What's Your Political Mindset?

Research on different learning styles may explain political views.

Posted Nov 23, 2016

Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock
Source: Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

Do you see political issues as either good or bad – successes or failures?

Or are they all opportunities to learn and grow?

In the bestselling book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford professor Carol Dweck illuminates a key difference in our beliefs about learning and experience.  Mindset is a groundbreaking idea that can help us understand situations that involve change, growth, and learning. And, the concept of mindset can be applied to how we approach political issues.  Political messages are on the rise. It’s important to understand not only what people are saying – but the mindset that’s motivating their reasoning. Mindset can help you better understand your own political beliefs as well.

From over two decades of research on achievement, Dweck finds that people tend to have one of two fundamentally different approaches to learning: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.  This basic distinction makes a huge difference in how we approach a wide array of goals, tasks, and problems.

Students with a fixed mindset believe that their basic abilities, intelligence, and skills are traits that can’t be changed. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and so their goals are focused in looking smart and never looking dumb. They choose situations that they can succeed in and avoid ones that they might fail at.  A fixed mindset works well enough if you have a lot of these positive qualities.  It becomes more problematic in the face of failure. People with a fixed mindset tend to see failure as diagnostic of their worth. They equate failing with being bad or dumb – so they become paralyzed in the face of failure.

In a growth mindset, students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good instruction, and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or everyone can be a genius, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it. Students with a growth mindset have a passion for stretching themselves and persevering even, and especially, when things aren’t going well. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive even in the most challenging times. The benefits of a growth mindset include improved self-esteem and confidence, less reliance on stereotypes, less perfectionism, more enjoyment of the learning process, and being less discouraged by setbacks.

So how might we use this concept of mindset to understand how we perceive political issues?

In a fixed mindset, people judge past events as either successes or failures. They attribute the outcome to either good or bad influences.  In planning strategies, they seek to eliminate what they see as bad and accentuate the good, so they can avoid failing in the future.  Examples of a fixed political mindset are believing certain political, ethnic, or religious groups are good and others are bad, then seeking to eliminate or marginalize the so-called bad ones. They may see policy decisions as either successes or failures and want to keep the successful ones and eliminate the so-called failures completely. They may also avoid complex issues because they seem like unsolvable problems that raise the threat of failure. Those with a fixed mindset may want to go back to a time when things were simpler and it was easier to be successful.  New information can also be threatening to those with a fixed mindset, particularly if they think they should know about it already; they might feel they’ll look stupid for not already knowing about it.

In a growth mindset, people see situations, issues, and others as opportunities to learn, expand, and grow. All information is good information because it provides a chance to learn more. The past is not seen in terms of successes and failures but as a set of valuable learning experiences.  Current challenges are viewed as opportunities to learn from, not as situations to prove one’s worth by being successful and avoiding failure.  A growth mindset is oriented toward the future, using the past not to evaluate one’s abilities and talents, but as a constant source of learning and improvement. They realize nothing stays the same and are not threatened by the success of others. They don’t take failures to heart; they simply learn from them. They are inspired rather than threatened by the success of others. Because those with a growth mindset are not focused on performance (or how they look to others) they devote their time and energy to learning and creating new solutions for the problems at hand. They embrace challenges and are persistent in the face of setbacks. They see change as inevitable and part of the growth process.

A Summary of Two Political Mindsets

Fixed Political Mindset

  • Views past experiences as either successes or failures
  • Views situations, issues, people as good or bad
  • Solutions enhance the good and eliminate the bad
  • Fear of failure limits the receptivity for new information
  • New solutions forfeited in favor of restoring what was once successful

Growth Political Mindset

  • Views past experiences as learning experiences regardless of outcome
  • Views situations, issues, people as opportunities to learn
  • Solutions involve integrating different perspectives and new information
  • Desire to learn enhances persistence in the face of difficulties
  • New solutions are created from the belief that change and growth are inevitable

The Clarity: Six Questions to Test Your Political Mindset

1.  When exposed to cultural differences, do you find them interesting or threatening?

2.  When you meet people who are different, are you curious or wary?

3.  When you hear of other people's’ successes, do you feel inspired or competitive?

4.  When considering large-scale problems, do you find yourself avoiding them, or attending to them with persistence?

5.  Are you more concerned of what others think of your opinions, or on gathering more facts to inform your point of view?

6.  Do you see change as exciting and inevitable, or as sign that something is wrong?

Ten Ways to Cultivate a Growth Political Mindset

1.  See change as progress and growth, not a series of successes and failures

2.  See challenges as opportunities.

3.  Learn new skills to create desired changes

4.  Acknowledge and accept imperfections in everyone and everything

5.  Stop seeking approval and agreement for your political views

6.  Cultivate a sense of purpose that guides you

7.  Be inspired by the work of others

8.  Regularly reflect on what you are learning

9.  Be open to new information and points of view

10. Develop a practice to increase your self-awareness

Copyright Tara Well, 2016

Note to the Reader: The idea of political mindset is my own, based on the work of Carol Dweck.  For more information on increasing self-awareness, visit The Clear Mirror, follow me on Twitter, and join The Clear Mirror community on FaceBook.