the refrigerator (“That’s lovely, Barack, although I don’t get the reference to the proletariat.”)

I’m always of two minds when I see studies like this. On the one hand, we live an era of such slavish devotion to scientism that these kind of empirical studies may be the only way to smuggle intuitive insights back into the discussion. On the other, it’s sort of depressing that it takes years of research — and the attendant financing — just to win some grudging respect for what many of us regard as horse truth.

There are 46 comments.

  1. captainpower Inactive

    Reminds me of Angela Duckworth’s and Paul Tough’s findings about “grit” (aka valuing hard work over intelligence).

    http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/09/paul_tough_on_h.html

    https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_the_key_to_success_grit

    • #1
    • January 9, 2015, at 1:32 PM PST
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  2. Casey Inactive

    Troy Senik, Ed.: You tell them they have to work hard to be smart.

    I would never tell my children this because it isn’t true.

    Go to your local driving range every night for a year and hit a bucket. Did you get better? Why not? You worked hard.

    The guy who hit one bucket in July got better. Because he practiced thoughtfully. You worked harder, he got better.

    Being smart isn’t effortless but it isn’t the result of hard work either.

    • #2
    • January 9, 2015, at 1:45 PM PST
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  3. Troy Senik Contributor
    Troy Senik Post author

    Casey:

    Troy Senik, Ed.: You tell them they have to work hard to be smart.

    I would never tell my children this because it isn’t true.

    Go to your local driving range every night for a year and hit a bucket. Did you get better? Why not? You worked hard.

    The guy who hit one bucket in July got better. Because he practiced thoughtfully. You worked harder, he got better.

    Being smart isn’t effortless but it isn’t the result of hard work either.

    This is a reasonable distinction, but not one that undermines the core principle. Different kinds of exertion are going to be more likely to produce results than others, no question. The point remains, however, that some kind of effort is still necessary. You may have been born with the same innate level of talent as Tiger Woods, but if he put in the hours and you didn’t it’s not going to have much cash value.

    • #3
    • January 9, 2015, at 1:54 PM PST
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  4. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    Troy Senik, Ed.: On the other, it’s sort of depressing that it takes years of research — and the attendant financing — just to win some grudging respect for what many of us regard as horse truth.

    This isn’t new in social science. There’s loads of studies from many disciplines which have found such results.

    This is where it gets to the “popular press” like Scientific American. But that doesn’t reflect where actual academic research is.

    If you read the article you linked to, she talks about studies from decades ago. Of course, parallel studies in other disciplines besides psychology have found the same thing too, decades ago.

    So it’s not “new”. And science also works slow because it needs to validate. We may “know” things, but that doesn’t mean they are true. Much of what we “know” from popular belief, has also been shown not to be true by “science”. So they can’t take anything for granted.

    Troy Senik, Ed.: We all know these types. They’ve mastered the acoustics of erudition — the smoke signals of the bien pensant — but, when confronted with evidence of their own shortcomings, it’s inevitably the fault of someone else or the vast impersonal forces of the universe. They don’t need to investigate what went wrong, because it can’t have had anything to do with them.

    That’s usually every person, at some point in time in their life and in some circumstance. No one has ever been immune to this.

    So it’s not a type of person. It’s inherent human nature.

    Obama isn’t unique in that case. He’s just the manifestation of what happens when you live in an echo chamber. But so do many “conservatives” too. So do most people, at least for parts of their lives, or for certain circumstances.

    • #4
    • January 9, 2015, at 2:00 PM PST
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  5. KC Mulville Inactive

    I have what my father called “The Mulville Curse.”

    As he defined it, The Curse is that most people strive for achievement because it’ll make them happy. But Mulvilles are born happy, or at least, reasonably content most of the time, and so we have no burning desire to achieve anything. I took to the Mulville side of the gene pool when it came to personality, so unfortunately, whatever talent I was given seems wasted.

    At some point, I figured out that the exercise and improvement of whatever talent I had couldn’t be based on what made me content. I was relieved when I found out that the Greek notion of happiness wasn’t defined as contentment, but as excellence – the full exercise of one’s abilities.

    That’s why I always taught my children that the whole idea of “potential” was nonsense. A teacher who said “you weren’t living up to your potential” wasn’t admiring your talent … he was politely telling you that you were lazy.

    Potential is a lie. What you do with your talent determines whether the talent should have been given to you in the first place.

    • #5
    • January 9, 2015, at 2:18 PM PST
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  6. Casey Inactive

    Troy Senik, Ed.: The point remains, however, that some kind of effort is still necessary.

    Forgive me, Troy. I work with MBAs so this is a sticking point.

    Of course, some kind of effort is necessary. But not all kind of effort.

    In fact, prosperity comes from the desire to get more for less. That is smart.

    Selling hard work does far more damage to the individual that does telling them they are special. (Provided you tell someone they are special for realsies.) We want to believe that hard work pays off because that is democratic. But genius wins the day. That’s why MBAs work for geniuses.

    • #6
    • January 9, 2015, at 2:23 PM PST
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  7. Casey Inactive

    KC Mulville: we have no burning desire to achieve anything.

    This is an Irish curse.

    KC Mulville: Mulvilles are born happy

    I don’t know where you get this, though.

    • #7
    • January 9, 2015, at 2:25 PM PST
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  8. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    Casey: Forgive me, Troy. I work with MBAs so this is a sticking point. Of course, some kind of effort is necessary. But not all kind of effort. In fact, prosperity comes from the desire to get more for less. That is smart. Selling hard work does far more damage to the individual that does telling them they are special.

    True. But getting “more for less” still requires “hard work” to get to the point where you can get “more for less”. MBAs may be further along the learning curve, which is why they can get more for less. But they still had to climb up the learning curve.

    “Asset mass efficiencies”, in other words.

    So I think the learning curve effect is at play here that causes these differences in outcomes. So there’s still probably some truth to the concept that innate abilities in some individuals still matter. I.e., the “smart” people may just be able to climb up the learning curve faster or with less effort than others. But you’d see this only if you compared like with like, i.e. MBAs with other MBAs.

    • #8
    • January 9, 2015, at 2:32 PM PST
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  9. Casey Inactive

    AIG: MBAs may be further along the learning curve

    They’re so far behind they think they’re first.

    • #9
    • January 9, 2015, at 2:36 PM PST
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  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    “This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.”

    I read an article on Jewish World Review several years ago making the same point. It was called “confessions of a smart kid”. It’s all true.

    The worst part is that, even if you develop a strong work ethic after being told your entire childhood that, because you’re so smart, things should come easily to you – which isn’t always said in praise, but also in anger and frustration by disappointed parents when you do struggle with something – you may never develop the confidence in the face of failure that your “stupider” siblings have. Unlike them, you were taught to have no patience with yourself, no kindness. Only self- loathing for not already being perfect.

    • #10
    • January 9, 2015, at 2:45 PM PST
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  11. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    Casey: They’re so far behind they think they’re first.

    Oh I see. You were saying that MBAs were taught to “work hard”, where as the “genius” works “smart”.

    Well, that’s called “sample selection bias”. The genius is already a genius. The question is how did someone become a “genius”.

    MBAs are also taught to work “smart” and not “hard” (unless they’re finance MBAs in which case, they’re not that smart to begin with :p). The whole point of the “case study” method is to make them “think smart” but not necessarily “hard”. Of course, the degree to which this is successful varies by school and lots of other factors.

    Having graded too many MBA exams myself, I’ve seen that the ones that can “think smart” are few and far in between.

    So then the next question is, to what degree does “working hard” substitute for “working smart”?

    I’m sure, there’s lots of studies in psychology that look at this question.

    • #11
    • January 9, 2015, at 3:10 PM PST
    • 1 like
  12. Crabby Appleton Inactive

    I’m reminded of the opening chapter of Charles Murray’s book “Real Education”‘, it’s entitled “Half Of All Children Are Below Average.” Statistically unarguable .

    • #12
    • January 9, 2015, at 3:14 PM PST
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  13. captainpower Inactive

    Crabby Appleton: “Half Of All Children Are Below Average.” Statistically unarguable .

    I had to ask myself whether this is true or not.

    Thinking about it as a layperson, if we assume that whatever we are measuring is a bell curve, or normal distribution, then that’s true.

    But if you have outliers who skew things then it’s not necessarily true.

    If you test 10 kids and 9 of them get an F and 1 of them gets an A+, 9 of them are below average. None of them is average.

    http://www.mathsisfun.com/data/standard-normal-distribution.html

    http://www.npr.org/2012/05/03/151860154/put-away-the-bell-curve-most-of-us-arent-average

    • #13
    • January 9, 2015, at 4:03 PM PST
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  14. Casey Inactive

    Here’s the thing – People are always saying “Hard work pays off” or “Work hard and you can achive anything” or “Work hard and your dreams will come true.” But those things are almost never true.

    Now if you are comparing hard work to laziness them yes hard work is better. But putting forth minimum effort is going to get you pretty much to the same place as hard work most of the time. Telling children otherwise just leads to disappointment.

    On the other hand, telling children they are special (again, provided that the is truth there ) will lead them to pursue an area of strength and expect more than they otherwise would. Now, of course, this can lead to a sense of entitlement which is problematic.

    The ideal should simply be “be correct.” If you are correct because you are special, good. Correct because you worked for it, good. The results are the same.

    • #14
    • January 9, 2015, at 4:45 PM PST
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  15. Mark Wilson Member

    Troy Senik, Ed.: They’ve mastered the acoustics of erudition — the smoke signals of the bien pensant

    This is tongue-in-cheek, right?

    • #15
    • January 9, 2015, at 5:18 PM PST
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  16. Jules PA Member

    Casey: Being smart isn’t effortless but it isn’t the result of hard work either.

    Thoughtful, purposeful, deliberate work is the embodiment of smart.

    • #16
    • January 9, 2015, at 6:07 PM PST
    • 1 like
  17. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    Casey: Here’s the thing – People are always saying “Hard work pays off” or “Work hard and you can achive anything” or “Work hard and your dreams will come true.” But those things are almost never true.

    “Hard work pays off” is the embodiment of Marxist ideology ;) No, I’m serious. This is why Marxists think that a doctor and a street sweeper should be paid the same: they both worked hard.

    So while it may be a good enough simplification, and a good way to treat anyone under the age of 9, probably not such a good enough explanation of the real world.

    So you’re absolutely right.

    • #17
    • January 9, 2015, at 7:10 PM PST
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  18. AUMom Member

    I’ve read Dweck’s Mindset. It is an excellent book and hard to distill into an article. She says it takes both work and talent. The people that use both succeed. It’s not one or the other.

    • #18
    • January 9, 2015, at 7:43 PM PST
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  19. EJHill Podcaster

    My kid may not be special but…

    My kid

    • #19
    • January 9, 2015, at 9:09 PM PST
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  20. Peter Robinson Founder

    “The smoke signals of the bien pensant.”

    Only Troy.

    • #20
    • January 9, 2015, at 10:54 PM PST
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  21. Guruforhire Member

    Smart kids learn what grades actually mean and economize their effort accordingly.

    • #21
    • January 10, 2015, at 6:26 AM PST
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  22. Songwriter Member

    Several years ago, when my firstborn became a dad himself, he and I had a dad-to-dad chat. I asked him to tell me honestly what he believed I got wrong as a parent that he would try to not do with his children. His answer was eye-opening.

    He said my generation had told his generation they were special. (And the best at everything, to boot.) And now that they were in the real world, my son’s generation was discovering the hard way that they weren’t so special after all.

    We do our children no good service lying to them about their abilities.

    • #22
    • January 10, 2015, at 6:51 AM PST
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  23. TG Thatcher
    TG

    As in so many cases, “bad” comes from “good” wrongly applied. The seductiveness of “tell your kid he’s special” appears to lie in the correct impulse to convince your kid he’s loved – the distinction between “you’re loved” and “you’re special” seems to be something that some people can’t grasp.

    Of course, there are other reasons that some parents make the “special” mistake …

    • #23
    • January 10, 2015, at 7:03 AM PST
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  24. Troy Senik Contributor
    Troy Senik Post author

    Mark Wilson:

    Troy Senik, Ed.: They’ve mastered the acoustics of erudition — the smoke signals of the bien pensant

    This is tongue-in-cheek, right?

    With this, Mark pulls into the early lead for this year’s Most Valuable Commenter award. Careful, Wilson. You’re always vulnerable to competition when you peak too early ;)

    • #24
    • January 10, 2015, at 8:44 AM PST
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  25. Joseph Eagar Member

    There’s a dark, nasty downside to IQ worshipping. I was disabled for most of my 20s (I turn 28 next month), and I never was able to get any help (from medical doctors, college universities, or government programs) because people either thought I was undeserving (“why should he get help when he’s going to end up making more money than me?”) or (even worse) they genuinely believed, in good faith, that my IQ advantage outweighed everything else and I didn’t need help.

    (This, by the way, is why I believe in free markets: unlike politically-driven activities, one does not have to convince other people of things like whether one is “deserving”).

    • #25
    • January 10, 2015, at 9:27 AM PST
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  26. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    “A teacher who said “you weren’t living up to your potential” wasn’t admiring your talent … he was politely telling you that you were lazy.”

    I think most kids figure that one out — it’s a way of telling you you’re lazy. A particularly shaming way, too, if you’re the type of “smart kid” who was raised to believe that your “special” smartness obligates you to do something really fantastic with those smarts.

    • #26
    • January 10, 2015, at 9:28 AM PST
    • 1 like
  27. SecondBite Member

    These things are tough because you are really dealing with a multidimensional matrix. Intelligence and talent are both overrated. When I worked in production agriculture, we hired a lot of hobos, many of whom were surprisingly smart. It obviously wasn’t doing them much good. I am not sure I have ever worked for someone smarter than me, but they were all much more successful than me. They obviously got something right that I got wrong. I think part of what good parenting about is keeping the relative importance of things straight. Hard work is better than indolence; diligence is better than sloppiness; overcommitment and undercommitment can both be bad; and so on and so forth. Most of all, pay attention and think, because, whatever we think the rules for success and happiness are, they are most likely something else.

    • #27
    • January 10, 2015, at 10:18 AM PST
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  28. Teresa Mendoza Inactive

    (1) I can’t believe you got this many good faith comments, Troy: You don’t have children so you are not allowed to opine on the subject.

    (2) Hold up! That kid in the foreground of the photo on the carousel looks an awful lot like . . .

    • #28
    • January 10, 2015, at 10:18 AM PST
    • 1 like
  29. Larry Koler Inactive

    Peter Robinson:“The smoke signals of the bien pensant.”

    Only Troy.

    Yes, he does have a way with words, doesn’t he?

    And the phrase setting it up is delightful to see so the context is full:

    Troy Senik, Ed.: They’ve mastered the acoustics of erudition — the smoke signals of the bien pensant.

    The “acoustics of erudition” … that’s also delicious.

    The thing about good writing is that it makes a point well and it gives the reader’s mind a little spice or tingle which the memory uses to recall the thought more easily. This is what is meant by the word edify.

    • #29
    • January 10, 2015, at 10:24 AM PST
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  30. Barfly Member

    The key factor at work here is pretense. The only sure way to deny oneself any particular achievement is to pretend to already have it.

    • #30
    • January 10, 2015, at 12:25 PM PST
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