Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team in 1978. He went on to become the greatest player in the game’s history. This is what he says about failure: “I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
According to a theory that has swept education in the last few years, Jordan has what psychologists call a “growth mindset”. He believes that even if you can’t do something initially, you can improve your abilities, whether they involve basketball or maths or playing the oboe, through hard work. “I can accept failure,” he said. “Everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying.”
Psychologists say the growth mindset is contrasted to a “fixed mindset” – the belief that your skills are innate, genetically endowed and fixed. Someone with a fixed mindset, according to the theory, would look at a maths problem they couldn’t do, and think, I can’t do that, I’m not gifted at maths. They might give up. But someone with a growth mindset might apparently think, I just haven’t learnt enough maths to do that; I’ll learn some more and try again. They will keep trying in the face of difficulty – believing they can improve to meet challenges.
These ideas, known as mindset theory, have been described as a “revolution which is reshaping education”. Proponents say you can instil a growth mindset in a child through simple measures – notably, by praising them for how hard they work to achieve something, rather than for what they achieve – with impressive results.
It has garnered an enthusiastic following, with techniques marketed by a variety of training companies. Children in British schools make “mindset” posters to show the difference between the two states of mind, and hundreds of schools in the UK and US offer mindset programmes. NASA looks for, and tries to instil, a growth mindset in its top engineers, saying that fixed-mindset people feel “threatened by the success of others” and “plateau early and achieve less than their full potential”, while growth-mindset people “find inspiration” in others’ success and reach “ever higher levels of achievement”. Google looks for a growth mindset in new hires. The Harvard Business Review offers tips for how companies “can profit from a growth mindset”.
Michael Jordan (centre), who – according to Carol Dweck – is an example of a sportsperson with a "growth mindset".
The concept is largely based on the research of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, whose book Mindset has sold over a million copies. A new edition was out on 12 January.
Dweck said in a talk to Google that she has worked with a US baseball team, asking them, for example, what they’d have to change about their approach if they became more successful. Some answered that they'd have to get used to playing in front of larger crowds. But others said they'd have to “take all my skills to a new level”, thus showing the growth mindset, according to Dweck.
She has made some eye-catching claims for the effects of the theory. Her website claims that a fixed mindset caused the Enron scandal, while a growth mindset can encourage cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. “Almost every truly great athlete – Michael Jordan, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Tiger Woods, Mia Hamm, Pete Sampras – has had a growth mindset,” she believes.
Dweck says that people with a fixed mindset “are so concerned with being and looking talented that they never realise their full potential” and “when faced with setbacks, run away … make excuses, they blame others, they make themselves feel better by looking down on those who have done worse”. By contrast, a growth mindset “fosters a healthier attitude toward practice and learning, a hunger for feedback, a greater ability to deal with setbacks”.
But some statisticians and psychologists are increasingly worried that mindset theory is not all it claims to be. The findings of Dweck’s key study have never been replicated in a published paper, which is noteworthy in so high-profile a work. One scientist told BuzzFeed News that his attempt to reproduce the findings has so far failed. An investigation found several small but revealing errors in the study that may require a correction.
Dweck has been quick to explain and correct the mistakes – earning praise from the scientist who pointed them out – and denies that a failure to replicate her work is an indicator that the findings are shaky.
One of her first and most influential studies on the subject, authored with Claudia Mueller in 1998, claimed to find that teaching a growth mindset made children more likely to take on difficult challenges. One hundred and twenty-eight children took an intelligence test. They were all told that they had scored more than 80%, and that this was a high score. A third of them were then told “You must have worked hard at these problems” - to supposedly instil a growth mindset - another third were told “You must be smart at these problems”, and the rest were left as a control and given no further feedback.
All were then given a choice of further tests to do: either ones described as “problems that are pretty easy, so I’ll do well” or “problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart”. Children who were praised as “smart” overwhelmingly opted for the easy problems; children praised as hard-working overwhelmingly chose the harder ones; the control group was evenly split. Similarly, when children were given another, harder test, those who had been praised as smart reported enjoying the challenging questions less than the children praised as hard-working.
The study has been hugely influential in social psychology – it has been cited by more than 1,200 other papers – and mindset theory has had a profound impact on business hiring practices and educational policy. A blog post on the British government website recommends hiring for growth mindset. Bill Gates has reviewed Dweck’s book in glowing terms. The University of Portsmouth got a £300,000 grant to carry out a mindset study on 6,000 British pupils this year, while educational bodies across Britain – including in Camden, Scotland, and Essex – want teachers to encourage a growth mindset in their children.
But the striking effects in Dweck’s findings have surprised psychologists. Timothy Bates, a professor of psychology at the University of Edinburgh, told BuzzFeed News that the “big effects, monstrous effects” that Dweck has found in the 1998 study and others are “strange – it’s an odd one to me”.
Scott Alexander, the pseudonymous psychiatrist behind the blog Slate Star Codex, described Dweck’s findings as “really weird”, saying “either something is really wrong here, or [the growth mindset intervention] produces the strongest effects in all of psychology”.
He asks: “Is growth mindset the one concept in psychology which throws up gigantic effect sizes … Or did Carol Dweck really, honest-to-goodness, make a pact with the Devil in which she offered her eternal soul in exchange for spectacular study results?”
Recently, other high-profile social psychology findings have come into question. The most prominent is the “power pose”, the idea that adopting assertive poses can make you more willing to take risks and even change your hormone levels. A TED talk on the subject by one of the study’s authors has been viewed 37 million times. But Andrew Gelman, a professor at the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University and one of the most highly respected statisticians in the field, pointed out last year that the study was riddled with poor statistical practice, and one of its co-authors has recently admitted that she doesn’t think the supposed effects are real. In 2012, Daniel Kahneman, one of the pioneers of social psychology, wrote an open letter to his colleagues warning of a “train wreck” approaching the field if they didn’t improve its statistical practice.
Bates told BuzzFeed News that he has been trying to replicate Dweck’s findings in that key mindset study for several years. “We’re running a third study in China now,” he said. “With 200 12-year-olds. And the results are just null.
“People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.”
Carol Dweck's TED talk, "The power of believing that you can improve".
Dweck told BuzzFeed News that attempts to replicate can fail because the scientists haven’t created the right conditions. “Not anyone can do a replication,” she said. “We put so much thought into creating an environment; we spend hours and days on each question, on creating a context in which the phenomenon could plausibly emerge.
“Replication is very important, but they have to be genuine replications and thoughtful replications done by skilled people. Very few studies will replicate done by an amateur in a willy-nilly way.”
Nick Brown, a PhD student in psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, is sceptical of this: “The question I have is: If your effect is so fragile that it can only be reproduced [under strictly controlled conditions], then why do you think it can be reproduced by schoolteachers?”
Using a statistical method he developed called Granularity-Related Inconsistency of Means or GRIM, Brown has tested whether means (averages) given for data in the 1998 study were mathematically possible.
It works like this: Imagine you have three children, and want to find how many siblings they have, on average. Finding an average, or mean, will always involve adding up the total number of siblings and dividing by the number of children – three. So the answer will always either be a whole number, or will end in .33 (a third) or .67 (two thirds). If there was a study that looked at three children and found they had, on average, 1.25 siblings, it would be wrong – because you can’t get that answer from the mean of three whole numbers.
Google has included "mindset" thinking in its hiring practices.
Mark Blinch / Reuters