People with a “growth mindset” – those who believe their intelligence can be improved with effort – are said to seek out challenges, persist in the face of difficulty and bounce back after failure. By contrast, people with a “fixed mindset” – those who believe their intelligence doesn’t change much – are said to give up when facing challenges and be devastated by failure.
But new research from Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University suggests these claims are overstated.
“We found little to no evidence for the major premises of mindset theory” said Alexander Burgoyne, a recent MSU PhD graduate and study co-author. “In fact, the largest effect we found directly contradicts what mindset theorists have claimed.”
The findings, published in Psychological Science, might be surprising because growth mindset has been widely accepted as gospel in educational psychology.
“We found that the more students held a growth mindset, the worse they performed on a test after receiving failure feedback,” Burgoyne said. “They also weren’t more likely to persist if confronted by challenges and setbacks.”
Growth mindset interventions have been sold to countless schools and parents worldwide. However, evidence suggests that the foundations for these interventions are not firm, in turn calling many bold claims into question.
“There are a lot of assumptions about the benefits of growth mindsets and the detriments of fixed mindsets,” said Brooke Macnamara, associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University. “But, the evidence for these assumptions is weak at best.”
Despite claims that people with a growth mindset care first and foremost about learning, the researchers found that holding a growth mindset was only weakly associated with holding learning goals.
“When examining how students differ in how much they hold learning goals, we found that mindset only explained 1% of those differences,” Macnamara said. “By comparison, one’s self-esteem explains 10% of differences in how much people hold learning goals; need for achievement accounts for about 14% and general self-efficacy explains 31%. These factors have much stronger relationships with learning goal orientation.”
Likewise, despite claims that people with a fixed mindset are consumed by looking good at all costs, proving their abilities and otherwise holding performance goals, the researchers found that mindset explained only a small amount of the differences across students – 1% – in how much they hold performance goals.
“Those two findings of 1% were the extent of the support we found for mindset theory,” Macnamara said. “There was no evidence that having a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset mattered when it came to persevering in the face of a challenge. If anything, students with a fixed mindset did better ‘bouncing back’ from failure in our study.”
The findings suggest that growth mindset interventions might not be the best use of schools’ and parents’ money or the best use of students’ time.
Taken together, mindset may be another fad in psychology, like learning styles, the Mozart effect and brain training.
For now, the researchers cautioned that expectations about mindset should be tempered, because the strength of the claims outweighs the strength of the evidence.
(Note for media: Please include a link to the original paper in online coverage: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797619897588)