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Hans Schroder: Growth Mindsets

Sept. 3, 2014

Hans Schroder is a third-year doctoral student in clinical psychology. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from MSU in May 2012 and has worked in the Clinical Psychophysiology Lab since 2009. He is supported by the National Science Foundation.

When I am interested in something, I become engrossed. For instance, after learning about some constellations in ninth-grade science class, I felt compelled to learn all I could about stars. I spent my days studying the stars and the nights pouring over my telescope. Soon, I was boring my friends with mini “stargazing tours” that I insisted on hosting.

My longest lasting intellectual love affair has been with a brain response that happens after mistakes—called the error-related negativity, or ERN. Many refer to it as the “oh crap” response that happens when we slip up. Jason Moser, assistant professor of clinical psychology, introduced me to the ERN in 2009 when I was a sophomore at MSU looking to get some research experience. I was immediately hooked and read all I could about the ERN. In fact, I even created a Facebook page for the ERN and was married to it (the relationship status changed when I met an actual girl).

Luckily, my unrelenting enthusiasm for the ERN paid off during a phone conversation I had with Carrie Heeter, a professor in the Department of Media and Information . After I had described the ERN to her, Dr. Heeter asked me if I had heard of the research of Carol Dweck of Stanford University on “mindsets.” People who think their intelligence is “fixed” tend to avoid mistakes at all costs—to these people, any error is evidence that they lack ability. People who believe their intelligence is something that can be developed with learning and effort, however, view mistakes as opportunities for growth (the “growth” mindset).

It turned out that mindsets and how the brain reacts to mistakes go hand-in-hand. About a month after that phone conversation, Dr. Moser and I met with Dr. Heeter and her graduate student to plan out a potential study. Since that time, I have spent the last four years trying to understand how mindsets affect how the brain reacts to errors, as well as how mindsets relate to symptoms of anxiety.

I am incredibly fortunate to have worked with Dr. Moser since I was an undergraduate, as he and I have been able to spread the “mindset message” to the scientific community with publications and presentations at conferences, as well as to the broader public with media coverage of our research in outlets such as Wired and the BBC. 

To me, the most exciting aspect of mindsets is that they can change—fixed-minded people can become more growth-minded, and vice-versa. As we report in a paper recently published in Biological Psychology, even reading a short magazine article describing intelligence as genetic or environmental can influence how the brain handles information about performance.

As a graduate student now in the clinical psychology program at MSU, I have become interested in how mindsets relate to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, attitudes about mental health, as well as the role they play in psychological treatments.  

Read more about Schroder’s work: Nature or nurture is all about the message

Photo by G.L. Kohuth