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.