Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Third Graders’ Beliefs about Intelligence Affect Judgments

Task difficulty affects judgments of performance in kids.

One of the most fascinating findings to emerge from research in the last 20 years is the role of beliefs about cognitive skills on later performance.  The work started by Carol Dweck and her colleagues demonstrates that people generally hold one of two types of beliefs about cognitive skills. Either they believe that these skills are relatively fixed (which Dweck calls an entity theory) or they believe that these skills can be changed with hard work and practice (which Dweck calls an incremental theory). 

By the time kids get to 7th grade, their beliefs have a profound impact on their behavior in school. These beliefs have a big impact on how students interpret the hard work they put into their schoolwork. When a particular assignment is difficult, kids who have an entity theory (and so they believe that their abilities are fixed) assume that their effort signals that they have reached the limits of their ability. That leads them to start putting less effort into difficult subjects.

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The kids with an incremental theory (who believe that skills can be learned) treat effort as a signal that more work needs to be done. So, they will actually continue to put effort into topics that are hard for them to acquire. 

With younger kids, though, these beliefs appear to have less of an impact on behavior. Even third-graders (who are generally about 8 years old) have beliefs about intelligence. Some believe more strongly in an entity theory and others believe more strongly in an incremental theory. However, these beliefs do not seem to influence their behavior when confronted with difficult tasks.

A paper by David Miele, Lisa Son, and Janet Metcalfe in the December 2013 issue of Child Development explored an interesting question related to these beliefs in third-graders. One possibility is that third-graders's beliefs about intelligence do not affect their behavior because they do not understand the relationship between the effort they spend on tasks and how that relates to their beliefs about intelligence. A second possibility is that their beliefs about intelligence do influence they way they interpret effort, but they are just not good at using that information to decide what they should do next. 

In their study, both third- and fifth-graders were asked to read some age-appropriate passages (about topics like what it would be like to be a fish). The passages were either written in a font that was easy to read or one that was hard to read (and also had low contrast). The students had to put in more effort to read the difficult font than the easy one. However, many studies suggest that people given these materials do not realize that the greater difficulty comes from the font and not from the content of the passage they are reading. 

The researchers assessed whether kids held an incremental theory or an entity theory about intelligence. After reading the passages, kids had to rate how well they thought they would do on questions about the content of the passages. Then, they were given a test.

When kids held an incremental theory (believing that intelligence can be improved with work), then they thought they would do equally well on the passages regardless of whether the font was easy or hard to read. When kids held an entity theory (believing that intelligence is fixed), they thought they would do worse on the passage when it was hard to read than when it was easy. 

As it turns out, there was a slight tendency for kids to answer fewer questions correctly when the font was hard to read than when it was easy, but this difference was small.

What does this finding tell us?

Kids as young as 8 years old are affected by their beliefs about intelligence. When they believe that intelligence is fixed, they interpret effort as a signal that they are going to do badly. When they believe that intelligence can be improved, they do not see effort as a sign that they will do poorly on a task.

This study is important, because it means that we need to work with young kids to teach them that intelligence is a skill that can be acquired. Even though kids are still learning strategies for allocating their time to their work, their beliefs about performance are affecting their expectations about how well they do in school. 

Ultimately, we need to let kids know that they truly can do anything if they put their minds to it. 

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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