Could There be a Dark Side to a Growth Mindset?
I recently visited a local school in the Bristol area of the UK to talk about an upcoming wellbeing project. As I walked into the head teacher’s office I noticed a poster that detailed a strategy for increasing performance in young students. The centrepiece of that strategy was “Growth Mindset”. At first, I was delighted that brilliant work conducted by an academic in the US (Carol Dweck) had made it all the way across the pond and into this very applied setting. Then, I felt slightly worried.
Before we get to the heart of my story, a bit of definitional background. People with a growth mindset view human characteristics as fluid, which can therefore be improved upon with certain courses of action (effort and strategy). For example, they would view intelligence as a malleable construct that can change through study. Growth mindset can be contrasted to fixed mindset, where the person in question views such characteristics as traits that can’t be modified. The data on this topic is remarkable. Specifically, it overwhelmingly suggests that having a growth mindset is a functional way of operating in the world because, when we view characteristics as controllable, we are more likely to engage in activities that will help us to improve over time. I’m a big fan. In fact, I am such a fan that I have explicitly encouraged my son to develop a growth mindset.
However, might there be a sucker punch to this work? If you think that the things you do can influence certain characteristics in yourself then you will probably apply that same rationale to others, that is, you will likely view their characteristics as a result of the things they have done. If someone is not improving in a given domain, you might blame them for their lack of improvement and might believe that they haven’t been strategic enough in their approach or they haven’t made enough effort. In other words, although having a growth mindset works for improving characteristics in oneself, it could come with the by-product of increasing negative attitudes towards those who are perceived as not trying hard enough to address their flaws.
My colleagues and I explored this idea in the context of obesity in a recent publication. Obesity is generally considered to be undesirable, and, despite the evidence to the contrary, as personally controllable. In the study, participants read one of two brief vignettes describing a fictional person. The two vignettes were identical apart from the fact that in one vignette the person was described as clinically obese. The participants then completed a questionnaire that measured negative attitudes towards the person in the vignette before completing a measure of mindset. Across two experiments involving 501 participants, individuals with more of a growth versus fixed mindset displayed significantly greater negative attitudes towards the obese but not non-obese person.
The results surprised us and at the same time they made sense. We live our lives not in a vacuum but in a very social world. Some would say that the ‘I’ only exists in relation to the ‘You’. Consequently, the rules that we build to help us operate in the world can be extended to other people in our environment. In the context of these studies, the extension of growth mindset resulted in negative attitudes towards obese people, also known as weight bias. Weight bias harms obese people in terms of their financial, physical, and psychological health.
Despite the paper’s focus on obesity, in my eyes, these studies have more to do with growth mindset and less to do with obesity, which is why I was slightly worried when I walked into that head teacher’s office. If our results are replicated and found to be generalizable, then a child taught to have a growth mindset could blame another child for not improving, and in any domain where the behaviour in question is thought to be controllable.
Given our findings and similar work by others, I have begun to question whether it is always useful to maintain such a strong focus on growth mindset in the various contexts in which it is popular (from education to the workplace). My gut would say that we need growth mindset. That is, if we throw growth mindset into the bin then people will live in a world where they are imprisoned by stories about their fixed characteristics. However, it may be helpful to supplement growth mindset interventions with something else. I am not exactly sure what that would look like right now but it would need to have the purpose of addressing the possible ‘dark side’ of growth mindset that I have described herein.
Dr. Nic Hooper is a Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England.