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500+ SummaryIn the summary, make sure to include:What is a fixed mindset?What is a growth mindset?How can mindset affect achievement?How are different mindsets cultivated in students?How can the delivery of praise impact performance?Describe several studies that support the claims about the malleability of intelligence.Can mindset be changed? How?

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Intelligence as a Malleable
Lisa S. Blackwell, Sylvia Rodriguez,
and Belén Guerra-Carrillo
The academic debate about the nature of
intelligence resonates broadly not only with educational practitioners and policy makers but also
with the general public. Most people think they
know what intelligence is and that they know it
when they see it. But what do people mean when
they talk about being smart, brilliant, or clever?
And why does it matter so much?
In this chapter, we focus on research showing
how the way that people think about intellectual
ability drives the choices they make and the outcomes they achieve, sometimes in counterintuitive ways. We show how a person’s concept of
intelligence can impact both their performance on
cognitive tasks in the short run and their achievement over the longer term, and why this is so.
We review the evidence from cognitive neuroscience
for these different conceptions of intelligence.
Finally, we discuss how such concepts can be
influenced and changed and the practical implica-
L.S. Blackwell, Ph.D. (*) • S. Rodriguez, Ph.D.
Mindset Works, Inc., 340 S. Lemon Ave. #6463,
Walnut, CA 91789, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
B. Guerra-Carrillo
132 Barker Hall, University of California at Berkeley,
Berkeley, CA 94702, USA
e-mail: [email protected]
tions of this research for educational policy and
Why do people care so much about the nature
of intelligence? Traditionally, particularly in
western cultures, intelligence has been seen as
the golden ticket to success. If you had a good
amount of it, you would be rewarded with educational, professional, and financial success, and
those with a great deal—the geniuses among
us—would attain eminence and make a mark on
posterity. Implicit in this view is the idea that
intelligence is a “gift”—an innate attribute that
one possesses in a relatively fixed quantity, for
better or worse. Historically, the relatively high
stability in individual performance on intellectual
assessments over time and across tasks has led
many to assume that this view of intelligence as
fixed is correct (see, e.g., Bartels et al. 2002;
Canivez and Watkins 1998; Herrnstein and
Murray 1994; Hertzog and Schaie 1986), despite
the strong dissent of original developers of the
first IQ test, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon
(Binet 1975; Wolf 1973).
Unfortunately, in this case, believing may
make it so. Because our society has presumed that
intellectual gifts are innate and could be measured
accurately, our education system has traditionally
been structured to identify those students with
apparent above-average intelligence, enrich their
instruction, and track them into ever-greater
opportunities, while those with presumed belowaverage ability were channeled into programs that
S. Goldstein et al. (eds.), Handbook of Intelligence: Evolutionary Theory,
Historical Perspective, and Current Concepts, DOI 10.1007/978-1-4939-1562-0_18,
© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015
would prepare them for lower-skilled jobs
(Borland 2003, 2005; Borland and Wright 2001;
Darling-Hammond 1994, 1995; Kaufman 2013;
Nisbett 2009). The result is that those who score
well on performance measures early on are in fact
generally offered more opportunities to cultivate
their intellectual ability than those who do not
and, at least partly as a result, often do become
more skilled and successful, reinforcing our common paradigm of innate ability.
It turns out that something similar happens in
the psychology of the individual as well. Our
research, and that of many colleagues, shows that
people’s “theory” of intelligence—whether they
believe it to be fixed or a malleable quality—
influences the learning opportunities they will
pursue, the effort they will invest, and their resulting growth. It can even impact how their brains
Mindsets About Intelligence
In a fixed mindset (often referred to as an entity
theory in the research literature), people believe
that their intelligence is relatively fixed, and there
is not much that they can do to develop it. They
agree with statements such as “you can learn new
things, but you cannot really change your basic
amount of intelligence.” In contrast, in a growth
mindset (also known as an incremental theory),
people believe that their intelligence is something
they can change and develop incrementally over
time. They agree with statements such as “you
can always greatly change how intelligent you
are” (Dweck 1999). As we will show, these different mindsets about intelligence drive the goals
that people hold, the challenges they will tackle,
the effort they will expend, their persistence in
the face of difficulty, and, as a result, their performance and achievement over time (Blackwell
et al. 2007; Dweck 1999; Dweck and Leggett
1988; Henderson and Dweck 1990).
Mindsets and Motivation
Over the past few decades, a wealth of research
shows that, even when people demonstrate equal
L.S. Blackwell et al.
intellectual ability and skill, their beliefs about
intelligence shape their responses to intellectual
challenge. For those who hold a fixed mindset,
the conception of intelligence as a fixed, uncontrollable quantity (of which they may have a lot
or a little) orients them toward measuring and
obtaining a positive evaluation of their ability.
Thus, their primary goal is usually to perform
well in order to appear smart—or at least to avoid
performing poorly and looking dumb (Blackwell
et al. 2007; Dweck and Leggett 1988). They tend
to think that things come easily if one is smart
and that effort is both a sign of low ability and
relatively ineffective in overcoming it (e.g.,
Blackwell et al. 2007; Hong et al. 1999). When
they experience a setback or failure, they are
likely to attribute it to low ability rather than
effort (e.g., Henderson and Dweck 1990), doubt
their ability to recover, and manifest a “helpless”
response, withdrawing effort and giving up rather
than risking further exposure as unintelligent or
untalented (e.g., Robins and Pals 2002).
On the other hand, those who hold a growth
mindset, in which intelligence is a malleable quality that can be cultivated, are more focused on
learning (thus increasing their ability) as a goal,
even if it requires effort, struggle, and errors along
the way (Dweck 1999; Dweck and Leggett 1988).
They consider effort to be a pathway to development (e.g., Hong et al. 1999), and when they experience setbacks, they attribute them to lack of
sufficient effort and in turn adopt a mastery-oriented
approach, increasing their effort and taking on new
study strategies (e.g., Robins and Pals 2002).
Thus, the different mindsets about intelligence
set up different frameworks or “meaning systems”
(Hong et al. 1999) for interpreting situations that
involve learning, effort, challenge, and evaluation.
Furthermore, it is when making a transition to a
situation that poses ongoing, increasing challenge
(where success is more difficult and less certain)
that these mindsets have the greatest impact on
behavior and achievement.
In a comprehensive longitudinal study with
urban, largely minority students, we examined
how students’ mindsets set up contrasting motivational frameworks and academic outcomes as
they made their way through a challenging transition to junior high school (Blackwell et al. 2007).
Intelligence as a Malleable Construct
We studied three waves of students over three
successive years, assessing their mindsets at the
beginning of their seventh grade year and then
following each wave as they made their way
through the following two years of school. First,
we examined how their mindsets were related to
their goals in school, their attitudes toward effort,
and their responses to failure. Analyses showed
that, as found in prior studies, students with a
growth mindset had stronger learning goals than
the fixed mindset students—for example, they
said that “It’s much more important for me to
learn things in my classes than it is to get the best
grades”—and had much more positive attitudes
toward effort, agreeing that “when something is
hard, it just makes me want to work more on it,
not less.” Students with a fixed mindset, on the
other hand, were more likely to say that “If you’re
not good at a subject, working hard won’t make
you good at it,” and “When I work hard at something, it makes me feel like I’m not very smart.”
How did these two groups of students feel
about failure? These mindsets, goals, and beliefs
about effort in turn predicted how students said
they would respond to a poor grade on a quiz: the
growth mindset students showed a clear masteryoriented response, saying that they would “work
harder in this class from now on” and “would
spend more time studying for the next test.”
In contrast, many of the students with a fixed
mindset had a helpless response—for example,
saying they would “spend less time on this subject from now on,” with some even admitting that
they “would try to cheat on the next test” rather
than risk another failure!
Mindsets and Achievement
How did these different mindset frameworks
impact achievement over this challenging
transition? Based on their prior sixth grade test
scores, when they were in the less-challenging
elementary school environment, the fixed and
growth mindset students had similar levels of
math skills upon entry into junior high school.
But by the end of the first term, they began to
pull apart, with the growth mindset students
performing better, and these diverging trajectories continued over the next two years, widening
the gap between the two groups each term
(Fig. 18.1).
We examined the pathway from mindset to
achievement outcomes using hierarchical linear
modeling and found that the beliefs, goals, and
attitudes that led to different patterns of behavior
were responsible for the diverging trajectories of
grades. The increasing challenge level, particularly in the math curriculum of a health sciencefocused school, spurred the students with a
growth mindset to focus on learning, work harder,
and use positive strategies when they encountered difficulty, with the result that they mastered
the curriculum better than those who entered
with a fixed mindset, despite the fact that both
groups began with similar skills (Fig. 18.2).
What do these mindsets sound like in the words
of real students? A rising eighth grader with a
growth mindset explained how he thought about
intelligence as a product of one’s choices and
behaviors, inextricably tied to learning and effort:
Well, you can change it [your intelligence] because
people are different. One year they can be lazy in
school and the other year they’re like, “All right,
I’ve got to step it up because I want to get into college.” … What makes me feel smart is participating and doing my homework and everything,
because then I know that I’m doing my best.
Asked whether he liked schoolwork that made
him think hard, he emphasized the value of challenge to his growth:
Yes, I do, because it gives me a challenge and also
it’ll help me a lot and I can do better with it and
Contemplating the prospect of failing a test,
he immediately began seeking solutions based on
I would feel really bad, but at the same time I
wouldn’t be surprised because maybe the year
before that you did really good, and then you know
like you just put that same amount of effort. But
like that year, the new year, it gets harder and
everything… Maybe there was some notes that you
could write down but you didn’t bother because
you already knew them. Maybe you didn’t have it
all memorized, so you forget some of the stuff. I
guess what I would do was maybe work harder,
L.S. Blackwell et al.
Incremental (Growth)
Math Grades
Entity (Fixed)
Fall 7th Grade
Spring 7th Grade
Fall 8th Grade
Spring 8th Grade
End of Term Grades
Fig. 18.1 Trajectory of middle school achievement as a
function of student mindset in Study 1 (Notes: Growth
and fixed mindset groups entered seventh grade with
equal math achievement based on sixth grade test scores
(not shown). They began to diverge by the end of the fall
term of seventh grade (mid-year). By the end of eighth
grade, the achievement gap was 10 % of the total grade
points that differentiate a failing grade (60 %) from a perfect score (100 %). Reprinted from Blackwell et al. 2007,
p. 251. Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2007 from
Society for Research in Child Development, Inc.)
and start thinking, Oh, wow. Okay, so I didn’t do
so good but maybe this time I can do good.
done is I would just give up and my friends would
sometimes give the answers to me.
In contrast, his classmate laboring under a
fixed mindset talked about her uncertainty about
her ability to learn and how it made her feel
When contemplating failure, she shared a
recent incident and her collapse in the face of
Well I’m going to have to probably agree [that you
can’t change your intelligence] because sometimes – well for me there’s limits on what I can
learn and what I can’t… I tend to space out a lot.
And when I space out it’s like the teacher will ask
me a question and I have no idea what she’s saying. And so I just have to sit in silence until she
gives up and picks somebody else.
When asked what made her feel smart, she
looked to external validation through getting the
“right answer” and admitted that she preferred
things she could do easily versus challenging work:
Like say I got a question right in front of the whole
class, then that makes me feel like kind of smart
and special … I think it’s so much easier and
quicker if you know it by heart and you just do it
right away and get it over with … Over-thinking
sometimes can just really frustrate me. What I’ve
I was doing my test and what happened is I was
reading this question that I really didn’t know …
from there on I just circled randomly and I just completely gave up on them, even like trying on the test.
The motivational implications of these two
different frameworks, and their resulting impact
on performance and achievement, have been
demonstrated in many studies spanning kindergarten through graduate school (Aronson et al.
2002; Blackwell et al. 2007; Dweck and Leggett
1998; Good et al. 2003; Heyman et al. 2003;
Kray and Haselhuhn 2007; Smiley and Dweck
1994; Yeager et al. 2013). Over and over again,
researchers have shown that the way people
think about their intelligence can become a selffulfilling prophecy, expanding or limiting their
motivation, growth, achievement, and, ultimately,
their ability.
Intelligence as a Malleable Construct
Fig. 18.2 Process model depicting the relations between
student mindset, other beliefs and behaviors, and achievement in Study 1 (Notes: The more firmly students held a
growth mindset (incremental theory), the more they
endorsed learning goals and positive beliefs about effort.
These goals and beliefs were associated with positive
learning strategies and resilient responses to challenge,
which in turn predicted greater math achievement gains.
Reprinted from Blackwell et al. 2007, p. 253. Reprinted
with permission. Copyright 2007 from Society for
Research in Child Development, Inc.)
How Malleable Is Intelligence
measure a wide variety of knowledge and cognitive processes that are highly intercorrelated,
such that if you score well on one, chances are
that you will also score well on another. James
Flynn (2007) explained this calculation with a
clever analogy comparing it to measuring performance in a decathlon, where performance is
computed from 10 events that each assess a different ability. For example, strength can be calculated from performance on throwing events,
while speed can be assessed through sprinting
events. Similarly, different subtests of intelligence assessments measure cognitive factors
such as our ability to maintain and manipulate
information in mind (working memory), inte-
Without doubt, people can gain knowledge and
skills through learning, but can they really
develop their intelligence as we understand it?
A robust debate about the true nature of intelligence
continues (see, e.g., Kaufman 2013; Nisbett
2009), but most people think of intelligence as a
generalized capacity for learning and reasoning
that can be assessed by instruments such as IQ tests.
Without weighing in on that complex question,
we can agree that the version of intelligence
measured by standard IQ tests is the result of
combining scores from various subtests that
grate features of and consider relationships
between stimuli (reasoning), and process information fluidly (processing speed), among others.
A portion of these subtests may also measure the
accumulation of knowledge about the meaning
of words or arithmetic rules (Naglieri and
Goldstein 2009). Intuitively, one can suspect that
what we do or are exposed to in our daily life
could influence how well we score on one or
many of these different subtests and subsequently affect how intelligent we are deemed to
be. However, for a long time, it was believed that
intelligence was something we inherited and
could not do much to change (see, e.g., Herrnstein
and Murray 1994).
The evidence for the primacy of innate ability
has not been well supported by accounts measuring population changes in IQ performance since
the inception of the Weschsler Intelligence Scale,
one of the main measures of intelligence. The
well-documented Flynn effect (Flynn 2007)
describes how IQ scores on multiple wellestablished assessments of intelligence have been
on the rise—in some instances, dramatically—
from generation to generation, even on assessments
that are deemed to be largely “culture-free.”
A compelling interpretation is that the performance capacities measured by these tests function as skills that can be improved and shaped by
experience and schooling and that these experiences have shifted over time in a way that has
changed how and what is learned by the majority
of the population (Flynn 2007; Nisbett 2009).
In fact, over the past century, various studies
conducted all over the world have documented the
role that schooling plays in cultivating students’
intelligence. If intelligence is a fixed ability,
environmental experiences, such as educational
enrichment, should not alter it. Yet, countless
examples confirm the finding that, relative to children who remain in school, those who are denied
educational experiences often display a gradual
but persistent decline in performance on intelligence measures—as much as 6 IQ point decrements for every year of schooling lost (see Ceci
1991; Nisbett 2009 for a review). Similarly,
related environmental factors such as socioeconomic status have been found to predict individual
L.S. Blackwell et al.
change in IQ, with low-SES children showing a
decrease in IQ over time (Breslau et al. 2001).
To what extent are scores on assessments of
these sorts malleable, and how does experience
and learning impact performance on them? Over
the last few years, research aimed at answering
this question has provided strong evidence suggesting that cognitive skills such as those tested
by intelligence tests can in fact improve with
In one study, elementary school children at a
low SES school played with one of two sets of
board games and video games for 8 weeks
(Mackey et al. 2011). In the first group, children
played with games that engaged their reasoning
ability, such as games that asked them to consider
and integrate multiple rules or complete patterns
of shapes. A second group of children played
with games that involved processing speed,
which required them to make motor responses to
visual cues as fast as possible following simple
game rules. At the b …
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