You are so smart’ is a bad thing to say

Mindsets affect ability to bounce back after challenges and setbacks


Rotary guest Hans Schroder, son of Rotarian past president Rick Schroder, spoke to the group recently on studies he is involved with regarding mindsets, or beliefs that people hold about how much they can change their own attributes, like intelligence and personality. Schroder is currently a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Michigan State University.

Schroder explained that people typically hold one of two mindsets. The growth mindset is the belief that attributes like intelligence can be developed with effort and practice. The fixed mindset, in contrast, is the belief that these attributes are fixed and set in stone. Schroder gave examples of two people with apparently different mindsets. He said tennis superstar John McEnroe, who responded to setbacks and failure with spectacular displays of poor sportsmanship, earning him a poor reputation. By comparison soccer superstar Mia Hamm advanced her game by playing against her older brother, who was bigger and stronger. She lost a lot, but became one of the best soccer players in the world.

People with fixed mindsets are worried about looking clever. They are obsessed with performance and respond poorly to failure. They are in denial that effort will improve their results, and avoid effort and challenges in order to avoid mistakes. A person with a fixed mindset wants things easy so they can feel good by demonstrating their competencies to others. People with growth mindsets are more interested in learning and mastery and value the effort it takes to develop new skills. They engage in challenges in order to increase their abilities and learn from their mistakes.

Schroder’s research has shown that individuals with fixed and growth mindsets differ in terms of how their brains respond to mistakes. Whereas people who endorse the belief that abilities can change and develop pay greater attention to their errors, those with a fixed view of intelligence show significantly less attention to their errors. These brain responses occur within 200ms of making a mistake.

Schroder then discussed how mindsets are developed. One way that mindsets are induced is by invoking the nature-nurture debate, which Schroder says, “drives me crazy because it’s always both.” When people hear that a trait is related to genetics, many believe that this means this trait is built-in, and pre-determined; this can induce the fixed mindset. A follow-up study showed that when students read articles describing intelligence as either primarily genetic or driven by the environment, brain responses to tasks and errors were influenced as well.

Schroder went on to discuss previous research that showed that even praising children’s abilities has a dramatic impact on how they respond to failure. Carol Dweck – a leading authority on mindset research, conducted earlier studies demonstrating that praise for intelligence after successful performance (“You must be smart!”) backfired when the children encountered challenges. These children were unable to recover from their failures. In contrast, children who were praised for their strategies or effort following success (“You must have tried really hard!”) were more resilient to challenges and were more likely to bounce back from mistakes.

In the last part of his talk, Schroder discussed his most recent research, which focuses on how mindsets relate to mental health. He stated that many people who suffer from anxiety and depression believe that their emotional states cannot change. Previous research shows that those who believe anxiety and depression are determined by their genes are more likely to choose medication versus psychotherapy. Schroder’s new data suggest individuals who are fixed-minded about their anxiety – they believe that anxiety cannot change very much – are also more likely to choose medication in a hypothetical scenario. The results have consequences for public health messages about mental illness, which have increasingly become more biological in nature (the “chemical imbalance explanation of depression”). “Although many of these campaigns are designed to decrease stigma for individuals with mental health,” Schroder said, “the biological message may be inducing a fixed mindset.” He also pointed to recent studies showing that the neurochemical message of depression does not actually reduce stigma among individuals with depression.

Schroder wrapped up his discussion by pointing to promising research using the growth mindset message to promote mental well-being. He cited a study by Adriana Miu and David Yeager that showed in a sample of high school students, reading that personality is changeable prevented symptoms of depression nine months later. The entire intervention was 25 minutes long and was entirely self-administered.

Rotarian Floyd Havemeier said he believes everything Schroder said about mindsets and has seen people who look for a quick fix for everything—taking a pill for a headache and then being happy because the headache went away. “It might have gone away anyhow,” Havemeier noted. Schroder answered several other questions and recommended Dweck’s book, entitled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. “The cool thing about mindsets is that it can apply to anything—weight loss, quitting smoking, math anxiety or social anxiety.”