From obstacles to outcomes, from problems to plans

As reported in “Why Understanding Obstacles is Essential to Achieving Goals”:

For 20 years, psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen of New York University and the University of Hamburg has been examining positive thinking and her conclusion is clear. All that positive thinking can trick the dreamer into believing she’s already done the work to get to the desired goal, squelching the motivation to actually go after it.

Instead, mental contrasting between the desired outcome and the obstacle can scaffold motivation and self-regulation toward the goal, by identifying manageable steps to overcome the obstacles. This bridges the gap between envisioning the goal and creating a realistic plan to achieve it. Without an honest assessment of the obstacles, goals are just wishful dreams. Problems are more concrete, salient, and deeply contextualized than vague goals, and the urgency of solving immediate problems rather than achieving distant goals makes them more motivating.

This also suggests why promoting high self-efficacy alone may not be the best route to success. By itself, “I think I can” gets lost in the clouds, whereas “this is what I need to overcome” is better grounded in reality. Learners need accurate self-efficacy more than arbitrarily high self-efficacy. A true growth mindset would welcome an honest assessment of problems and needs.

 

Could growth mindsets mitigate impacts of poverty?

As reported in A Growth Mindset Could Buffer Kids From Negative Academic Effects of Poverty:

a national study of tenth-graders in Chile found student mindsets are correlated to achievement on language and math tests. And students from low-income families were less likely to hold a growth mindset than their more affluent peers. However, if a low-income student did have a growth mindset, it worked as a buffer against the negative effects of poverty on achievement.

Do growth mindsets mitigate the harms of poverty, or do they signal other positive experiences that serve as a buffer? An ongoing concern I have with attempts to transmit growth mindsets (or resilience, or grit, etc.) is that such messages don’t truly function independently from real-world experience. We need to cultivate the experiences that make such beliefs plausible and fruitful.

Claro, S., Paunesku, D., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(31), 8664-8668. doi:

Responses to Feedback Define Mindsets Better than Self-Reported Beliefs

Growth and fixed mindsets are better defined as responses to feedback, particularly feedback on errors, shortcomings, and setbacks, than as beliefs about intelligence. As reported in, “Seeing the benefits of failure shapes kids’ beliefs about intelligence“:

Parents who tended to view failure as a negative, harmful event had children who were more likely to believe that intelligence is fixed.

…parents who adopted a more negative stance toward failure were more likely to react to their child’s hypothetical failing grade with concerns about their child’s lack of ability. At the same time, these parents were less likely to show support for the child’s learning and improvement. Their reactions to the failing grade were not linked, however, with their beliefs about intelligence.

Actions speak louder than words, especially self-reported words that conform to social desirability.

Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C.S. (2016). What Predicts Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets? Not Their Parents’ Views of Intelligence but Their Parents’ Views of Failure. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797616639727

 

Out-of-school factors connect with in-school success

Per “Strong neighborhoods, parenting can bridge ‘achievement gap‘”:

“when youth in urban environments have supportive parents and feel safe in their neighborhoods, they are positive about their future and believe they can be successful in school,” says lead author Henrika McCoy, assistant professor at UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work.

The statements with the strongest correlation with academic achievement were: “I can be successful” (indicating future aspirations); “I can talk with parents about bad things” (positive parental relationships); and “I can be safe within a few blocks from home” (safe neighborhood environment).

Henrika McCoy, Elizabeth A. Bowen. Hope in the Social Environment: Factors Affecting Future Aspirations and School Self-Efficacy for Youth in Urban Environments. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 2014; DOI: 10.1007/s10560-014-0343-7

Flipped instruction and self-regulated learning

From Robert Talbert’s “Flipped learning skepticism: Can students really learn on their own?“:

[Students’] primary experience is with pedagogy that emphasizes dependence. They are brainwashed through years of instructor-centered pedagogy that they are helpless when it comes to learning. But the fact remains that as human beings, they retain the capacity to learn and to regulate their learning. It’s just difficult and takes time and patience.

I’ve long believed that the most important quality which a good teacher must possess is the belief that all students can learn. I’ve also come to believe that self-directed learning is a valuable skill which must be explicitly nurtured and sustained from early childhood education on. As Talbert notes, we all start with it, but it can fade quickly in discouraging environments.

 

Criticism? Carpe diem!

These serendipitous juxtapositions appeared in my news feed yesterday, variations on a theme of framing disappointments as opportunities:

“To avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” – Elbert Hubbard

“Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”
– The Lorax

That is: Action inspires criticism, and criticism demands action.

We live in a world where there will always be criticism, of others and ourselves, by others and ourselves. The challenge is not merely accepting the reality of such criticism, but embracing, evaluating, and acting upon it, thoughtfully and productively.

In “How to Listen to a Recording of Yourself Without Getting Depressed,” Dr. Noa Kageyama outlines three attitudes to adopt (and associated actions to take) to yield a more helpful critique:

  1. Celebrate the bright spots.
    I would annotate this with reminders along the lines of, “That wasn’t always so easy for me [you],” or “I remember how I [you] had to work to reach that goal.” It highlights hard-won accomplishments as the product of effort rather than talent or luck.
  2. Cultivate a solution-focused mindset.
    For every problem you notice, formulate a plan to solve it. Recognize mistakes as temporary but necessary stopovers to help you survey the terrain, rather than final endpoints.
  3. Develop a more optimistic mindset.
    Focus on what can be done rather than what hasn’t been done.

I would also precede the feedback session by identifying (and writing out) the main goals up front, to avoid getting distracted by salient yet less-important features.

Without action as its counterpart, criticism by itself becomes a meaningless monologue.

Belief in effort improves social relationships

Hans Villarica’s article about dealing with peer aggression describes a fascinating example of how a growth mindset, or believing that success comes from effort, can help with social relationships as well as individual abilities.

While I strongly object to the title suggesting this approach is to “fix the victims,” I do agree with the value of encouraging everyone involved to develop productive coping strategies, and the article describes compelling research demonstrating the power of believing that relationships can be repaired. According to the article’s summary of a study[1] surveying 373 second-graders:

those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teacher for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.

Further, a previous study[2] surveying 206 elementary-school children revealed that those with an incremental theory of peer relationships were more resilient to peer victimization. As summarized in the article:

Children who believed friendships are fixed, succeeding or failing without their involvement, tended to be more enamored with popularity and may be more vengeful as a result. On the contrary, those who viewed their friendships as works in progress tended to appreciate their peers more and interact more responsibly. ‘If children believe that effort is worthwhile, they’ll feel less threatened or helpless when they hit bumps in their relationship,” [psychology professor Karen D. Rudolph] says, ‘and they’ll be more likely to try to resolve relationship problems.

Conclusion: Believing that social relations can be repaired is worth the effort.

Now I just need to find out if someone has applied this approach to attachment theory.


[1] Rudolph, K. D., Abaied, J. L., Flynn, M., Sugimura, N. and Agoston, A. M. (2011), Developing Relationships, Being Cool, and Not Looking Like a Loser: Social Goal Orientation Predicts Children’s Responses to Peer Aggression. Child Development, 82: 1518–1530. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01631.x

[2] Rudolph, K. D. (2010), Implicit Theories of Peer Relationships. Social Development, 19: 113–129. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.2008.00534.x

Neural evidence for “I think I can” in learning from errors

In Why Do Some People Learn Faster?, Jonah Lehrer reports on Moser et al.’s EEG study documenting different brain responses to error depending on people’s beliefs about success reflecting innate ability vs. effort. Following an error, those who believed intelligence was malleable produced a much stronger brain signal in attending to that error and also were more successful in correcting their error afterward. In particular, after the initial “Oh $#*%!” response (or error-related negativity, probably arising from the infamous anterior cingulate cortex), they showed a stronger “Now what?” response (or error positivity, suggesting greater attention).

Coupled with Dweck’s research showing that people can learn to develop a growth mindset (i.e., a belief that intelligence is malleable and that success comes from effort), this implies that verbal feedback may be able to change people’s involuntary brain response to error. (The follow-up research to this ought to include a longitudinal study confirming this and documenting the extent and time course of that change after receiving such messages.)

Now that would be a very good habit of mind to develop.


Moser, J. S., Schroder, H. S., Heeter, C., Moran, T. P., & Lee, Y-H. (2011). Mind your errors: Evidence for a neural mechanism linking growth mindset to adaptive post-error adjustments. Psychological Science.

From positive self-esteem to positive other-esteem and learning

Dealing with differences needs to be encouraged gently, whether with ideas or with people.

As described in “People with Low Self-Esteem Show More Signs of Prejudice”[1]:

When people are feeling bad about themselves, they’re more likely to show bias against people who are different. …People who feel bad about themselves show enhanced prejudice because negative associations are activated to a greater degree, but not because they are less likely to suppress those feelings.

The connection between low self-esteem and negative expectations reminds me of related research on the impact of a value-affirming writing exercise in improving the academic performance of minority students:

From “Simple writing exercise helps break vicious cycle that holds back black students”[2]:

In 2007, [Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado] showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students.

After two years, the black students earned higher GPAs if they wrote self-affirming pieces on themselves rather than irrelevant essays about other people or their daily routines. On average, the exercises raised their GPA by a quarter of a point.

And from 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics[3]:

Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences about why they are important to you. You have fifteen minutes. …

In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used [this writing exercise] to close the gap between male and female performance. … With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers.

Helping people feel better about themselves seems like an obvious, “everybody-wins” approach to improving education, social relations, and accepting different ideas.


[1] T. J. Allen, J. W. Sherman. Ego Threat and Intergroup Bias: A Test of Motivated-Activation Versus Self-Regulatory Accounts. Psychological Science, 2011. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797611399291

[2] Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science, 324(5925), 400-403. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1170769

[3] Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L.E., Finkelstein, N.D., Pollock, S.J., Cohen, G.L., & Ito, T.A. (2010). Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation. Science, 330(6008), 1234-1237. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1195996

The problem isn’t pretty pink princesses, but what becomes of them

There’s nothing wrong with pink. It’s a perfectly fine color. The problem is its arbitrary association with gender[1], to the point where it becomes a code for what girls and boys are “supposed to” like and dislike, and prevents them from judging for themselves what they like based on any dimension other than color.

Nor would I necessarily take issue with princess fantasies, on the grounds that fantasizing oneself as royalty, a dragon-slayer, or a time-traveler can all be healthy exercises in one’s imagination. The deeper problem is that wanting to be a princess is too often about wanting to be pretty, pampered, and protected. To the extent that it’s about something in one’s control, becoming a princess is about being able to marry a prince. I’m not too keen on encouraging young girls to define themselves or build dreams around their marriage prospects. I think the key question to ask girls playing at being princesses is, “What will you do when you’re a princess?”

What does a girl do when she’s a pretty pink princess? What does she do to become one?

Peggy Orenstein and others have dissected the dangers of wanting to be pretty along the lines of promoting consumerism, narcissism, eating disorders, and premature sexualization of girls. At its simplest, I see the ideal of “being valued for what you do and not how you look” as just another expression of the importance of believing that effort and controllable behaviors matter more than intelligence, talent, or looks. I won’t dispute the value of attractiveness or positive self-presentation in influencing success or self-esteem; the issue is that improving one’s appearance is more limited in capacity than improving one’s skills[2] and ultimately more limited in impact. One can only be so average (noting that more average faces are more beautiful), but one can always be more capable.

I also worry about encouraging children to seek some status or reward simply for its own sake. The pleasures of being pretty go beyond ornamenting someone else’s world and receiving an extra boost in attention. Attractiveness shouldn’t be an end in itself, but a stepping-stone toward further positive outcomes—whether building confidence to pursue ambitious goals, landing a CEO or political position where leadership can make a difference, or developing interpersonal skills that help bring others together. Otherwise it’s little more than an uncashed lottery ticket, devoid of real appreciation.

For me, the bottom line is about helping all children to pursue goals which they can control and which will help them develop. I want them to choose games and activities based on how interesting or worthwhile they seem, not some marketing message that arbitrarily dictates preferences around colors and images[3]. I want them to actively create their own questions and ambitions, explore the world, and forge paths toward fulfilling those desires. I want them to focus on boosting what they know and can do, not what they have and how they look, to better support them in tackling future challenges.

So the next time I see your daughter, please understand if I don’t immediately comment on her adorable outfit. I’m probably debating whether to reinforce her perspective-taking, self-regulation, or cognitive flexibility.


[1] LoBue, V., & DeLoache, J.S. (2011). Pretty in pink: The early development of gender-stereotyped colour preferences. To appear in British Journal of Developmental Psychology.

See also:
Chiu, S.W., Gervan, S., Fairbrother, C., Johnson, L.L, Owen-Anderson, A.F.H., Bradley, S.J., & Zucker, K.J. (2006). Sex-dimorphic color preference in children with gender identity disorder: A comparison in clinical and community controls. Sex Roles, 55, 385-395.

[2] There’s a phrase (I thought) I once heard, about the unrealistic yet persistent modern belief in “the infinite perfectibility of the human body” and its application to girls’ striving to be thin and beautiful. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to track it down; if you know its source, please send it along!

[3] I’m not interested in pandering to stereotype with boy-targeted car imagery or girl-targeted pink frills, whether for “good causes” or for some toy company’s profit. Even if topics like online shopping and cosmetic surgery interest more girls in statistics, I would still advocate finding more neutral problem contexts and framing for both boys and girls.

From: Sylvie Kerger, Romain Martin, Martin Brunner. How can we enhance girls’ interest in scientific topics? British Journal of Educational Psychology, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.2011.02019.x