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

 

When education makes problems worse

Insert controversy of choice in the blank:

For people who mistrust ___, learning the facts may make the problem worse.

That’s the tagline from “Vaccine Myth-Busting Can Backfire“, which highlights these findings:

A new study published earlier this week in the journal Vaccine found that when it comes to vaccination, a subject rife with myths and misperceptions, knowing the facts may not really be all that effective in winning over anti-vaxxers—and, in some cases, may even do more harm than good.

The study found that when people concerned about side effects of the flu shot learned that it couldn’t cause the flu, they actually became less willing to get it.

It’s a variant on the classic phenomenon of

the “backfire effect,” or the idea that when presented with information that contradicts their closely-held beliefs, people will become more convinced, not less, that they’re in the right.

What’s simultaneously interesting and more troubling about this finding is that people did change their knowledge, but that still didn’t translate into the corresponding action:

Though the vaccine studies have yielded results subtly different from the “backfire effect”—people were willing to accept new information as true, even when it had no effect on what they did in the end—Nyhan believes that the same sort of mental gymnastics is likely at work across both areas: reactance, the psychological phenomenon in which persuading people to accept certain idea can push them in the opposite direction.

It raises the ethical question of how educators should “first, do no harm” when teaching, if their efforts may backfire. It also highlights how crucial it is for instruction to account for learners’ identities, values, and motivations in order to be meaningfully effective.

Good practice for better learning

Some choice nuggets from “How to Learn Better at Any Age” by writer Peter Brown and cognitive psychologists Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel:

Retrieval practice — recalling facts or concepts from memory — is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.

[Interleaved practice] produces longer-lasting learning and enables more versatile application of it in later settings.

Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.

You learn better [by] drawing on all of your aptitudes and resourcefulness, than when you limit instruction or experience to the style you find most amenable.

Better yet, write your own summary.

 

 

Empathizing with actions above appearance

In two previous posts, I emphasized the importance of encouraging children in general and girls in particular to value actions above appearance, noting that I would especially want to promote perspective-taking, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility rather than looks. “Fit and Feminist” blogger Caitlin echoes this sentiment:

[W]hat your body looks like is not as important as what it can do.

She objects to the disconnect between achievement and the appearance of achievement, with regard to how we judge physical fitness:

When a person has a lean body, it serves as visual shorthand of sorts, indicating that the person most likely trains hard and who [sic] has excellent nutrition… You can’t see a person’s 1RM or their 5K PR, but you can see their visible abs, you know?

Imagery carries an immediacy that surpasses words and numbers, even when crafted into a compelling narrative. We process images much more quickly and viscerally than we process stories, and we have less experience critiquing pictures than we do analyzing and arguing using language.

Images themselves strip away context, removing the periphery and exaggerating the impact of anything contained within the frame. Still images also remove temporal context, inviting us to fill in but allowing us to forget what might have happened before and after the photo. In today’s highly connected and media-saturated world, we archive and recirculate images capturing unusual moments, someone’s “best of” achievement rather than the ordinary everyday which we mentally discard. Instead we create unrealistic expectations based on this visual vocabulary in which only the rare and easily perceived is worth remembering and emulating:

[W]hen we hold up ultra-leanness as The Fitness Goal for recreational athletes like myself as well as people who are just trying to keep themselves healthy, we are basically saying that everyone should be held to the same standards as elite athletes. This is insane! In what other area of our lives are we expected to emulate the best of the best? Are we all expected to write Pulitzer Prize winning novels? Must we all be capable of singing like the angelic offspring of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston? Should we all be able to engineer the tools necessary to identify the Higgs-Boson particle? No! So why does this idea persist that says we must all have the bodies of Olympic athletes before we can be considered fit and healthy?

Even trickier is our tendency to try to identify with the subject of a photo, mapping ourselves onto the person we see (or imagine). As Paul Bloom notes, people are influenced by appearance and perceived similarity to themselves when judging competence, culpability, and worth:

People are understandably empathetic toward the victims of crime, particularly when they are young and vulnerable, when they are attractive, and when they share our race or ethnicity.

[W]hen the victim of a crime is attractive, the defendant tends to get a longer prison sentence; if the defendant is attractive, he or she gets a lighter sentence.

[B]aby-faced individuals also tend to get lighter punishments, perhaps because they inspire parental warmth.

[J]udging someone based on the geometry of his features is, from a moral and legal standpoint, no better than judging him based on the color of his skin. Actually, both biases reflect the parochial and irrational nature of empathy.

Bloom also highlights our tendency to selectively empathize with people on one side of a conflict while disregarding the other, and with identifiable individuals rather than anonymous numbers:

Typically, political disputes involve a disagreement over whom we should empathize with.

Too often, our concern for specific individuals today means neglecting crises that will harm countless people in the future.

Appearances are seductive, readily merging with our imagined selves and crowding out invisible others.

What we ought to do instead is maintain a healthy separation between ourselves and the targets of our empathy. Parenting expert Janet Lansbury continually highlights the value of empathizing with young children, as distinct from simply identifying with them. It requires acknowledging others’ feelings while also remaining separate from them.

The more you are willing to agree with your child’s feelings while calmly holding on to the boundary, the easier it will be for her to release her resistance and move on.

They need to be able to complain, resist, stomp their feet, cry, express their darker feelings with the assurance that they have our acceptance and acknowledgment. They need to know that they have a leader who will help them to comply with rules and boundaries in the face of their No’s, and not be intimidated by their displeasure and disagreement.

Is my attitude toward my baby’s fussing or crying one of curiosity rather than impatience and assumption?

Am I soothing my baby by understanding and meeting her needs, or shushing, jiggling and stifling her because I want the crying to stop?

Am I following my impulse to calm my child by saying, for example, “You’re okay”? Or am I staying connected and centered by acknowledging her feelings: “You bumped into the table. Ouch, that hurt you!”

Am I hurrying the feelings along, or waiting patiently for them to be fully released?

Our capacity for empathy needs to go beyond thinking of others as replicas or extensions of ourselves, to recognizing that they are distinct from ourselves. We can acknowledge the reality and legitimacy of others’ feelings without assuming responsibility for changing those feelings or giving in to their demands. Instead of rushing to shelter or console innocent and adorable babies—focusing on their obvious appearance of vulnerability and cuteness—we observe their actions to better understand their particular goals and needs, which may not be the same as ours. Empathy is not ownership.

By maintaining this difference in perspective, both between appearance and action and between ourselves and others, we marry empathy to reason and allow space for incorporating multiple angles and unknowns in our empathy calculus.

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.

The many pluses of positive parenting

Again highlighting the importance of encouragement, David Bornstein describes several evidence-based parenting programs that reduce at-risk behaviors:

As he summarizes, “The essence of the research is that children do best when they receive calm and consistent feedback and assertive discipline that’s based on reasonable expectations – with significantly more encouragement and positive feedback than criticism.”

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.

Misplaced critical thinking

In Physics Today‘s Science controversies past and present, Steven Sherwood compares the current public response to anthropogenic climate change to the historical responses to heliocentrism and relativity. Even though theories of climate change pale in comparison to the others on the scale of scientific revolutions, he notes many fundamental similarities in their effects on people’s conception of the world. Here are some choice quotes that capture important scientific principles which tend to escape lay understanding and which may make acceptance of scientific theories more difficult. On scientific elegance and parsimony in model comparison:

Surely, the need for a new tweak to the model each time more accurate observations came along should have been a tip-off that something fundamental was wrong.

On deduction vs. observation:

the worked-out consequences of evident physical principles rather than direct observation

A common refrain is the disparagement of new paradigms as mere theories with too little observational basis.

On the backfire effect:

Instead of quelling the debate, the confirmation of the theory and acclaim for its author had sparked an organized opposition dedicated to discrediting both theory and author.

As [confirmatory] evidence continues to accumulate… skepticism seem[s] to be growing rather than shrinking…

provocative ideas… have shattered notions that make us feel safe. That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force.

why the backlash happens: the frailty of human reason and supremacy of emotional concerns that we humans all share but do not always acknowledge

On communicating scientific uncertainty:

“All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” (Einstein)

One of the most difficult yet fundamental principles of science is that we don’t and can’t know if we’re right. We can only get closer to what is probably right. Yet science is seldom conveyed or perceived that way. And what makes science so precious is its ability to show us, through inference and deduction, that which seems to contradict our casual observation and which most surprises us. This suggests caution both when employing discovery learning, as we cannot always trust ourselves to discover accurately, and when employing lecture-based instruction, as we are also unlikely to trust authoritarian telling that threatens our preferences for and sense of security about our world. Understanding the relationship between our flawed tools of reason—through cognitive science—and our imperfect tools of science—probabilistic inference, mathematical proof, model comparison—can help us learn better from both. — Sherwood, S. (2011). Science controversies past and present. Physics Today, 64(10), 39-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.1295

Science answers the question of “how,” not “what”

In “Trust Me, I’m a Scientist” , cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham argues that the belief that improving science education would increase students’ appreciation for scientific opinion is a misconception, since “Those who know more science have only a slightly greater propensity to trust scientists.” Instead, he suggests, “A more direct approach would be to educate people about why they are prone to accept inaccurate beliefs in the first place.”

I agree with Willingham that educating people in some basic cognitive science (specifically, common fallacies of thinking) would go a long way, but I think he mischaracterizes what good science education should be. It’s not simply about the amount of content, but about an understanding of the nature of science. Science is not a collection of facts, but a way of knowing. Learning more about the history of science (whether in a history class or science class, or both) certainly is one valuable component in providing a richer view of science. Still, it’s only part of the picture. Science education itself should incorporate a strong focus on building an understanding of how scientific knowledge is developed over time. That demands an appreciation for evaluating and quantifying how well evidence supports explanation and comparing the explanatory power of competing theories.

We do still need to provide better science education—a better understanding of “how,” not “what.” It’s crucial for creating a responsible citizenry.

Diligence vs. competitiveness

I continue to be disappointed by the mainstream media’s coverage of the “tiger parenting” phenomenon. Although there’s now somewhat more discussion of the specific parenting practices that are good or bad for the child, distinct practices are still getting conflated. One of the latest that I’ve seen claims that “the intense emphasis on hard work comes with a deep, obsessive competitiveness.”

It ain’t necessarily so.

Setting aside my frustration with the media’s reliance on first-person anecdotes rather than research on aggregate populations, I’ll first acknowledge that emphasizing the value of hard work and discipline is indeed very productive. As I wrote in my previous post, it takes about ten years of deliberate practice to attain expertise[1], and those who believe in the value of effort are more likely to invest further effort[2][3] . A recently reported twin study similarly notes that children with greater self-control do better in school and have better health, financial, and social outcomes as adults[4].

But deliberate practice isn’t just rote practice, and worthwhile effort isn’t merely hours of exhaustion. Both require thoughtfulness in figuring out what needs more work and how to tackle it. Likewise, developing self-control requires more than simply being placed in a constraining environment. As I’ve previously noted, the complex and ill-structured world of imaginative play can improve children’s impulse control and self-regulation[5]. Much like the riddle about the town with two barbers, “just because it looks like what you want doesn’t mean it will produce what you want.” Here, it’s not enough just to put children and students through their paces in rigid settings that prevent them from going astray. The theme underlying all of these phenomena is that people need to learn how to decide for themselves how to manage their efforts and how to improve.

So how does this relate to competitiveness? Competition is based on social comparison, or norm-referenced assessment. While it may be inspiring to see the accomplishments of peers as a possibility for oneself, it can also be limiting to endeavor only to best them and not more generally to excel. Even more damaging, people have no control over the performance of their rivals, and chasing this uncontrollable target can foster that worrisome learned helplessness which can dampen enthusiasm, lower self-esteem, and inhibit future effort[6][7]. Instead, criterion-referenced assessment measures performance against fixed goals which can be set up as benchmarks and eventually internalized by the learner. Not only does this provide a clearer way of measuring success than normative comparisons, but it also helps the budding athlete, musician, or student succeed better in the long run.

I fully recognize that Chinese parents can be obsessively competitive about their children’s achievements, even through their self-effacing denials that their children are anything special. And it’s already been documented that the Chinese culture places a high premium on hard work. But these aren’t uniquely Chinese values, and they can be decoupled. The result isn’t some kind of compromise or blend between Chinese and American philosophies, but a selection of those beliefs and practices that have been shown to be productive across cultures.


[1] Ericsson, K.A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games (pp. 1-50). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
[2] Mueller, C.M., & Dweck, C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52.
[3] Dweck, C.M. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York NY: Random House.
[4] Moffitt, T.E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R.J., Harrington, H.L., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B.W., Ross, S., Sears, M.R., Thomson, W.M., & Caspi, A. (in press). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
[5] Bodrova, E.B., & Leong, D.J. (2003). The importance of being playful. Educational Leadership, 60, 50-53.
[6] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1978). An analysis of learned helplessness: Continuous changes in performance, strategy, and achievement cognitions following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 451-462.
[7] Diener, C.I., & Dweck, C.S. (1980). An analysis of learned helplessness: II. The processing of success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 940-952.