Culture Conscious

How culture shapes thought

Why So Many Spelling Bee Champions Are Indian-Americans

Beliefs about intelligence can affect success in spelling competitions.

Indian-American kids have dominated the Scripps National Spelling Bee since 1999, winning 11 of 15 competitions and the last six in a row. If you think the pattern is a fluke, consider this: Nearly a third of the semi-finalists at this year’s national spelling bee were Indian-Americans. What’s going on? Why do Indian-Americans consistently blow away the competition?

Marya Hannun, a blogger for Foreign Policy, believes part of the answer can be found in India’s educational system, which emphasizes rote learning and memorization. She also notes that spelling bees represent “a way for Indians to assimilate” and that “highly skilled immigrants tend to enroll their children in more academically oriented extracurricular pursuits.”

Ben Paynter, a blogger for Slate, attributes the success of Indian-Americans to the North South Foundation, which organizes minor-league spelling contests around the country for Indian-American kids.  Most Indian-American spelling champs have competed for years in regional competitions organized by the NSF.

These factors help us understand the success of Indian-Americans in spelling bees, but I’m willing to bet that cultural and personal beliefs also play a crucial role.  Specifically, people have different beliefs about the nature of intelligence. These beliefs often determine how hard one works and how long one persists in the face of failure.

Cultural psychologists have known for years that, as a group, North Americans are more likely than East Asians to subscribe to an “entity theory” of intelligence, whereas East Asians—Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans—are more likely to embrace an “incremental theory.”

Someone who has an entity theory believes that intelligence is fixed and can’t grow much over time, while someone who has an incremental theory believes that intelligence is changeable and can be increased.

A recent study found that university students in Bangalore (India) were much more likely than university students in California to hold an incremental view of intelligence (Rattann et al., 2012).  Three-quarters of the Indians surveyed said almost all babies can become highly intelligent, while two-thirds of the Americans said only some babies can become highly intelligent. Similarly, 70% of the Indians said intelligence can be changed a lot over time, while 58% of the Americans said intelligence cannot be changed much over time.

To compete at the very highest level of anything—sports, mathematics, music, chess, or spelling bees—one must study and practice for hour upon endless hour. To the chagrin of educators, young Americans are more likely than Asians to believe that a particular talent is either there or not there, to say to themselves “I’m just no good at math” or “I can’t spell.”

Our beliefs, of course, affect our actions. In one study, for example, Canadian and Japanese participants had the opportunity to work on two different tasks. The Canadians worked longer on the task for which they thought they were talented, but Japanese participants worked longer on the task for which they thought they were not talented (Heine et al., 2001). A belief in the incremental nature of cognitive capacities motivates us to improve ourselves, to work hard and not give up. Indian-Americans, as a group, are more likely to hold this belief.

In 2012, President Obama invited 55 science fair winners to the White House; nine of them were South Asians. At the 2012 Science Talent Search, three of 10 Junior Nobel Prize winners were Indian-Americans. In just the last two months, Indian-American Eesha Khare was a top winner at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and Aseem Jha earned perfect scores on the SAT and the ACT. Is it any wonder that the last six national spelling champs have been Indian-Americans? They’ve got what it takes—a belief that, if they work hard and don’t give up, they will get better and better and better.



Hannun, M. (2013, May 30). Why Indian-Americans d-o-m-i-n-a-t-e spelling bees. Retrieved June 24, 2013, from

Heine, S., Kitayama, S., Lehman, D., Takata, T., Ide, E., Leung, C., & Matsumoto, H. (2001). Divergent consequences of success and failure in Japan and North American: An investigation of self-improving motivations and malleable selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 599-615.

Paynter, B. (2013, May 31). Why are Indian kids so good at spelling? Retrieved June 24, 2013, from

Rattan, A., Savani, K., Naidu, N. V. R., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Can everyone become highly intelligent? Cultural differences in and societal consequences of beliefs about the universal potential for intelligence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(5), 787-803.

Lawrence T. White, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Beloit College. Steven Jackson is a journalist based in Los Angeles, California. 


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