Can adults develop a growth mentality?

As I’ve written about before a growth mentality/mindset is the belief that one’s abilities are not set in stone. So, a child praised for intelligence (thought to be fixed) will not attempt harder questions for fear of getting it wrong, while a child praised for their ‘hard work’ on a specific task, is likely to give the hard question ‘a go’ knowing they will have worked hard and will feel more positive about their results and more self-worth. Children with growth mentalities do better at tests and in many ‘life goals’ in which hard work makes a difference. For this reason this is incorporated into education today.

A new study (Miller et al, Feb 2018) decided to see if the effect could also be seen in adults. Participants were given an easy test then told they did better than most people and were either told they ‘worked hard’ (a variable factor within the participant's control), they were a ‘hard worker’ (an unchangeable factor) or were of ‘high intelligence’ (an unchangeable factor). Then they were given another test and told they had not done well.

‘Hard workers’ believed their intellects might have caused their poor performance more than those who were in the ‘worked hard’ group. They also had lower success and less enjoyment in doing the tests. In most studies of kids, those called ‘hard workers’ would not readily be negative about themselves or the task. Those in this study who were told they were of ‘high intelligence’ attributed failure to intellect more than the ‘worked hard’ group. This does not support what has been found in children, where people told they were ‘hard workers’ when they succeeded, maintained a high self-image and enjoyed hard work more.

This rings so true for me when I was put in lower managerial positions in my 20s, I found myself falling back on the ‘positive praise’ techniques I had learnt to become a registered childminder. Older people did not receive this well at all! It was seen as ‘patronising’ to my bewilderment at the time. I wish I could tell the ‘me’ of back then just how wrong she was… on so many things… but that’d take a whole blog post of its own!

It’s suggested that in education in the past a ‘hard work’ award as given to people seen as stupid and unable to gain an award any other way. Whereas today in school the phrase is used in reference to high achievement. So it’s possible the adults in this study associated this phrase with the way it used to be used in school, and instead of internalising that they could try hard to change their expected outcome (as children do today), they internalised that they were too stupid to get any other sort of real praise! This explains the feeling my co-workers had of being patronised when my intention was to praise!

It will be interesting to see if this result would be different for adults in 20-40 years time when more will have been through a school using these ‘growth mindset’ techniques.

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#growthmindset #adult #selfesteem #selfworth #hardwork #internalising #patronised