What Are Mindsets, and Why Do They Matter?
May 5, 2022
The idea of simply choosing to have a growth mindset to increase academic, sports, or job success is compelling and has helped the concept gain popularity, especially in educational settings. However, that simplicity is not supported by research and ignoring the nuances of how mindsets work can lead to wasted time and resources. This post will explain what mindsets are, the potential benefits of growth mindsets, and some of the limitations of mindset interventions.
What are mindsets?
Mindsets are fundamental assumptions that people use to make sense of the world. Each mindset is a belief about the world or human nature that isn’t explicitly stated. For example, a teacher could have the unstated belief that some children are simply more intelligent than others. Although they likely wouldn’t go to students and explicitly tell them they are just not smart, this belief could cause them to not “waste time” with the less intelligent students and spend more time helping the smarter students learn.
When most people hear “mindset,” they think about fixed and growth mindsets, based on research conducted by Carol Dweck and her colleagues. These mindsets are fundamental assumptions about whether a person’s characteristics are stable or able to change. Broadly, a fixed mindset is the assumption that an attribute, like intelligence or personality, is stable and does not change, and a growth mindset is the assumption that an attribute can change. However, the distinction between a fixed or growth mindset is more nuanced than this broad definition.
People don’t simply have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. They can have different assumptions about different attributes. For example, the same person who believes that personality is who you are and there is no changing it (fixed mindset about personality) could also think that people who work hard can become smarter (growth mindset about intelligence). Further, mindsets aren’t truly divisible into two separate categories. People can have views of an attribute like intelligence somewhere between an exclusively fixed or exclusively growth mindset. One example is a belief that some aspects of intelligence are inherited and thus fixed, but putting effort into learning determines whether someone grows into their full potential. The distinction of fixed versus growth may be easier for people to understand, but in reality, one side is just more dominant than the other. So, someone can be closer to the side of fixed (e.g., personality is stable unless someone works really hard to change it) and not believe the extreme level of a fixed mindset (e.g., your personality is determined before you are born, and it can never change).
Why do mindsets matter?
So why should you care about these complicated, nuanced assumptions about the world? Simple - they can affect your success. Mindsets matter because the way we process events forms the emotions during that event. Your mindset affects the way you interpret events, and your interpretation influences how you respond. Two people in the same situation could react very differently based on their mindset. For example, imagine two people who don’t get the promotion they wanted. One has more of a fixed mindset about work performance, which could lead to interpreting the situations as “I’m just not good enough” or “my manager will never like me enough to promote me.” Either of these fixed mindset beliefs will likely cause this person to work less diligently. Why bother to work hard if you believe you’ll never get rewarded? In contrast, someone with more of a growth mindset could interpret it as not being good enough yet. Even though this person still likely has a negative emotional reaction, the belief that they can do better can motivate different behavior. If a promotion is something they really want, they’ll take action and look for ways to develop their skills or talk to their supervisor about areas they can improve. The assumption that they can improve could lead them to work harder and likely increase their chance of promotion.
Beyond hypothetical or anecdotal examples, research has shown various outcomes that can be improved by adopting more of a growth mindset. Here are a few examples of the many ways mindsets can affect outcomes across different domains of people’s lives:
- Responding to prejudice in the workplace: Despite the best efforts of organizations to promote diversity and inclusion, employees still experience prejudice. Research has shown that having a growth mindset after confronting an incident of bias is related to having a more positive attitude about future interactions with a coworker who expressed bias and feelings of workplace belonging and satisfaction.
- Learning agility: Several studies have demonstrated a relationship between having more of a growth mindset and processes associated with learning agility. For example, a growth mindset is related to seeking feedback and learning from mistakes. Further, people with a growth mindset are more likely to use all of the information available to them when making judgments, but people with a fixed mindset are more likely to over-rely on initial impressions. Finally, people with a growth mindset should feel more comfortable experimenting with novel ideas and methods. Collectively, these and other findings show that people with a growth mindset are more likely to learn from experience with speed and flexibility.
- Negotiation skills: Negotiation skills are one more example of an attribute that people can believe are innate or can be learned. Research has shown that people who have more of a growth mindset about negotiation skills improved their negotiation skills and performed better in a negotiation task than people with more of a fixed mindset.
- Mental health: Research has shown that holding a growth mindset can buffer against the impact of stressful life events. People with a growth mindset about anxiety experienced weaker post-stress symptoms such as depression and substance use after experiencing stressful life events. Other research has found that an intervention teaching about growth mindsets can reduce the risk for anxiety and depression in adolescents.
- Weight loss: Individuals who are dieting to lose weight inevitably face setbacks. Research has shown that teaching dieters to use a growth mindset can help them manage their reactions to these setbacks. Having more of a growth mindset can thus protect against setback-related weight gain.
Knowing some of the potential benefits of a growth mindset, the next logical step is knowing how to get those benefits. The simple answer is to cultivate a growth mindset across multiple attributes like personality, intelligence, and anxiety. The research reviewed in the previous sections shows that mindsets are both malleable and impactful. Even a short educational training teaching that an attribute can be developed can lead to better outcomes. However, it isn’t quite that simple.
Mindsets have gained popularity and acceptance largely due to the implied promise that a simple intervention can lead to substantial improvements. If you were hoping that a single training could drastically change your life, you might be disappointed. Although there are examples of rigorously designed studies that showed statistically significant results of growth mindset training, researchers have begun to debate the conditions under which mindset interventions have a measurable impact. For example, in education, mindset interventions have a stronger impact on lower-achieving students, and the effectiveness of the program depends on whether the culture inside the classroom reinforces the idea of growth mindsets. No matter how compelling a mindset intervention is, if the environment around you consistently teaches that some people are just good and something and others aren’t, it will be hard to truly cultivate a growth mindset. Further, the actual size of the change in performance may not be as substantial as desired. In a large-scale educational intervention, the average change in GPA was 0.1 points. For some people, that may be enough to have a substantial impact, whereas it may seem more inconsequential to others. The message that you can take away from the nuances in mindset research is that mindset interventions can be helpful, but more than a simple mindset intervention is needed for large-scale change.
The idea that simply changing an “assumption about the world” can help your performance (to a degree) is both counterintuitive and obvious. Nothing is more fundamental to shaping how individuals perceive reality than their assumptions, but it is something that we seldom consider. How often do you find yourself wishing you’d behaved differently and wonder, “what assumption(s) do I hold that may have negatively influenced my behavior?” My guess is not often. But if people do not address these fundamental assumptions, they will continue to react to situations in the same way, even if they don’t like the outcome. Understanding your mindsets and how they influence your actions is a valuable starting point to help you more purposefully control how you interact with the world.