The effect of belief on intelligence

A unique and fascinating new study was released this year by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, researching the effects of belief on cognitive performance.

The results: children who believed that intelligence was malleable and could be improved were much more likely to perform well in school. Children who believed intelligence was something set in stone – a genetic gift from birth that never changes – did not perform as well.

To test this, Dweck separated one hundred 7th grade students into 2 equal groups. All students had suffering math scores. One group was taught good studying habits, the other was taught about the plasticity of the brain, and how the brain can change; new neural connections can be formed and intelligence can actually be increased.

At the end of the semester, the children who had the crash course in neuroscience ended up performing better than those who were taught study skills! This is because their beliefs about intelligence had changed.

Here’s some excerpts from an article on this:

“Some students start thinking of their intelligence as something fixed, as carved in stone,” Dweck says. “They worry about, ‘Do I have enough? Don’t I have enough?'”

Dweck calls this a “fixed mindset” of intelligence.

“Other children think intelligence is something you can develop your whole life,” she says. “You can learn. You can stretch. You can keep mastering new things.”

She calls this a “growth mindset” of intelligence.  

“When they studied, they thought about those neurons forming new connections,” Dweck says. “When they worked hard in school, they actually visualized how their brain was growing.”

“We saw among those with the growth mindset steadily increasing math grades over the two years,” she says. But that wasn’t the case for those with the so-called “fixed mindset.” They showed a decrease in their math grades.

“If you think about a child who’s coping with an especially challenging task, I don’t think there’s anything better in the world than that child hearing from a parent or from a teacher the words, ‘You’ll get there.’ And that, I think, is the spirit of what this is about.”

In the articles on our website, we’ve been talking for years about how beliefs can work for or against your cognitive performance. Many people who approach us with cognitive issues want to focus only on the neurological or physiological aspect of that. Often, after a few months of work, it becomes apparent that a psychological approach is needed – the physiology is right for peak performance, but the belief system keeps the brain stuck in first gear. Negative beliefs about one’s intelligence can often be very hard to counteract. This study is useful in that it shows that merely learning more about the brain can help give your brain the boost it needs to make real progress.

NPR has a nice broadcast of this new research online:

5 Comments to “The effect of belief on intelligence”

  1. […] Mind Update 30.07.2008 by Michelle Trudeau […]

  2. Jane Carter 7 August 2008 at 4:09 pm #

    This looks like the usual clap-trap which fills up self-help books. Unfortunately, the experiment has no controls. The pupils who were told that their intelligence would increase had other advantages: for example, perhaps they felt better about themselves in general because of the feedback they were getting.

    At our Prague Hotel we have plenty of people applying for jobs who have a confidence to competence ratio which is too high rather than too low. I certainly haven’t seen any shifts over time.

  3. Argument 23 March 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    Perhaps this little chunk of neuroscience is something schools ought to include in their curricula from the get-go, perhaps with a refresher course every few years.

  4. Izkata 12 November 2010 at 6:56 pm #

    The problem, like Jane Carter says, is that there are no controls, and other variables aren’t adjusted for.

    For example, I and most of my friends knew from about 2nd grade (8 years old), what we were and were not good at academically. Formed by experience and comparison to each other. And I know it has never changed with me – I’ve graduated college and am still bad at rote memorization, much preferring to understand the mechanism behind the data.

    There’s also several studies opposed to this single one, which say that certain topics fall under a “you get it or you don’t” umbrella, where no amount of study will ever make you good at said topic. The major I followed in college is one such topic, something that has come naturally to me for nearly a decade now. And I’ve attempted to teach tons of students that fell under the “don’t get it” side for my major. Three months in, they’re making the exact same mistakes, with zero growth.

    Oh, and StumbleUpon’d

  5. John Jackson 25 December 2010 at 9:36 am #

    So ‘science’ has a big task establishing the notion of innate intelligence, and then has an equally big task taking down that there is any such thing.

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