The effect of belief on intelligence *

Mind Update
30.07.2008
by Michelle Trudeau

A unique and fascinating new study was released this year by Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, researching the effects of belief on cognitive performance.

The results: children who believed that intelligence was malleable and could be improved were much more likely to perform well in school. Children who believed intelligence was something set in stone - a genetic gift from birth that never changes - did not perform as well.

To test this, Dweck separated one hundred 7th grade students into 2 equal groups. All students had suffering math scores. One group was taught good studying habits, the other was taught about the plasticity of the brain, and how the brain can change; new neural connections can be formed and intelligence can actually be increased.

At the end of the semester, the children who had the crash course in neuroscience ended up performing better than those who were taught study skills! This is because their beliefs about intelligence had changed.

Here’s some excerpts from an article on this:

  “Some students start thinking of their intelligence as something fixed, as carved in stone,” Dweck says. “They worry about, ‘Do I have enough? Don’t I have enough?’”

Dweck calls this a “fixed mindset” of intelligence.

“Other children think intelligence is something you can develop your whole life,” she says. “You can learn. You can stretch. You can keep mastering new things.”

She calls this a “growth mindset” of intelligence.

“When they studied, they thought about those neurons forming new connections,” Dweck says. “When they worked hard in school, they actually visualized how their brain was growing.”

“We saw among those with the growth mindset steadily increasing math grades over the two years,” she says. But that wasn’t the case for those with the so-called “fixed mindset.” They showed a decrease in their math grades.

“If you think about a child who’s coping with an especially challenging task, I don’t think there’s anything better in the world than that child hearing from a parent or from a teacher the words, ‘You’ll get there.’ And that, I think, is the spirit of what this is about.”

We’ve been talking for years about how beliefs can work for or against your cognitive performance. Many people who approach us with cognitive issues want to focus only on the neurological or physiological aspect of that. Often, after a few months of work, it becomes apparent that a psychological approach is needed - the physiology is right for peak performance, but the belief system keeps the brain stuck in first gear. Negative beliefs about one’s intelligence can often be very hard to counteract. This study is useful in that it shows that merely learning more about the brain can help give your brain the boost it needs to make real progress.

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