One of the challenges with research in psychology is going from promising lab results to the use of those findings in the world. New results are often touted as a great way to fix a social or educational problem, but it can be difficult to develop good ways to put these findings into practice.
A great example of this issue is the work on mindsets by Carol Dweck and her colleagues. I have written often in this blog about this work. The broad summary is that people often adopt one of two mindsets about things they can learn to do. The fixed mindset assumes that the thing being learned involves an innate talent and that when people find this task hard, that indicates they have reached the limits of their talent. The growth mindset assumes that the thing being learned can be acquired with enough effort, and so people should work harder when facing difficulties because that effort will be rewarded with learning.
The promise of these mindsets is that many students struggling with difficult topics (like math) may have a fixed mindset. As a result, when they hit a level of math that is hard for them, they may give up and not advance their skills. From this perspective, encouraging a growth mindset among students should improve performance in school.
An interesting study by Melody Manchi Chao, Sujata Visaria, Rajeev Dehajia, and Anirban Mukhopadhyay in the October 2017 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, explored the effects of a growth mindset among third graders in a low socioeconomic status (SES) school districts in India.
Over 2,000 third graders in 107 classes were studied. About half were taught about a growth mindset in 10 one-hour lessons that talked about the brain and how it changes as people learn. In the control condition, students were given 10 one-hour lessons about the heart. This manipulation led growth mindset students to believe more strongly than control students that someone who practices math will improve.
The researchers also looked at different kinds of incentives for getting students to come to class. In the control condition, students were not told about the importance of attendance. In a personal choice condition, students were told about the importance of attendance in school and were told that their attendance would be posted publicly. Students were told they would be able to pick a reward for good attendance. This condition was designed to emphasize personal autonomy. A second reward condition (the teacher choice condition) also tracked attendance, but the teacher selected rewards for students at the end. This condition emphasized attendance, but not personal autonomy.
Performance was tracked using a standardized test administered to all students. Because previous standardized test scores were also available for these students, it was possible to track scores based on how well students performed based on their previous academic achievement.
The results are interesting, but a little complicated.
Growth mindset only had a positive impact compared to the control condition for those students in the personal choice reward condition. Even among these students, the strongest gains were for those students whose academic performance already good. That is, the best students got even better when introduced to the growth mindset. For the lowest-performing students, the growth mindset did not improve performance compared to the control.
The teachers choice condition led to no differences between the growth mindset and the control condition. Interestingly, when there were no rewards for attendance at all, the growth mindset actually hurt the highest performing students. They did worse than those in the control.
What does this mean?
First, to the extent that the growth mindset is intended to influence the performance of the lowest-performing students in classrooms, this study has disheartening news. The mindset intervention did not affect performance among these students. While more research always needs to be done on topics like this, these results do suggest that just instilling a growth mindset among students may not improve performance across the board.
Second, even with high performing students who have low socioeconomic status, the growth mindset does not always work. The researchers speculate that students who are not encouraged to come to class may actually find the growth mindset jarring. They may feel like their academic success is something special about them that sets them apart from their peers. Just telling them that hard work is what got them where they are may actually be de-motivating.
More broadly, this study helps clarify why it is so hard to move research from the lab to the real world. There are very few things you can do to manipulate people that always make things better. Instead, the influence of any intervention depends on many other factors—only some of which are under the control of the people who create the intervention. And, unfortunately, even the best-designed manipulations may actually hurt some of the people they are designed to help.
Chao, M.M., Visaria, S., Dehejia, R., & Mukhopadhyay, A. (2017). Do rewards reinforce the growth mindset? Joint effects of the growth mindset and incentive schemes in a field intervention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(10), 1402-1419.