Stereotype threat and growth mindset: If we tell students intelligence is malleable, are we lying?

May 25, 2012 at 8:20 am 22 comments

This week at the NCWIT Summit, I heard Joshua Aronson speak on stereotype threat. I’ve read (and even taught) about stereotype threat before, but there’s nothing like hearing the stories and descriptions from the guy who co-coined the term.  Stereotype threat is “apprehension arising from the awareness of a negative stereotype or personal reputation in a situation where the stereotype or identity is relevant, and thus comparable.”  Aaronson has lots of examples.  Remind women of the gender (and implicitly, of the stereotype that says women are worse than men at math) and their scores drop on math tests.  Remind African Americans of their race (and implicitly, of the stereotype about African Americans and intelligence) and their scores on IQ tests drop.

I took a picture of one of Aronson’s slides.  He observed that most of the tests in the laboratory experiments were, well, laboratory experiments.  They weren’t “real,” that is, they didn’t count for anything.  So what if we tweaked the AP Calculus test?  Typically, the AP Calc asks students their gender just before they start the test, which makes the stereotypes about gender salient.  What if you moved that question to the end of the test?  Here are the results:

If you ask before, women do much worse than men, as past results have typically shown.  If you ask after, the women do better than the men, but the men also do much worse than before!  Reminding men of their gender, and the stereotype, improves their performance. Don’t remind them, and they do worse. Which leaves us in a tough position: When should you ask gender?

Now, there is a solution here: Dweck’s fixed vs growth mindset.  Many children believe that intelligence is a fixed quantity, so if they do badly at something, they believe that they can’t do better later with more work.  What if we emphasize that intelligence is malleable?  Writes Dweck in Brainology:

The wonderful thing about research is that you can put questions like this to the test — and we did (Kamins and Dweck, 1999; Mueller and Dweck, 1998). We gave two groups of children problems from an IQ test, and we praised them. We praised the children in one group for their intelligence, telling them, “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We praised the children in another group for their effort: “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” That’s all we did, but the results were dramatic. We did studies like this with children of different ages and ethnicities from around the country, and the results were the same.

Here is what happened with fifth graders. The children praised for their intelligence did not want to learn. When we offered them a challenging task that they could learn from, the majority opted for an easier one, one on which they could avoid making mistakes. The children praised for their effort wanted the task they could learn from.

The children praised for their intelligence lost their confidence as soon as the problems got more difficult. Now, as a group, they thought they weren’t smart. They also lost their enjoyment, and, as a result, their performance plummeted. On the other hand, those praised for effort maintained their confidence, their motivation, and their performance. Actually, their performance improved over time such that, by the end, they were performing substantially better than the intelligence-praised children on this IQ test.

Aronson and colleagues asked in their Department of Education report: “Does teaching students to see intelligence as malleable or incrementally developed lead to higher motivation and perfor­mance relative to not being taught this theory of intelligence?”  They did find that teaching a growth mindset really did result in higher motivation and performance. They recommended the strategy, “Reinforce for students the idea that intelli­gence is expandable and, like a muscle, grows stronger when worked.”

It turns out that, if you teach students about growth mindset, then they are less likely to be influenced by stereotype threat.  Dweck writes in her Brainology essay:

Joshua Aronson, Catherine Good, and their colleagues had similar findings (Aronson, Fried, and Good, 2002; Good, Aronson, and Inzlicht, 2003). Their studies and ours also found that negatively stereotyped students (such as girls in math, or African-American and Hispanic students in math and verbal areas) showed substantial benefits from being in a growth-mindset workshop. Stereotypes are typically fixed-mindset labels. They imply that the trait or ability in question is fixed and that some groups have it and others don’t. Much of the harm that stereotypes do comes from the fixed-mindset message they send. The growth mindset, while not denying that performance differences might exist, portrays abilities as acquirable and sends a particularly encouraging message to students who have been negatively stereotyped — one that they respond to with renewed motivation and engagement.

Dweck is pretty careful in how she talks about intelligence, but some of the others are not  She talks about “while not denying that performance differences might exist” and “portrays abilities as acquirable” (emphasis mine).  The Dept of Ed report says we should tell students that “intelli­gence is expandable.”  Is it?   Is intelligence actually malleable?

The next workshop I went to after Aronson’s was Christopher Chabris’s on women and the collective intelligence of human groups.  Chabris showed fascinating work that the proportion of women in groups raises the collective intelligence of groups.  But before he got into his study, he talked about personal and collective intelligence.  He quoted Charles Spearman from 1904: “Measurements of cognitive ability tend to correlate positively across individuals.”  Virtually all intelligence tests correlate positively, which suggests that they’re measuring the same thing, the same psychological construct.  What’s more, Chabris showed us that the variance in intelligence can be explained in terms of physical structures of the brain.  Personal intelligence is due to physical brain structures, but we can work collectively to do more and think better.

My Georgia Tech colleague, Randy Engle, was interviewed in the NYTimes a few weeks ago, arguing that intelligence is fixed.  It’s due to unchanging physical characteristics of the brain.  We can’t change it.

For some, the debate is far from settled. Randall Engle, a leading intelligence researcher at the Georgia Tech School of Psychology, views the proposition that I.Q. can be increased through training with a skepticism verging on disdain. “May I remind you of ‘cold fusion’?” he says, referring to the infamous claim, long since discredited, that nuclear fusion could be achieved at room temperature in a desktop device. “People were like, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve solved our energy crisis.’ People were rushing to throw money at that science. Well, not so fast. The military is now preparing to spend millions trying to make soldiers smarter, based on working-memory training. What that one 2008 paper did was to send hundreds of people off on a wild-goose chase, in my opinion.

“Fluid intelligence is not culturally derived,” he continues. “It is almost certainly the biologically driven part of intelligence. We have a real good idea of the parts of the brain that are important for it. The prefrontal cortex is especially important for the control of attention. Do I think you can change fluid intelligence? No, I don’t think you can. There have been hundreds of other attempts to increase intelligence over the years, with little or no — just no — success.”

via Can You Make Yourself Smarter? –

Is intelligence expandable and malleable, or is it physical and fixed?  There is a level where it doesn’t matter.  Telling students that intelligence is expandable and malleable does have an effect.  It results in higher test scores and better performance.  But on the other hand, is it good policy to lie to students, if we’re wrong about the malleability?

Maybe we’re talking about different definitions of “intelligence.”  Engle and Chabris may be talking about a core aspect of intelligence that is not malleable, and Dweck and Aronson may be talking about knowledge, skills, and even metacognitive skills that can be grown throughout life.  But we say that “intelligence” is malleable, and the work in stereotype threat tells us that the language matters.  What words we use, and how (and when) we prompt students impacts performance.  If we don’t say “intelligence can be grown like a muscle” and instead say, “knowledge and skills are expandable and malleable,” would we still get the same benefits?

I’m not a psychologist.  When I was an education graduate student, I was told to think about education as “psychology engineering.”  Educators take the science of psychology into actual practice to create learning systems and structures.  I look to the psychology to figure out how to help students learn. While Dweck and Aronson are explicitly giving educators strategies that really work, I worry about the conflict I see between them and other psychologists in terms of the basic science.  Is it a good strategy to get positive learning effects by telling students something that may not be true?

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22 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alan Kay  |  May 25, 2012 at 9:18 am

    The discussion above is mostly a red herring, and kind of silly in its simple one-dimensionality.

    A rule of thumb that serves well here is “Ability = Talent + Skill + Will” (and perhaps the operations are more complicated than “+”).

    If you are much more talented in music than I am but don’t play the keyboards, I will beat you in being able to play Mozart until you put in the work. If you are much more talented in math than I am, I will beat you if you don’t know calculus, etc., until you put in the work.

    It is likely that there are neurological differences — it would be biologically surprising if there weren’t a spread — but the ones that count are those that enable or prevent the needed skill learning, especially of tools, in a world in which so many subjects are developed subjects which require much more than talent to attain fluency.

    Jaime Escalante — the great AP calculus teacher in the barrio — always told his classes that the big deal about calculus — and life — was “Ganas”. The translatable part of this term is “Will”, the less translatable part is more like “deep core will”.



    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  May 25, 2012 at 2:15 pm

      I’m raising the question in the title because I really don’t know. The growth mindset work is powerful and interesting. Dweck’s characterization seems more careful and truer to what I read elsewhere in psychology.

      My blog post also appears in Facebook, and Bettina Bair (from Ohio State) posted a wonderful response there:

      Bettina Bair: Intelligence is relevant. And so are gender and race. And sexual orientation and economic class. Like Randy Engle suggested, these qualities are also somewhat fixed. But only as a starting point; its like setting the difficulty level on a game. The easiest level is straight-white-male. ( That doesn’t mean that your final score is determined by your starting point . History books are full of people who succeeded in spite of coming from a lower economic class (Lincoln), or average intelligence (GWBush) or homosexual orientation (Turing) or female gender (Curie). This is a true thing that we can tell our students. 🙂

      • 3. Alan Kay  |  May 26, 2012 at 9:18 am

        Hi Mark

        Part of the red herring just has to do with definitions.

        I used “talent” instead of “intelligence” because it is more simply associated with something innate.

        I used “skill” for “all things acquired” (including “methods” and “knowledge”, etc.).

        And “will” stands in for all things motivational.

        This is too simplistic to be completely real — for example, see the work of the neurophysiologist Changeaux concerning the actual proliferation of new neural material after birth, etc. — but it is good enough for this discussion.

        A good word for the sum total is “ability”, and this was used by the violin teacher Suzuki for what he was doing with young children: “Ability Training From Age Zero”. As Bettina points out, what you can parlay together matters more than the amounts of the individual parts.

        In many developed subjects — especially the ones that the human race is not well pre-wired for (like the recently invented ideas of writing and reading, deductive abstract math, modern science, etc. and many sports), will + skill development can dominate raw talent because raw talent even when immense may not fit the development level of the field. (This is the idea of “being born with a ‘500 IQ’ but in 10,000BC.)



        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  May 28, 2012 at 9:22 am

          Hi Alan,

          I get your point. You’re saying that there certainly is something innate and unchanging, but the parts that are changeable are significant and can (with enough “will” and “skill”) overcome weaknesses in the innate part. So, if “intelligence” is fixed (by some definition), then it’s the wrong word to use when encouraging a growth mindset, but that’s hardly that important. The reality is that the overall outcome can be influenced by factors within our control.



          • 5. alanone1  |  May 28, 2012 at 10:04 am

            My favorite philosopher — Linda Ronstadt — says “All you can do is follow your instincts, and refine your talents to support your instincts”.

            In sports and the arts most of the matters of technique seem within the range of the will and skill part. And in the ones that are highly developed, even those with great innate abilities have to find will to develop skill.

            Much less is known (as far as I can tell) about the tradeoffs in matters of “perspective”, “point of view”, “ease with uncertainty and paradox, etc.”. These are critical for “art”, and I think right now are likely to be more influenced by innate factors than learned ones.

            However, there is no question that some of these can be learned as skills (cf deBono, etc.). I’m guessing that “going against ‘reality’ ” for many human types would be much more painful than the thousands of hours of “simple pain” associated with simple technique learning.

            If I were a brand new educational researcher I would put a lot of effort into finding and inventing skill learning techniques for epistemological shifts, especially for adults (including college students).



  • 6. Watch What You Say | Academic Computing  |  May 25, 2012 at 9:25 am

    […] Again, a change — at first, seemingly small — in focus produced a dramatic change in results. Long story short: praising work (and encouraging a growth mindset: that practice improves ability) had a much better outcome than praising intelligence (and encouraging a fixed mindset: that ability is innate). Mark Guzdial has written a longer and better treatise on the implications of this. […]

  • 7. Alfred Thompson (@alfredtwo)  |  May 25, 2012 at 10:59 am

    Alan Kay said much of what I am thinking better than I could but I have to add my two cents. Intelligence and knowledge are different. While the growth of intelligence may be debatable I don’t think that the growth in knowledge is. In a sense knowledge is a lever that increases what one can do with their intelligence. Knowledge is a force multiplier if you will. Or perhaps intelligence multiplies the value of the knowledge. I’m not sure it matter that much which – it is math after all. 🙂 Education is about increasing knowledge and helping students to leverage the mix of their knowledge and intelligence to the best that they can. The result of the equation matters more than the individual values that feed into it.

    • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  May 25, 2012 at 11:21 am

      Agreeing mostly with Alan and Alfred here, but with one difference. There are thinking skills that improve with practice, different from “knowledge”. I see “knowledge” as referring to facts and some organization of them, but not skills like debugging. For a non-CS example, consider the difference between vocabulary (“knowledge”) and reading ability (“skill”). The two are distinct, though there is correlation between them, and both are correlated with intelligence, which is yet another dimension.

      All tests measure some combination of skill and knowledge, from which we infer intelligence. Thus there is no real way to determine whether or not intelligence can be increased—but it is damn certain that skill and knowledge are both capable of being increased, which looks the same as if intelligence were being increased.

  • 9. Ben Chun  |  May 25, 2012 at 11:30 am

    I’m struggling to find the source for the data in Aronson’s slide you photographed. Everything I see from ETS (studies done by Strickler) shows that there actually isn’t a significant impact from asking gender in the context of administering the AP exam:

    Strickler is careful to say that this could be due to the fact that stereotype threat is already activated, since everyone already understands the AP exam as high-stakes. I just can’t find anything that looks like the graph in the photo. Did Aronson give a source?

    • 10. Ben Chun  |  May 25, 2012 at 11:32 am

      And this is of great concern to ETS — if they knew and could show that their test administration procedures have a discriminatory effect in and of themselves, wouldn’t they then be obligated (and interested) to change the procedure?

      • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  May 28, 2012 at 1:25 pm

        Aronson mentioned something about a pending legal action involving ETS. I heard that other people got a reference from him, but I didn’t. Sorry!

  • […] talk was showing how the gender gap in visual skills can be easily reduced with training (relating to the earlier discussion about intelligence), such that women perform just as well as […]

  • 13. David Klappholz  |  June 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    @gasstationwithoutpumps: There isn’t very disagreement in educational psychology that anyone, with any level of intelligence, and with the will, can develop any skill; intelligence determines how long it will take the person to learn the skill. People with very high intelligence/will will learn complex skills very quickly and people with much lower intelligence, even if they have great will, will eventually learn the skill, but it might take so long as to be useless when they do,

  • […] blog post about how she’s helping her students develop a set of cognitive skills (including a growth mindset) to help them build models.  What I found fascinating in her post were the implicit points, […]

  • 15. rdm  |  January 25, 2013 at 8:14 am

    There’s some evidence that quantifying IQ is an inherently flawed concept:

    If IQ is “not a thing”, this could account contradictory evidence about it’s “malliability”.

    • 16. Mark Guzdial  |  January 25, 2013 at 8:18 am

      “Regular brain training didn’t help people’s cognitive performance at all, yet aging had a profound negative effect on both memory and reasoning abilities,” said Owen.

      I think that’s what’s meant by “fluid intelligence” — the cognitive performance that doesn’t seem to change.

  • 17. Some Interesting Reading | Teaching Software Carpentry  |  April 6, 2013 at 8:19 am

    […] Stereotype threat and growth mindset: If we tell students intelligence is malleable, are we lying? […]

  • […] Intelligence may not be malleable.  You can learn more knowledge, and that can come from practice.  It’s not clear that fluid intelligence is improved with practice. […]

  • 19. Anna Sapozhkov  |  April 20, 2017 at 5:40 pm

    can someone explain to me what carol Dweck means when she says “The growth mindset, while not denying that performance differences might exist, portrays abilities as acquirable and sends a particularly encouraging message to students who have been negatively stereotyped” (page 4 ).

    • 20. Mark Guzdial  |  April 21, 2017 at 9:00 am

      She is saying that people with a growth mindset think that they can get better at things (“abilities as acquirable.”). Some people will be better than others due to innate abilities, stuff you’re born with. This should be encouraging even to people who have been stereotyping as being unable to improve their lot in life.

  • 21. Overcoming the Threat « Simon Says...  |  June 22, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    […] improvable, that is their best available inoculation against stereotype threat. Other researchers question the validity of teaching that intelligence is malleable and […]

  • […] is malleable, are we lying?, 2012. Computing Education Research Blog [Online].Available from here. Stereotype threat widens achievement gap, n.d. [Online]. Available from here.  Stewart, L., […]


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