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Will Teaching About Growth Mindsets and Grit Work?

Content note: I am not a psychologist. My history of psychology is recalled from memory, some of which might have been faked.

Some history
A really long time ago, Sigmund Freud invented modern psychology.

I’ve read his The Interpretation of Dreams, and it’s enjoyably clever, but retrospectively, it is largely anecdotal garbage. The lay-media critiques of Freud seem largely correct. He imposes his theories onto a patient’s situation rather than coming up with a theory based on evidence collected from patients.

Other psychologists decided they were going to do psychology The Right Way with Science. BF Skinner is the behaviorist you’ve heard of who did experiments with rats. He was big on the idea of looking at observable behaviors. He regarded postulating things about mental states held by a person or animal to be a waste of time and intrinsically unscientific as it could not be directly observed.

Look, he insisted, at what can be measured.

Skinner’s mistake was the mirror opposite of Freud’s. Mental states do actually exist. You have a mental state right now, and it will very much affect what decisions you will make. Ignoring that doesn’t make you more scientific. Additionally, who actually cares about rats?

To take psychology out of this sorry state came people with scientific surveys. They had “instruments” (survey questions) they developed to measure the attributes they were looking for in real life humans.

They then measured a lot of stuff and ran factor analyses to find some fundamental ways that people can be. At least some of that is what we’d call a personality. They put these components into mathematical models along with some dependent variables to see what they could find out about personality.

Results!
The findings were breathtakingly clear. People who had what we’d describe as a generally optimistic attitude did better than those who were generally pessimistic in every part of their lives that psychologists bothered to check.

It’s hard to overstate how robust a result this was. There was no replication crisis. Happy optimists were dunking on grumpy pessimists in everything all the time in every way.

You may have heard this described as having a “positive mental attitude.”

With such an important finding — with the potential to improve life outcomes for so many — millions (if not billions) of dollars were spent trying to deliver the benefits of a positive mental attitude to those who lacked it. When I was in high school, there was even a for-a-grade class whose title was Positive Mental Attitude. It had an instructor, who was paid. It took place in a classroom. While the course was an elective, school itself is mandatory, and students enrolled but not attending could get in trouble for not attending. Parents could get in legal trouble.

You can guess how this turned out.

Oops?

The classes closed the loop. Researchers could then look at whether positive mental attitude training led to a positive mental attitude. It did.

For a time.

Much later, they could look at whether instilling a positive mental attitude in generally pessimistic people led to all the great outcomes that generally optimistic people were getting thanks to their optimism.

It didn’t.

After an embarrassingly long amount of time, money, and effort scientists realized that maybe happy people are happy because their lives are awesome and sad people are sad because their lives stink. It wasn’t that being happy made your life awesome. Neither was it that being sad made your life stink.

Thankfully we are much smarter now and never confuse causality.
Except, it seems like the same pattern happens with the same essential idea repeatedly.

Parallel studies of optimistic ideas
There’s the idea of locus of control originally produced by Rotter in 1954. It is an expectation held by a person as to whether something is generally under their control or determined by external factors. Are you the maker of your own affairs?

Self-efficacy is a later, but related concept, from Bandura, which refers to the degree of confidence a person has as to whether they can achieve a particular result.

These are old ideas, and they have been applied with some success to predicting whether people will be able to lose weight or quit smoking. Its impact reaches far beyond psychology.

For example, the single most influential theory in information technology management is the technology acceptance model, which hinges on self-efficacy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology_acceptance_model If people think that they are going to be able to easily use some sort of technology that is new to them, they are more likely to actually try using it. That may sound obvious, but predicting whether someone is actually going to use the technology you buy for millions of dollars is important enough that it was worth validating your intuitions about how people make decisions.

If you look at self-efficacy though and blur the details a bit, it’s hard not to look at it as another flavor of optimism. Someone with self-efficacy with respect to a new technology is optimistic about the likely outcome of their use. One might thus try to instill a positive attitude toward the technology in the hope that would increase the likelihood that people will give it a try.

The New Optimism

Blur the details a bit and consider Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

A growth mindset is a belief that talents can be developed. A fixed mindset is a belief that talent is endowed.

People with growth mindsets believe that their efforts will produce returns. People with fixed mindsets do not.

It’s not too much of a jump to just say a growth mindset means you are optimistic about your efforts and a fixed mindset means you are pessimistic about your efforts.

More recent is Angela Duckworth’s popularization of grit. Grit refers to long-term dedication toward one’s goals despite difficulties encountered along the way. Its two main components are persevering effort and consistent interests.

To my knowledge, grit doesn’t blur into optimism as neatly as the previously discussed attributes. However, it’s not hard to imagine that someone who believes they will ultimately succeed will tend to exhibit grit with respect to their interests.

Currently, millions of dollars are being spent teaching kids about growth mindsets and grit in schools. The research-to-practice pipeline has shrunk dramatically. An idea can go from suggestive research study to Ted talk to elementary-school lesson plan in a few years.

Teaching the Growth Mindset and Grit

growth mindset photo

Image by Dogtrax

I’m not optimistic about the idea of explicitly teaching this set of ideas to children.

It isn’t that I don’t think a growth mindset is good. Clearly it is. And for a large set of things that you can learn, the growth mindset expectation happens to be true.

My issue with teaching a growth mindset is that it tries to teach explicitly that which is better left to children to validate and discover themselves.

Children can already tell when they are getting better at something. Whatever we tell them needs to be consistent with what they can see for themselves is actually happening.

Growth mindset exercises seem to produce some small, temporary effects, but ultimately, people will start to compare the expectations set by growth mindset proponents to what they are actually able to achieve.

You can’t lie to kids about what their efforts are doing for them. At least, not for very long. Eventually, you will be exposed.

The Alternative
I suggest we largely trust kids to determine whether the growth or fixed mindset is true for them in any particular domain. It can change over time. Recall that my daughter was first frustrated with biking and then later made rapid progress. I think this ended up being a better approach than trying to instill a growth mindset in her against her intuitions and lived experience.

I’m not saying we have to be wholly passive. We can build systems for them to see their own progress. Record or save their terrible beginnings so they can see their progression as they exert effort.

Left to our own devices, it is easy to focus on how little we can accomplish in a day and forget how much we can accomplish in a year. If we want to help people, build ways to remind them of that truth.


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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24 thoughts on “Will Teaching About Growth Mindsets and Grit Work?

  1. One of the biggest mistakes that we, as a society, make is the confusion of absolute goods with positional goods.

    We define being in the top X% as “being well off”. And so the questions then become “how did you claw your way past the 100%-X% people to get into the X%?”

    “Well, I worked hard, ate right, practiced every day, took a multivitamin, said my prayers, and made sure that I never, ever shared my precious bodily essence with anybody.”

    Or whatever. I’m sure you’ve heard the speeches.

    And our number one concern is to move people who are in this particular percentile into that particular percentile and we count the hits and ignore the misses… and if we don’t ignore the misses, it’s to tell them that they could have gotten into this particular percentile if only they had gathered up another handful of tangibles or another bucket of intangibles.

    Hey, you want to know what the difference is between the gal at the 83rd percentile and the guy at the 82nd?

    The gal at the 83rd uses our product. If you want that extra edge, purchase our product in local supermarkets and if you don’t see it, ASK FOR IT.

    The only questions remain have to do with how somebody at the 83rd percentile today stacks up against somebody at the 83rd percentile some number of years ago.

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  2. It’s funny that this was posted today. My school had a big lesson on this very subject yesterday. I agree with your overall argument; kids will know when they are making improvements and getting better at something.

    I find, working with middle schoolers (a group not known for their cheerful daily positivity) that simply reminding them that their lives are actually pretty good comparatively helps break them out of a negativity spiral. It’s unrelated from developing a “growth mindset” but connected in that its clear those who manage the modern world well seem to put daily problems and challenges in perspective.

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  3. The problem with talking about a positive mindset and grit is that it often seems like a dodge to avoid talking about the structural aspects of income and wealth inequality. Or just that a lot of success in life can be absolutely down to dumb luck and being in the right place at the right time.

    Humans in general and maybe Americans in particular are very bad at facing the fact that sometimes or often bad things happen to good/decent people for no reason and that some people can have lives that are filled with bad luck. So we then say “You aren’t showing enough grit” or “You are such a Debbie Downer, no wonder you are not advancing in life.”

    I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb surrounded by upper-middle class kids whose parents had professional jobs. Almost everyone in my high school had parents who went to university, many had parents with advanced educations. Now I do think that upper-middle class professionals teach their kids the art of delayed gratification and that is worthwhile. So my classmates were taught to study, get into a good school, get a good job or go to grad/professional school. But how much of our success comes because we all had the luck to be born in stable and loving households that could provide guidance and also financial resources.

    I graduated law school in 2011. This was the peak of law firms not hiring. A lot of my classmates could not find law jobs. Those who did generally had connections. They worked with a relative (usually mom or dad) or their relative was able to get them a job via connections. The second one happened to me and it involved a lot of dumb luck. I had a one year temp job and then I got another six month temp job because the old rabbi’s wife at the shul my parents belong to in the East Bay is a lawyer and her firm needed temp help on a big case. This happened numerous times. There were times I went through stretches of unemployment and I did not get evicted because my parents were able to loan me money for my rent. I had to pay them back but paying back mom and dad is different than paying back a bank.

    A lot of people don’t have social support structures for various reasons (sometimes there fault but often not). I see this with my clients. My firm represents people who were injured by various products or victims of employment discrimination. A lot of times these people can’t work because of their injuries and they still need to pay bills as cases go through the courts. Any plaintiff’s firm or lawyer will tell you about clients calling because they are short on cash and need to pay the rent now. In a country of 320 million, a lot of people can be suffering even if the overall economy is very healthy.

    Plus we are dealing with a world where business leaders wants this to be one-sided. They want it to be easy to terminate employment and they don’t want to pay benefits. They outsource jobs for people they used to hire directly and grow. Then they complain that employees don’t stick it around.

    Things can’t be a one way street with all demand and no give but here we are.

    We talk about grit because admitting that grit and positive-attitudes are not enough would require us to address structural issues and say things like “Maybe losing a job at 63 shouldn’t put you at risk of homelessness.”

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    • “But how much of our success comes because we all had the luck to be born in stable and loving households that could provide guidance and also financial resources.”

      A lot. However you’re pointing to culture, and while culture (or a habit of making good choices) is one of the big keys to success, this is not normally what most people mean when they talk about “…bad things happen to good/decent people for no reason…”

      America is multicultural. Some subcultures make, according to the strictures of other subcultures, “bad” choices, which have predictable results.

      A safety net is a good thing if it shields me against the whims of fortune, it’s a bad thing if it encourages my cousin to deal drugs and have kids she can’t support.

      What to do with/about bad actors is a serious issue in any ethical/political/economic system. Not all systems have good answers, some simply handwave it and pretend it can’t happen. When we mix cultures, it becomes reasonable to think the median member of some group is “bad” by your own standards.

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      • He wasn’t, actually, talking about culture. He was talking about individuals’ upbringing, and about socio-economic status. As someone who had a crappy crappy upbringing – including not much of any of those things Saul named – and a low socioeconomic status, inside the very subculture that likes to cast itself as the ideal, that distinction matters to me a lot. Culture and a habit of making good choices are not, at all, coterminous.

        Please don’t jump to the cultural argument from the individual argument. It makes it look like you have dumb reasons for going there, and I don’t actually think you do.

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        • He wasn’t, actually, talking about culture. He was talking about individuals’ upbringing, and about socio-economic status.

          Maybe “culture” is too broad (or imprecise, or too sensitive) a term, but I don’t know what else to call it when we apply it to large numbers where the upbringing is similar and outcomes reasonably predictable.

          The point he’s making (correctly) is “upbringing” is amazingly important. The point where I disagree is it’s “luck”. There are people who are what they are in spite of their parents, but most of us are going to be similar. Parents have a huge amount of influence over their children, it’s not “bad luck” if it’s someone’s responsibility and the outcome was predicted and expected.

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  4. I think you (mostly) hit it on the head with regard to kids knowing when they are progressing.

    That is – instilling by assertion the mindset that we can learn skills through effort is likely to be mostly useless.

    Instilling that mindset by figuring out ways to structure practice exercises so that there are steady and noticeable skill acquisitions, will likely help. Sometimes the learner won’t notice those improvements and it’s helpful to point them out. But they have to be real ones that the learner can confirm with their own observations.

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  5. Kids will learn about this kind of thing in their home through what they see modeled by their parents and siblings. That will drive who they become. It’s fine for schools to teach this but that will only have small influence at best on most kids. For a few kids it can be a really important seed for growth. But how they were raised especially when they are small will have the biggest effect.

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  6. There are several things at play. In our modern, liberal and more egalitarian than anytime in human history besides maybe prehistory society, people teach the growth mindset to people, especially children, because very few people really want to get completely cynical, especially to children. Can you imagine a parent or elementary school teacher saying to kids that some of them will have great lives with relatively no effort and others will experience frustration and failure in nearly everything till the day they die? A less egalitarian and more hierarchical society might be able to raise kids with a this is “your place and ain’t going to get better no matter what mindset.” The United States or most countries in this world even those we don’t see as liberal democracies can’t do this.

    The growth mindset might not necessarily be true when it comes to what actually happen in reality but it might also be a socially necessary fiction. People can work and improve their lives. Maybe not as much as they want for the most part but a sense of defeatism, of cynicism, of things that will never ever get better can’t be that useful when you want change.

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    • You can work hard and learn skills. Likewise, if you don’t work hard, you’ll likely never excel at whatever skill set you choose. Now, having skills doesn’t mean you’ll land the “good life.” A ton of other things can get in the way, all kinds of “social networking” stuff, for example. Likewise, just have the “grit” to learn skills won’t help if you have no realistic path to acquire them. For example, if you cannot afford books and your library is twenty years out of date on tech stuff, then “grit” won’t be enough. But still, you need skills and hard work is the only way to get them.

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    • Can you imagine a parent or elementary school teacher saying to kids that some of them will have great lives with relatively no effort and others will experience frustration and failure in nearly everything till the day they die?

      Easily. I’ve said more or less that to my kids multiple times over the years, but I’ve also stressed how important their own actions are to their own outcomes.

      Life is a game of Russian Roulette, but there’s hundreds of thousands of chambers and you can pick whether you put in one bullet or more. You putting in one bullet and someone else putting in lots doesn’t mean you’ll win and he won’t, but that’s the way to bet and you have no choice but play.

      Similarly someone will win the lottery (or become a rockstar/model/actor), but it won’t be you and making plans based on winning is insane. The guy who wins will be really dumb for playing, but for every person who wins that way there will be millions who don’t.

      Life is complicated and unfair but while you don’t have total control you have a lot. Pointing that out to children and explaining the reasoning is a good thing. And yes, these conversations started in Elementary school.

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  7. I find this topic highly interesting. In the dojo, we have a very strong commitment to a growth mindset and to developing grit. The thing is, we almost never talk about those subjects, per se, even though we are constantly cultivating them and motivated by them.

    There’s a bunch of “process messages” that we establish. We keep trying to find new ways to teach people skills. The process message is “this is a skill, and you can learn it”. The curriculum is broken down into reasonably bite-sized chunks, and good progress has to be made on one step before the next step is presented to the student. Unlike a normal school, promotion is determined by progress, not by time in rank.

    Grit, on the other hand, is cultivated by the simple truth of our training. We do judo. We fall down, we get back up. We repeat this maybe 50 or 60 times in each two-hour class. We do joint locks, and then they are done to us, to the point of pain, and we tap. Then we attempt them on our partner. Sometimes they don’t work, and we adjust. Everyone is aware that success is possible, and the class continues.

    This generally cultivates grit. Just what explanation of failure is given is important both to cultivating a growth mindset and grit. We deprecate explanations like “I just can’t do it” or “I’m not strong enough” or “I’m just not flexible enough” and promote explanations like “adjust the placement of your grip” and “do this drill to increase your leg strength” and “you need to relax more”.

    However, we don’t spend much time talking directly about a growth mindset, or grit. It isn’t all that useful. I’ll tell you what is useful, though. If you can just give people the meta-skill of looking for another explanation for the facts before them, that is very powerful.

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  8. A lot of Freud skepticism started when pharmaceutical drugs for mental health started to appear on the market. The timing seems at least partially suspicious because it’s easier to make money by pushing pills than the Talkibg Cure.

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    • Freudian therapy can go on for years. Taking a pill is a heck of a lot easier then multiple therapy appointments per week. Medication for mental illness also ushered in, or was usher in by, a bio-medical model of MI that didn’t see the problems as psycho dynamic but chemical imbalances. There are plenty of problems with psych meds, but there is far more scientific about the bio-med model than anything Freudian.

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    • Freud skepticism started with Jung, my friend, because a lot of what Freud said came from him being sure it absolutely wasn’t possible that his clients were telling the truth about what happened to them (mostly sexual abuse) and he was looking for alternative narratives. But only his OWN alternative narratives, not anyone else’s.

      That said, yes, traditional forms of psychotherapy (all kinds except CBT) have declined with the advent of a focus on pharmaceuticals – most psychiatrists don’t even practice psychotherapy any more, only about 10 percent, whereas once they were required to.

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  9. Hm, that was only one of Skinner’s dumb mistakes. Another one was in setting “pigeon is starving” (or rat is starving) as one of his default parameters, so that everything he studied really applies best to desperate rats and pigeons, not to comfortable ones. The parallels to human beings seem rather too obvious to bother to spell out, but I did it anyway, way back in library school.

    I love your version of the history of psychology though.

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    • Have you by chance read any of Bernard Rollin’s work on animal rights? He makes similar points about how much experimentation is (or was) done to animals in such desperate situations that it’s hard to generalize from it. (That’s not all he argues, and I don’t think he’s the one who “discovered” that claim. But he has done a lot of good work, in my opinion, in making the case.)

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      • I have not, but I’m familiar with the same background information, I think? Like when faced with behaviorism, the first thing I thought was “but he STARVED his animals!”

        I wrote a lot of letters to animal-experimenting corporations when I was a teenager. I’m glad he’s doing that work, and doing it well by the sounds of it. I’m not an animal-rights absolutist but I am a “if you’re going to experiment on them, you must not harm them beyond the choices you are making for the experiments, aware of the ethical costs” absolutist.

        (Sidenote: I also think people are just stupid about the animals they experiment on, perhaps partly due to dissociation and partly due to just not having enough cross-species empathy. This was a point that several of my bio profs made sure to hammer home; the story that always sticks in my head is of journal authors who failed to realize they’d “trained” the cats to rub up against the door of their cage when they arrived because *that is what cats do to greet people they know*.)

        When I first started working at my workplace, I spent a lot of time investigating how they treat their lab animals (not because of red flags, just because me) and one of the things I was relieved to realize is that the ethical treatment of animals task force or whatever it’s called specifically has a non-science-background, non-professorial member, at all times. Like someone to say “would a normal person be okay with this?” The scientists I know here are also very kind, and very ethical in their choices, but somehow that still made me breathe easier.

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        • I’m not an animal-rights absolutist but I am a “if you’re going to experiment on them, you must not harm them beyond the choices you are making for the experiments, aware of the ethical costs” absolutist

          I think Rollin is more on the side you’re describing than on the absolutist side. He also tries to demonstrate that most of us already believe we need to treat animals “humanely” (my word…I’m not sure, but I don’t think he’d use it). He also strikes me as being in the Temple Grandin tradition of animal treatment, although I know far less about Grandin than about Rollin. (They’re both professors at CSU in Fort Collins, for what it’s worth.)

          I do have some quibbles with him, both philosophical and personal. But I pretty much agree philosophically with what he says. And he’s influenced my thinking quite a bit.

          I’d probably recommend starting with Animal Rights and Human Morality. But his Putting the Horse before Descartes (which I’ve only skimmed) is good, too, and more current.

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  10. I have gone through life as a cheerful pessimist. I don’t believe in the power of positive thinking, because s**t happens. But I do believe in the power of negative thinking. Although positive thinking is nowhere near enough to succeed, negative thinking is usually enough to fail.

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