Sunday, April 28, 2013

Practical Benefits of Philosophy 6. The Work of Carol Dweck and Others

As a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s, Dweck was initially interested in the idea of “learned helplessness.”  Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon of the University of Pennsylvania had shown that after enough failures to remedy a situation, most animals conclude that things are hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when restrictions are removed and it can in fact begin to exert control. 

Dweck discovered that people are also subject to learned helplessness – a few set backs can convince them that they have no control over a situation even after avenues of opportunity later open up to them.  They can no longer conceive of themselves as being able to change their current circumstances.  Dweck also discovered, however, that unlike animals, not everyone reacts the same way to setbacks.  Some people have more resilience than others.  She began to look for what accounted for the differences. 

Beginning in 1978, Dweck, assisted by then-graduate student Carol Diener, conducted a study involving fifth and sixth graders in which she, first, gave the students a questionnaire designed to identify the child’s attitude toward failure.  The children were then grouped based on whether the child believed overall that failure was a circumstance beyond his or her control or whether a child believed that failure or success was something he or she could influence. 

Dweck then gave the children a series of 12 problems.  The first eight were all solvable by the children; the last four were beyond their training by some two grade levels.  As part of the study, the children were told to talk out loud about their thoughts as they were working on the problems.

According to Dweck, the difference between the two groups was striking.  The group which had been previously identified as having a helpless attitude toward failure didn’t make much effort on the four difficult problems and gave up almost immediately.  And, they relied on essentialist thinking to explain their failure.  They said things like, “I guess I’m not very smart,”  “I never did have a good memory,” or “I’m no good at things like this.”

The students in second group were not discouraged by the problems and persisted in working on them, even though the problems were beyond their ability.  They had the attitude that, if only they tried harder or approached the problem in some new way, they could solve it.  The big surprise, however, came when Dweck realized that some of the children who put forth lots of effort, not only didn’t accept any lack of ability as the reason for their failure, but they didn’t try to explain away their failure at all.  These children, Dweck concluded, simply didn’t perceive that they were failing.  Diener put it this way: “Failure is information – we label it failure, but [for these children] it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.’”  They instinctively recognized that even the idea of failure is not a pre-determined matter, but was up for them to decide.  Their response was not unlike that of Thomas Edison – when he was asked about his lack of success in developing the storage battery, he answered: "I have not failed; I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

Then, in another study, this time by Dweck and Lisa Blackwell, several hundred low-achieving seventh graders participated in eight sessions on study skills and the brain.  Once again, we have two groups:  one group attended a neutral session on memory while the other group also learned that intelligence, like a muscle, grows stronger through exercise.   The group that attended the sessions that taught that intelligence can be developed improved measurably both study habits and grades.  Students in the control group showed no improvement despite all the other interventions.

And then, in the late 1990s, Joshua Aronson, who now teaches psychology at New York University, along with two colleagues, adopted Dweck's model by asking Stanford students to write letters to local middle-school “pen pals” that encouraged the younger students to persist in their studies. They were encouraged to tell the middle schoolers things like, “Humans are capable of learning and mastering new things at any time in their lives.”

The focus on the study was on the Stanford students themselves, as it turns out.  Compared to members of a control group, these Stanford students earned higher grades three months later, and were more likely to report that they enjoyed academic work. The effects were especially strong among African-American students, who were overrepresented in the study.

So, we can see that behavior changes based on whether you have a growth or existentialist mindset, or a fixed or essentialist mindset.

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