Monday, July 28, 2014

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

In 1964, Minnesota Vikings football defensive end, Jim Marshal, picked up a fumble and ran 66 yards the wrong way, into his own end zone, causing his team to suffer a safety, or loss of two points.

To many, a faux pas such as this could result in humiliating embarrassment and a devastating blow to self-esteem. Marshall, however, realized he had a choice: either sit in his misery or do something about it. In the second half of the game he caused a game-winning fumble that was picked up by his teammate and carried to the correct end zone for the score.

This incident in essence illustrates the difference between the two mental habits or, more technically, psycho-epistemologies, described in psychologist Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.


A fixed mindset is a set of beliefs that one’s skill and ability are innate, something we are born with that cannot be much improved with learning and practice. The tendency of the fixed mindset is to be a perfectionist, so when perfection is not achieved, self-doubt and diminished self-esteem result. Perfection, the fixed mindset assumes, is supposed to be easy.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, believes that concentrated thought and effort can improve skill and ability in whatever endeavor one happens to be participating in. Mistakes to a growth mindset are a sign that more effort and practice are needed. Perfection is not the standard; accomplishment is.

The seemingly effortless, silky-smooth moves of dancer Fred Astaire, for example, were attained not through an innate talent but an astounding number of hours in rehearsal.

Dweck’s concepts of fixed and growth mindsets result from years of research on students, athletes, managers, parents, teachers, and coaches. The former two are learners, the latter four are teachers of one type or another.

In studies of students, as Dweck found and many a teacher can attest to, fixed-mindset students who get bad grades, such as a C or D, conclude that that is who they are, a C or D student, and that they can do nothing to change. Growth-mindset students who get a bad grade do not “sit in their misery”; they do something about it, as did Jim Marshall. They work harder to improve their next grade.

Fixed mindsets do not believe that effort can affect their skill or ability. Either you have it or you don’t, they think.

Unfortunately, many of Dweck’s four types of teachers can exhibit a fixed mindset in themselves and in turn assume the same to exist in their learners. A rude and offensive teacher will tell a C student, “That’s who you are; you’re a C student!”

A fixed-mindset manager may resent criticism from subordinates and may even fire them, because the boss is the one who supposedly knows best and his or her sense of worth depends on being right. Dweck provides many examples of fixed-mindset managers, such as Lee Iacocca (of Ford and Chrysler), and contrasts them with their growth-mindset counterparts: Alfred P. Sloane of General Motors and Jack Welch of General Electric, who both welcomed criticism as an essential part of their learning and growth process.

Welch was known for rolling up his sleeves and going to the production floor to ask workers what they thought would resolve a problem.

Emphasizing that fixed mindsets can be changed, Dweck appeals to child psychologist Haim Ginott and cognitive therapist Aaron Beck. Changing thoughts and beliefs that constitute the fixed mindset are what are needed to change the mental habit.

In relation to children, labels, such as “you’re dumb” or “you’re a C student,” and extravagant praise, such as “you’re awesome” or “you’re so smart,” must be dumped. Describe the incident, as Ginott insisted, don’t evaluate. Let the child draw the evaluative conclusion based on the description.

All of us, says Dweck, maintain a running account of what events mean to us and how we should react to them. These are the beliefs that control our lives. To change, say, from that of a fixed to a growth mindset, we must introspect and change those entrenched beliefs. This is not an easy task, but with a commitment to effort and practice, it can be done.

What is missing from Dweck’s book, as it is from many contemporary psychological works, is any mention of the subconscious mind, defense mechanisms, or defense values. Such terms, no doubt, are avoided like the plague by modern psychologists for fear of being accused of being a Freudian.

Freud, nonetheless, did make contributions to the field.

The evidence provided by Dweck in her book is that the fixed mindset is a defended mindset, meaning that one’s self-esteem is on the line every time one takes a test in school, performs on the athletic field, or makes a decision in business. This performance anxiety must be defended against through denial, role playing, and other defensive maneuvers, lest one experience the humiliation of failure.

But it’s not a humiliating failure. It’s just a bad grade on a test, a wrong play on the field, a decision that may have cost the company some time and money.

It was an educational experience.

For more on the significance of the subconscious in psychotherapy and the relevance of defense mechanisms and defense values in explaining motivation, see psychologist Edith Packer’s Kindle book Lectures on Psychology.


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