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Does a “growth mindset” really help you succeed?

Studies on “growth mindset” interventions fail to show significant benefits.
A silhouette of a woman reading a book, embodying a growth mindset.
Annelisa Leinbach / Big Think / Wikimedia Commons / Death to Stock
Key Takeaways
  • A growth mindset means viewing intelligence and abilities as changeable and learnable. It stands in contrast to a fixed mindset: seeing those traits as immutable.
  • Psychologist Carol Dweck, who developed the concept, insists that adopting a growth mindset can help anyone, especially students, succeed and grow. However, nearly two decades of research show that teaching the concept doesn’t produce gains in academic achievement.
  • While it’s seductive to think that a simple change in viewpoint can lead to success, things are rarely that easy.

Google “growth mindset” and you’ll be barraged with a plethora of clickbait self-help headlines. “Developing a Growth Mindset Culture.” “Using a Growth Mindset to Build Resilience.” “Building a Winning Mindset to Unlock Your Public Speaking Potential.” These siren songs of self-improvement might cause you to wonder, what exactly is a growth mindset?

Originally developed and championed by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, a growth mindset means viewing intelligence and abilities as changeable and learnable. It stands in contrast to a fixed mindset where you see those traits as immutable.

For example, someone with a fixed mindset might initially struggle with math and assume they’re simply not good with numbers. Or they might sluggishly perform household repairs and assume they’re not “handy.” On the other hand, someone with a growth mindset won’t be deterred by early setbacks, instead thinking that they can improve their skills with practice and that challenges are necessary hurdles to betterment.

As Dweck argued in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, adopting a growth mindset can help people succeed in almost any endeavor. This simple and seductive idea, coupled with evidenced points from Dweck’s own research, propelled Mindset to millions of sales and cemented the growth mindset as accepted psychology.

Limited benefits

After nearly two decades, Dweck’s idea has been extensively studied by other researchers. Like other attractive concepts within the field that lost their initial sheen after being placed under outside scrutiny, the growth mindset is now looking a lot less like a slam dunk. Almost all of the research on the concept has been conducted in education, where Dweck contended that a growth mindset can do the most good.

“In our country, there are groups of students who chronically underperform, for example, children in inner cities, or children on Native American reservations. And they’ve done so poorly for so long that many people think it’s inevitable,” Dweck said in a 2014 TED talk, which has nearly 15 million views. ”But when educators create growth mindset classrooms…equality happens.”

In dozens of experiments, scientists implemented programs in schools intended to foster a growth mindset in students. Students watched short online lessons about the concept. Inspirational posters encouraging progress rather than success adorned classrooms. Teachers allowed more opportunities for practice, responded to student struggles with support and encouragement, and rewarded relative improvement over absolute grades. Above all, students were told their performance was not fixed; it could be boosted with perseverance.

Although all of these actions sound great, the collective results from studies have been less than stellar. Encouraging a growth mindset in students does appear to boost their mental health, but it seems to impart only a small and limited benefit on academic achievement, if any. One meta-analysis published in 2022 found that the interventions only worked with low-achieving and disadvantaged students, but the effect size was small. Another, published in July, was more scathing in its findings. Examining 63 studies involving 97,672 subjects in total, the reviewers found a minuscule positive effect. Moreover, they doubted that it was genuine. The field appeared to be rife with sloppy methods and publication bias, where researchers publish positive findings and bury negative ones.

“Despite the popularity of growth mindset interventions in schools, positive results are rare and possibly spurious due to inadequately designed interventions, reporting flaws, and bias,” they concluded.

There doesn’t seem to be anything harmful about adopting or encouraging a growth mindset: It’s empowering to think that one’s abilities aren’t fixed. But teaching this viewpoint alone doesn’t jump-start the work ethic required to improve oneself. A growth mindset might sell a boatload of books (which often seems to be the ultimate goal of many psychologists), but it won’t propel individuals to success without investing time and effort into the areas where you want to improve, be it school, sports, or some other skill. You don’t need a psychology professor to tell you that.


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