Incremental Vs Entity Theory
I’d like to introduce what is probably the most important concept I’ve ever learned: the entity theory of intelligence. In a way, I’m frustrated that I didn’t latch onto this insight until I was 35 years old, but by the same token, I’m relieved that I learned this in time to make better parenting decisions when the appropriate time comes.
Does Intelligence Remain Fixed?
Dr. Carol Dweck is a psychologist from Stanford University who has spent her life studying a key difference in the way people conceive of themselves and their respective abilities. Depending on several environmental factors, people tend to believe one of two distinct hypotheses about their own intelligence. Some people believe that intelligence is a fixed and uncontrollable trait (entity learning hypothesis). Other people believe that intelligence is a malleable, controllable ability to be cultivated (incremental learning hypothesis). This difference in mentality creates enormous performance, motivational and cognitive contrasts between the two groups.
In her research, Dweck tests grade school- and middle school-age children by evaluating their performance at tasks of increasing difficulty. The test groups feature a mix of kids who subscribe to either the entity (e.g. “People don’t generally become much smarter than they already are.”) or incremental (e.g. “I can make myself as smart as I want to be.”) hypotheses.
Before significant obstacles are introduced, both sets of children tend to perform equally well at tasks. In the face of obstacles, however, we start to see distinct behavioral changes. The entity hypothesis children (the ones who view intelligence as a fixed trait) will tend to back down from challenges. They tend to view task failures as personal limitations, and so running into an obstacle denotes a limit in their abilities. Faced with failure, the children adopt negative conditions and blame their inadequacy for the failure.
Interestingly, many of them take to diversionary and compensatory verbalizations about how much better they are in other areas, or the interesting things their family owns. Most notably, their problem-solving skills and strategies tend to crumble under initial failure. Future attempts to solve the difficult task regress to the strategies of younger age groups. Dweck calls this the “helpless” behavior pattern.
The incremental hypothesis children, on the other hand, (the ones who view intelligence as something they can improve) confront these same challenges head-on and have a much higher success rate. They tend to attribute their success not to themselves but to their effort (e.g. “I will get this.” or “If you can do it once you can do it again.”). They have much more positive self-cognitions and their problem-solving abilities stay strong in the face of obstacles. Dweck calls this the “mastery-oriented” behavior pattern.
Intelligence Conception is Destiny
Helpless and mastery-oriented children develop different overarching goals that shape their development. Mastery-oriented children, who believe that their realm of mastery is expanded and improved through effort and stretching, develop learning-related goals. They seek to improve their competence. The children who exhibit helpless behaviors, on the other hand, develop validation-oriented goals. They would like to show their trait competence in its best light and receive a favorable judgment for it. One group becomes accomplishment-oriented, the other group becomes validation-oriented.
I remember reading about this research a year or two ago but it didn’t hit home until I read Josh Waitzkin‘s book The Art of Learning. Waitzkin is the chess prodigy on whom the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer is based. He talks about competing against grade school chess champions when he was starting out and sensing an incredible difference between the kids who were praised for their effort and accomplishment and those who were praised for their innate talent and abilities. Those kids who felt like chess talent was a fixed, innate trait would buckle much more easily under pressure. When they encountered a substantial challenge, they perceived that challenge as a statement of their deficiency and would crumble.
Believing that intelligence is malleable, in addition to unlocking performance potential, might also actually be closer to the truth. We’ve all grown up believing that IQ tests measure our innate intelligence, but in fact, the inventor of the IQ test, Alfred Binet, was an incremental theorist. He believed that IQ measurement was a present snapshot of an evolving trait. It was our society that then turned the instrument into a measurement of status and destiny.
Other Domains Beyond IQ
This insight couldn’t be more important to motivation, outlook, self-confidence, achievement, social intelligence, mentoring and parenting. Understanding the world in terms of growth as opposed to innate talent is like flipping an internal switch for achievement. The problem is that this hypothesis is so fundamental and developed so early in our childhood that it’s difficult to adjust when one becomes an adult.
Those of us who’ve learned incorrect theories of growth and achievement have to spend a lot of time rewiring our beliefs. We have to let go of the desire to show ourselves off and be recognized for our talent. We have to instead start with the assumption that accomplishment in anything is the fundamental result of the massive, focused acquisition of skill. We then see that the chief virtues of success are discipline, persistence, objective evaluation, efficiency, deliberate goal-setting, and a fundamental understanding that obstacles are the gateway to mastery.
In the seventies, psychologists took notice of a correlation between self-esteem and achievement. Without understanding the causal relationship, they started encouraging parents to boost self-esteem however possible, believing that would lead to greater achievement in children. They invented the infamous “A for effort.” Everyone started receiving participation awards. Parents stopped keeping score at little league games. Kids were taught that they were special by virtue of their innate identity, and developed massive notions of entitlement as a result.
Dweck’s research helps us understand what we did wrong, and how to do better. Instead of self-esteem leading to accomplishment, it’s the accomplishment that leads to self-esteem. Kids need to achieve. So it is harmful to remove the competition (the obstacles) and announce that “everyone is a winner.” We must instill competition, but we must attribute success and failure to the right things. When a child experiences an accomplishment, do we tell them how smart they are? How talented they are? How good-looking, charming, or funny they are?
Or rather, do we acknowledge how their hard work is paying off? How they worked effectively and grew as a result?
This is number one on my list of things that I wish I “would have known then.” I would have spent much less time asking whether or not I was talented enough to make my goals and pursuits worthwhile. I would have spent much more time asking myself how to most efficiently and effectively develop the skills and traits I needed to overcome the inevitable obstacles that came along. That seemingly slight change in mentality creates a night-and-day difference.
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