A growth mindset means that you believe your intelligence and talents can be developed over time. A fixed mindset means that you believe intelligence is fixed—so if you’re not good at something, you might believe you’ll never be good at it.
At Mindset Health, we’re all about growth mindsets and encouraging people to adopt a positive outlook on learning. So, let’s look at growth vs. fixed mindsets together, explore the science, and see how people can change their mindsets over time.
Growth vs. fixed mindsets for life
Science once told us that the human brain stops developing in childhood, however, we now know that the brain is constantly evolving and changing. Many parts of the brain respond to experiences and our ‘software’ can be updated through learning.
Despite the neurological facts, some people still think that you’re stuck with the talents and ‘smarts’ you’re born with. Psychologist Carol Dweck, from Stanford University, was the first researcher to explore the idea of fixed and growth mindsets.
In Dr. Dweck’s seminal work, she described the two main ways people think about intelligence or ability as having either:
- A fixed mindset: in this mindset, people believe that their intelligence is fixed and static.
- A growth mindset: in this mindset, people believe that intelligence and talents can be improved through effort and learning.
People with a fixed mindset typically believe that their level of intelligence and abilities are innate. In Dr. Dweck’s own words, fixed mindset people beleive that “they have a certain amount [of intelligence] and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb”.
For people with a growth mindset, however, they understand that not knowing or not being good at something can be a temporary state—so they don’t have to feel ashamed or try to prove they’re smarter than they currently are.
Dweck states that in a growth mindset, “students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching, and persistence.”
Do you have a ‘growth’ or a ‘fixed’ mindset? Take the mindset quiz
What is a growth mindset?
A growth mindset views intelligence and talent as qualities that can be developed over time.
This doesn’t mean that people with a growth mindset assume that they could be the next Einstein—there are still variables in what we can all achieve. A growth mindset simply means that people believe their intelligence and talents can be improved through effort and actions.
A growth mindset also recognizes that setbacks are a necessary part of the learning process and allows people to ‘bounce back’ by increasing motivational effort.
This kind of mindset sees ‘failings’ as temporary and changeable, and as such, a growth mindset is crucial for learning, resilience, motivation, and performance.
Those who adopt a growth mindset are more likely to:
- Embrace lifelong learning
- Believe intelligence can be improved
- Put in more effort to learn
- Believe effort leads to mastery
- Believe failures are just temporary setbacks
- View feedback as a source of information
- Willingly embraces challenges
- View others’ success as a source of inspiration
- View feedback as an opportunity to learn
What is a fixed mindset?
In a fixed mindset, people believe attributes, such as talent and intelligence, are fixed—that's to say, they believe they’re born with the level of intelligence and natural talents they’ll reach in adulthood.
A fixed-minded person usually avoids challenges in life, gives up easily, and becomes intimidated or threatened by the success of other people. This is in part because a fixed mindset doesn't see intelligence and talent as something you develop—it's something you "are".
Fixed mindsets can lead to negative thinking. For instance, a person with a fixed mindset might fail at a task and believe it's because they aren't smart enough to do it. Whereas a growth mindset person might fail at the same task and believe it's because they need to spend more time practicing.
People with a fixed mindset believe individual traits cannot change, no matter how much effort you put in, and are more likely to:
- Believe intelligence and talent are static
- Avoid challenges to avoid failure
- Ignore feedback from others
- Feel threatened by the success of others
- Hide flaws so as not to be judged by others
- Believe putting in effort is worthless
- View feedback as personal criticism
- Give up easily
Who identified the growth mindset?
Psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University was the first to describe the growth mindset. In her ground-breaking research, Dweck investigated why some people fail and others succeed.
In one study, high school students were challenged with puzzles that ranged from easy to difficult. Much to the surprise of researchers, some students embraced failure and treated it as a learning experience, and this positive attitude was what Dweck later coined the ‘growth mindset’.
Dweck’s research also found, contrary to popular opinion, that it’s more beneficial not to praise talent or natural abilities but praise the process. In particular, effort, strategies, persistence, and resilience should be rewarded. These processes play a major role in providing constructive feedback and creating a positive student-teacher relationship.
Dweck later noted, in a 2015 article, that while effort is an important part of a growth mindset, it shouldn't be the main focus of praise. Effort should be a means to learning and improving. When fostering a growth mindset, continue telling yourself "great effort" after finishing a task, but also look for ways to improve next time—so you feel good in the short and long term.
The benefits of a growth mindset
Studies by Dweck and others indicate that a growth mindset has a positive effect on motivation and academic performance.
One study examined the academic enjoyment of undergraduate students after learning about the neuroplasticity of the brain.
The students were encouraged to endorse a growth mindset through three one hour sessions on brain functioning. The control group was taught that there are several types of intelligence. Students showed significantly higher motivation and enjoyment of science after learning about the growth mindset than in the control group.
In another study, teaching a growth mindset to junior high school students resulted in increased motivation and academic performance. The researchers found a growth mindset was particularly beneficial for students studying science and mathematics.
Studies have also indicated that students who endorsed a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, had higher grades in mathematics, languages, and grade point average (GPA).
Additional benefits of a growth mindset include:
- Reduced burnout
- Fewer psychological problems, such as depression and anxiety
- Fewer behavioral problems
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The neuroscience of a growth mindset
Scientists have measured the electrical activity in the brain to understand the brain correlates of a growth mindset.
Using neuroimaging, researchers have found a link between a growth mindset and activation in two key areas of the brain:
- The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC): involved in learning and control
- The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC): involved in error-monitoring and behavioral adaptation
A growth mindset appears to be linked to higher motivation and error correction. It is also associated with lower activation in response to negative feedback.
Additionally, researchers have shown that in growth-minded people, the brain is most active when a person was told how they could improve — for example, tips on what to do better next time. Meanwhile, in those with a fixed mindset, the brain is active when a person is being given information about their performance – for example, the results of a test. This suggests that people with a growth mindset are more focused on the process, rather than the result.
However, only a few studies have examined the brain mechanisms underpinning different mindsets. More research is needed to clarify the precise brain activity of growth mindsets.
Can a person’s mindset change?
Just as someone can grow and develop their intellect, a person is also capable of changing brain functions and their thinking patterns.
Neuroscience shows us that the brain continues to develop and change, even as adults. The brain is similar to plastic in that it can be remolded over time, as new neural pathways form. This has led scientists to identify the tendency of the brain to change through growth and reorganization as ‘neuroplasticity’.
Studies have shown the brain can grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and improve the speed of pulse transmission. These suggest that a person with a fixed mindset can slowly develop a growth mindset.
According to Dr. Carol Dweck, you can change your mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. This is also supported by neuroscience studies demonstrating the malleability of self-attributes such as intelligence.
How to develop a growth mindset
Researchers have found that it is possible to promote a growth mindset by teaching students about neuroscience evidence showing the brain is malleable and improves through effort.
There are several ways to develop a growth mindset:
1. Realize that, scientifically, you can improve
One of the most direct methods of fostering a growth mindset is by understanding our brains are built to grow and learn. By challenging yourself with new experiences, you can form or strengthen neural connections to ‘rewire’ your brain which, in turn, can make you smarter.
2. Remove the ‘fixed mindset’ inner voice
Many people have a negative inner voice that acts against a growth mindset. Try to flip thoughts such as ‘I can’t do this’, to ‘I can do this if I keep practicing’ to nurture a growth mindset.
3. Reward the process
Although society often rewards those who achieve excellent outcomes, this can work against a growth mindset. Instead, reward the process and the effort exerted. One study by Dr. Carol Dweck showed that rewarding effort over results on a maths game improved performance.
4. Get feedback
Try and seek feedback on your work. When students are provided with progressive feedback about what they did well and where they can improve, it creates motivation to keep going. Feedback is also associated with a pleasurable dopamine response and enhances a growth mindset.
5. Get out of your comfort zone
Being brave enough to leave your comfort zone can help foster a growth mindset. When faced with a challenge, try to choose the harder option that will allow you to grow.
6. Accept failure as part of the process
Failure, setbacks, and initial confusion are all part of the learning process! When trying something new,see occasional ‘failures’ as positive learning opportunities—try to enjoy the discovery process along the way.
The Wrap Up
The growth mindset is the belief that intelligence and ability can be nurtured through learning and effort. Growth-minded people see setbacks as a necessary part of the learning process and bounce back from ‘failure’ by increasing effort. This mindset has positive effects on motivation and academic performance in students.The limited evidence from neuroscience suggests the brains of people with a growth mindset are more active than those with a fixed mindset–particularly in areas associated with error-correction and learning.