Monday, November 14, 2011

Intelligence: It’s all in your head

How'd you earn your A+?
Which do you think is more predictive of success: innate ability or hard work? Do you think anyone can rise up to meet a challenge with enough effort, or are some people just more intelligent and able than others?

It seems like there should be a true answer to these questions, but according to Dr. Carol Dweck, the truth is all in your head. Dr. Dweck isn’t interested in what exactly intelligence is, she’s interested in what you think it is, and the long term impact of those beliefs.

Entity theorist. Some people believe that intelligence is an unchangeable, fixed trait. If you are an entity theorist, you think of intelligence as a “thing” that you can have a lot or a little of. Entity theorists would say that some people are just more intelligent than others. 

Incremental theorist. Some people believe that intelligence is a malleable quality that can developed. If you are more of an incremental theorist, you think of intelligence more as a muscle that can get stronger with effort.  Incremental theorists would say that anyone can achieve if they work hard at it.

Although I’ve divided these believes into two camps, the reality is that they exist on a continuum  - you may be a pure entity theorist, a pure incremental theorist or fall anywhere in between. For example, a lot of people might endorse the idea that while some people are more intelligent than others, with hard work, people can reach their peak intelligence.

Why does it matter what we believe? It turns out that the views you have about intelligence can help or hinder your motivation and achievement. People who more strongly endorse entity beliefs are more likely to give up after failure. If intelligence is fixed and you are performing poorly, obviously you just aren’t that smart so why keep trying? On the other hand, endorsing incremental beliefs is associated with viewing poor performance as a challenge and seeking improvement through hard work. Your beliefs might also affect the types of activities you engage in. For entity theorists – performance is diagnostic of an innate intelligence, so entity theorists are more likely to avoid difficult and challenging tasks in case they perform poorly. For incremental theorists – difficult and challenging tasks are a chance to grow and improve, so they will be more concerned with learning than with performance outcomes.

Do our beliefs about intelligence predict our achievement outcomes? Not only do these different theories influence people’s motivations, they actually affect achievement outcomes. Students who endorse more incremental beliefs earn higher grades and receive better scores on achievement tests. This is true whether you measure naturally occurring beliefs (Henderson & Dweck, 1990) or use an incremental theory intervention (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002). These beliefs have long term effects: 7th graders who believed that intelligence was malleable experienced an upward trend in grades over the two years of junior high, whereas the belief that intelligence is fixed was associated with a flat trajectory (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). 

How to raise your kids to be incremental theorists: when they come home from school with a big smile because they got a good grade tell them “Congrats, I knew you could do it, you worked so hard!” not “Congrats, I knew you could do it, you’re so smart!” 

And for those of us who are already grown up… the experimental evidence suggests that our beliefs about intelligence are, themselves, malleable. Regardless of what beliefs you currently hold, it’s not too late to start approaching challenges with the belief that hard work and effort pay off.

Are you an incremental theorist or an entity theorist? Do you find yourself giving up after failure?

Relevant articles:
Aronson, J., Fried, C., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38 (2), 113-125 DOI: 10.1006/jesp.2001.1491

Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., & Dweck, C. (2007). Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention Child Development, 78 (1), 246-263 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.00995.x


  1. In hindsight, it's obvious to see my parents' influence in developing my "entity theorist" perspective and how it affected my school work. What intrigues me more is how I've adopted an "incremental theorist" frame for other activities in my adult life, particularly in mastery of sport fencing skills. The continuum noted in this column should be reconsidered to allow for belief in different intelligences as well -- that we could be entityists in one endeavor but incrementalists in another.

  2. That is a great point Brian! In fact, researchers consistently find that people can hold very different beliefs in different domains. For example, you could believe intelligence is fixed but that athleticism is achieved through hard work.

    This post focused on beliefs about intelligence but researchers have looked at the role of entity and incremental beliefs in all types of different domains. Researching for this post, I even read that one of Dr. Dweck's students is working with race car drivers to look at how entity and incremental beliefs influence performance during NASCAR racing!

    Thanks for reading,

  3. Your intro kinda says that INTELLIGENCE is malleable. If we agree that the traditional IQ scale and test is a good measure of intelligence, then intelligence is fixed, according to all the research I have heard of.

    Aren't Dweck etc only saying that ACHIEVEMENT is malleable? Because that's something different: You can easily achieve without being intelligent, and vice versa. It happens all the time.

    That would lead to a nice little paradox: Misinforming children about intelligence can help them succeed.

    Of course, like your examples show, it's not necessary to outright lie to the kids. But I still think it's funny.

  4. Nik - Dweck's research on implicit theories actually does center on implicit theories of intelligence with achievement being the downstream consequence of holding these different beliefs.

    Here are some example items from her scale:
    Entity item: "You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it"
    Incremental item: "You can always greatly change how intelligent you are"

    I wasn't under the impression that everyone was in agreement that intelligence was fixed, or that the IQ test is the end all be all measure of intelligence... but that isn't really my domain of expertise so I hesitate to make strong claims about it.

    The important, and I think cool, distinction in Dweck's work is that she doesn't deal with whether intelligence actually is fixed or not, her interests lie in how YOUR beliefs about the malleability of intelligence influence your downstream achievements. So I guess that could mean you "lie" to your kids to help them achieve, but if we find that people can improve themselves if they believe its possible, then isn't that evidence that things aren't as fixed as you might believe?

    Thanks for reading!

  5. The important thing is that people can improve, I absolutely totally wholeheartedly agree. And thanks for writing.

  6. One question that comes to mind in reading this is what happens if people differentiate intelligence and achievement in their mind? For example, what if a person has a fixed belief that they are intelligent (and let's say they are indeed intelligent, for simplicity sake), but they believe that they must work hard to be successful.

    In other words, would these results be the same if you looked at beliefs about intelligence and beliefs about motivation/how to achieve success separately? Would looking at beliefs about how to achieve success reduce the affect of incremental vs. entity beliefs about intelligence?