“Your brain is like a muscle”: Using a growth mindset to redefine success

“Your brain is like a muscle”: Using a growth mindset to redefine success

How Do Beliefs About Change Effect Performance?

People often have different beliefs about how change occurs, and as you are likely aware, some people are far more optimistic than others. Take for example, opinions about personal ability. In regard to personal ability some people have what researchers refer to as fixed mindset.1 These people tend to believe their abilities are largely determined by a natural capacity to be either good or bad at a particular activity. In contrast, other individuals have what researchers refer to as a growth mindset. These people believe their abilities improve with effort.

What is important about these mindsets is that they cause individuals to feel differently about challenges and opportunities for improvement

What is important about these mindsets is that they cause individuals to feel differently about challenges and opportunities for improvement. For example, when a person with a fixed mindset doesn’t do very well, let’s say gets a bad grade on a math test, they may think, “I’m not good at math”. When a person with a growth mindset gets a bad grade they might think “I have a bad math teacher.”

The significant difference between the two groups, is that people with a growth mindset may try harder next time because they attribute unsatisfactory results to an external source. However, individuals with a fixed mindset are more likely to shoulder the blame for their poor performance. As a result, these individuals may put in less effort in the future in order to avoid feeling like they tried really hard, still did poorly, and thus have to conclude they are not just bad, but are really bad at math.

How Do These Mindsets Effect The Performance of Children in School?

Researchers from Stanford and Columbia universities have studied how these mindsets effect performance in school children. They found that in elementary school there is no difference. However, when the same elementary students enter middle school the grades of students with a “fixed mindset” begin to dramatically worsen. Note: students who gave reasons such as “I am the stupidest” or “I suck at math” were considered “fixed mindset” students, whereas those who offered explanations such as “I didn’t do well because my teacher is on crack” where considered growth mindset students.

When the same elementary students enter middle school the grades of students with a “fixed mindset” begin to dramatically worsen.

Alarmed by their findings, the researchers conducted an experiment. They divided students with a “fixed mindset” into either; a group that received no instruction about the growth mindset, or a group that received a total of two hours of instruction about the growth mindset in an eight week period. The extra instruction introduced concepts such as “your brain is like a muscle”, and “everything is hard before it is easy”, and “nobody laughs at babies because they can’t talk”. You might presume that two hours of adjunct, non-academic course would do very little to improve the grades of middle school students.

But what happened? The grades of the students who received training about the growth mindset improved (from a C+ average where they started), while the grades of those who received no training continued to decline (from a C+ average to a C- average). Additionally, when teachers (who did not know which kids were in which group) identified students who had made a positive change throughout the year, 76% of students identified were in the “your brain is like a muscle” group. Wow!

What is the relevance of the growth mindset in health care?

These results illustrate that not only is it productive to believe in growth, your grades will improve, but even if a growth mindset is unnatural to you, only two hours of playing with the philosophy may make a big difference in how you feel and behave.

This is a stunning result. Teaching students that it was alright to struggle in school and that performance improves with practice, changed the scholastic trajectory of these students. What’s more, these results illustrate that not only is it productive to believe in growth, your grades will improve, but even if a growth mindset is unnatural to you, only two hours of playing with the philosophy may make a big difference in how you feel and behave.

You may argue that the adolescent mind is more pliable than the adult mind. Still, as the authors of the authors of the book Switch point out “two hours of instruction, in the junior high sandstorm of hormones and popularity and YouTube, should have had all the transformative effect of an after-school lecture on the Food Pyramid” (Heath and Heath, 167). The conclusion of both the researchers and the Heath brothers is that the growth mindset is a powerful tool for change.

Perhaps in order to promote effort (participation in health promotion and health care improvement), we need to promote optimism. By recognizing that improvement requires growth, and that blame and quilt are counter productive, we have the potential to energize ourselves and others to do our and their best, to bring about positive changes in health and health care.

References:
  1. Heath, C. and Heath, D. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House. 2007.
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