Thursday, May 03, 2007

Beliefs, intelligence, and failure

From the book "Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense" (via this blog, via an email from a friend):
A series of studies by Columbia University's Carol Dweck shows .... that when people believe they are born with natural and unchangeable smarts ... [they] learn less over time. They don't bother to keep learning new things.

People who believe that intelligence is malleable keep getting smarter and more skilled ... and are willing to do new things.

That's a pretty important fact. It's also an excellent example of how your success is determined by your beliefs/mindset/frame. If you believe that you can't get smarter, you won't!

I searched around a bit and found another interesting quote:
...beliefs about the nature of intelligence have a significant impact on the way they approach challenging intellectual tasks: Students who view their intelligence as an unchangeable internal characteristic tend to shy away from academic challenges, whereas students who believe that their intelligence can be increased through effort and persistence seek them out.

Students who hold an "entity" theory of intelligence agree with statements such as "Your intelligence is something about you that you can't change very much." Since they believe their intelligence is fixed, these students place high value on success. They worry that failure-or even having to work very hard at something-will be perceived as evidence of their low intelligence. Therefore, they make academic choices that maximize the possibility that they will perform well. For example, a student may opt to take a lower-level course because it will be easier to earn an A. In contrast, students who have an "incremental" theory of intelligence are not threatened by failure. Because they believe that their intelligence can be increased through effort and persistence, these students set mastery goals and seek academic challenges that they believe will help them to grow intellectually.

Not only does a belief in fixed intelligence prevent learning, it also makes people more risk averse! It's easy to see how some cultures or micro-cultures make people successful, while others keep them mired in failure.

I expect that this same basic principle applies to most things, whether it's skills with computers or skills with people. Obviously "nature" plays some role, but beliefs, knowledge, and determination are usually more important. Furthermore, I suspect that you can learn to enjoy these activities, and that finding the fun is the key to mastering the skill.


Manoj said...

"Since they believe their intelligence is fixed, these students place high value on success. They worry that failure-or even having to work very hard at something-will be perceived as evidence of their low intelligence."

.....Very very true indeed. This was the norm with a lot of people when I was in school. Those who believed that "intelligence is something you can't change" had a condescending attitude towards those who believed to the contrary. Unfortunately that "intelligence is natural" was the normally accepted belief and there were a lot of converts to this ideology.

Camilla & Thomas's Mommy said...

Great post! This reminds me of the time I debated with my high school
English teacher about one's ability to draw. She argued that some people are just born with the ability and others aren't. I retorted that one can learn how to draw regardless of whatever abilities they start out with. In retrospect, now I realize that we both might be correct: Although some have that innate ability and has a good start - others don't, and have to work harder at getting just decent at it. But just because one doesn't possess artistic talent, doesn't mean they shouldn't make some effort at expressing themselves through art. Whether or not it's 'good' art may be another matter. But then again, however the piece might turn out to look like may not matter so long as the fundamental message being conveyed is understood. If the message contains clever humor, all the better. xkcd is one example of this.

Having been a teacher, I've seen how having the belief that intelligence is a fixed characteristic can work in the opposite way. It's frustrating to see students become averse to challenges because they think they are stupid and believe that they won't amount to much in life. And oftentimes it's quite difficult to convince them otherwise.

Anil Philip said...

When I was growing up in school, the rage used to be "Test your IQ".

Then you were supposed to read off from a chart, what your deserved station would be in life.

100 =
-basic school
-carpenter, plumber, baker...

120 =
- basic college
- librarian, teacher, nurse...

140 =
- Phd level
- scientist, politician, top government official...

Is success related to IQ?

I think so. Wouldnt you agree Paul, that your success at Google was related to your obviously high intelligence?

Rare is the day when I dont wish I had 20 more IQ points!

On the other hand, you raise an important point. Have fun at learning something (even if you are not good at it), rather than decide you are too stupid for it. You will slowly become better at it.

My grandfather in India (G. W. Benjamin) was a good example of this. I often marvel at how much of a Renaissance man he was. Yet, he did not have a high IQ and would not be considered "intelligent". Yet, he was a good engineer, an accomplished B/W photographer (I sold a few copies of his work, to a Fortune 500 corporation to hang in their gallery), athlete, understood advanced concepts in Science and Mathematics, made wine, was a church leader and more.

sri said...

@camilla's mommy:

here is a great quote on those who are born with it (those that have to work very little at it) versus those that have to work very, very hard to get it:

it from Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment by George Leonard:

In our scriptures, it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver's will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones.

You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn to run.

When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible, to be the best one, we want to be the second best.' But this is a mistake, Master Suzuki says. When you learn too easily, you're tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of a practice.

If you study calligraphy, you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage. This is also true in art, and in life.' The best horse, according to Suzuki, may be the worst horse. And the worst horse can be the best, for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones.

wlievens said...

This is very much true. Often when people say they are unable to understand something, it's really because they're not motivated to understand it anyway. Motivation, enthousiasm and a healthy interest in the topic are just as important as intelligence or other capabilities.

Jill said...

When I was studying martial arts many years ago, I consciously changed my primary goal in life from something like "live up to the intelligence people have told me I have" to "expand the ranges of situations I can deal with effectively." It was extremely helpful. I'm much better at failing at things now than I was then, and heaven knows I've had plenty of practice!. Without being able to fail it's hard to try new things.

Re camilla's mommy's comment on drawing, I agree. I think that talent is a boost that lets the talented person get more return for effort, so someone talented at drawing will produce more impressive work after the same number of hours trying, and may have a higher ultimate level they can reach. This does not by any means that less-talented people cannot learn to draw.

In my life, I seem to have a talent for learning languages; I pick them up rapidly and see patterns quickly. How many languages am I fluent in? One, my native language; I haven't yet lived in a country where another language was spoken. There are lots and lots of people fluent in multiple languages who are less talented at language learning than I am.

Finally, I have ears of stone, by which I mean that I'm not talented in music. But I've reached a reasonable level of proficiency and can contribute to some good performances.

Sriram said...

A classic case of blocking growth is the fasciantion for prodigies and putting lot of pressure on them to succeed, thereby spoiling their best childhood years.