Trump’s Harsh Refugee Policies Are Signs of a Fixed Mindset

Research shows a growth mindset leads to more support of refugee resettlement.

Posted Oct 23, 2019

 Mitch Lensink/Unsplash
In 2017, the US allowed fewer refugees than the rest of the world for the first time.
Source: Mitch Lensink/Unsplash

The Trump administration recently revealed a drastic cut to the number of refugees admitted into the United States. Rather than the 110,000 cap in place by Barack Obama in 2016, President Trump has slashed the number to be accepted during the next 12 months to 18,000.

A new article in the Journal of Psychological Science found that those with a fixed mindset—that is, people who view ability as inflexible—are less likely to support resettling refugees in their country. Trump’s refugee policies hint at his worldview that people do not have the ability to change much. 

For decades, the U.S. has been a world leader in refugee resettlement. However, the number of refugees accepted quickly fell when Trump entered the White House, and continues to fall. In 2017, the U.S. allowed fewer refugees than the rest of the world for the first time. Unfortunately, the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide is a staggering 70.8 million, according to the UN Refugee Agency. That’s 25 people fleeing war, conflict, or persecution every minute, with no sign of letting up.      

The Trump Administration claimed refugee resettlement was a drain on government resources. However, immigration experts say new arrivals often fill jobs quickly and add to local tax revenues. Why the shift, then, to such historically low numbers of refugees accepted for resettlement?

New research indicates it may be a sign of a fixed mindset. While many factors determine whether citizens are willing to open their nation to refugees—prejudices, sympathies, economic concerns, cultural differences, etc.—one’s perception of whether people can change or not also plays a role in the extent of support for refugee resettlement.

Researchers conducted a series of six studies investigating the relationship between mindset and support of refugee resettlement. They predicted that participants who believed abilities are learned incrementally would be more welcoming to refugees than those who view ability as static. Indeed, results showed that the more participants held a growth mindset about the kind of person someone is, the more they supported resettling refugees in their nation. This correlation was found both in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

To make their case even stronger, researchers found causal evidence in their third study by randomly assigning participants to either a fixed or growth mindset condition:

Adapting an existing manipulation of people’s kind-of-person mind-sets, we presented participants with an article that had purportedly appeared in a scientific journal. In the fixed-mind-set condition, the article cited research arguing that people’s characteristics are mostly fixed over time, whereas in the growth-mind-set condition, the article cited research arguing that people’s characteristics can change over time.

Results again indicated that those in the growth mindset condition were more likely to support refugee resettlement than those in the fixed mindset condition with an effect size of d = 0.23. Interestingly, while self-identified liberals in all the studies were more supportive of resettlement than conservatives, the mindset manipulation had a similar effect on participants across the political-orientation spectrum.

The article further finds that participants in the growth mindset condition were more likely to support refugee resettlement because they believed that refugees can assimilate into the new society. This belief was unrelated to whether refugees should assimilate.

Carol Dweck, an expert on the consequences of a fixed versus growth mindset, found that those with a belief that abilities are dynamic and incremental are more likely to challenge themselves, to persevere through those challenges longer, to more readily seek and accept feedback, and to admit fault, than those who view ability as set by genetics or circumstance. 

A growth mindset helps you take responsibility for your actions. As Dweck has said, “You can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny them.” Not only does a growth mindset allow people to embrace imperfection, learn from mistakes, and ultimately achieve more, it allows for greater understanding of others and their potential.

While it’s difficult to generalize results to an individual, a fixed mindset may be exactly what Trump lacks when it comes to seeing refugees as dynamic people, ready to bloom with the right resources. He has said, “I’m a big believer in natural ability,” the cornerstone of a fixed mindset. “I believe in being prepared and all that stuff. But in many respects, the most important thing is an innate ability.”

His fixed mindset is further shown in his hesitation to seek counsel, receive feedback, or to admit fault. He is more inclined to state how smart he already is rather than pursue opportunities to learn more. He recently tweeted of his “great and unmatched wisdom,” despite criticism of his unwillingness to learn new things.

With ample evidence that growth mindset leads to better outcomes than fixed, it’s heartening to know that mindsets can be changed. The fact that a fixed-mindset person can become a growth-mindset person proves that ability is dynamic. This begins when a person views their brain as a muscle that is malleable. As the brain works out, it grows stronger. 

Veronika Tait/Canva
Source: Veronika Tait/Canva

By switching to a growth mindset, Trump would not only be able to better handle criticism and rise to challenges but show greater compassion toward refugees. Just as his brain is plastic and flexible, so are those of refugees from different cultures. Whether they come to the U.S. with skills or learn them here, they have potential to adapt and succeed. 

As Den Heijer said, “When a flower doesn't bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.”