Intelligence: It’s all in your head

This week’s edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Amie Gordon and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on November 14, 2011.

Which do you think is more predictive of success: innate ability or hard work? Do you think anyone can rise up to meet a challenge with enough effort, or are some people just more intelligent and able than others?

It seems like there should be a true answer to these questions, but according to Dr. Carol Dweck, the truth is all in your head. Dr. Dweck isn’t interested in what exactly intelligence is, she’s interested in what you think it is, and the long term impact of those beliefs.

Entity theorist. Some people believe that intelligence is an unchangeable, fixed trait. If you are an entity theorist, you think of intelligence as a “thing” that you can have a lot or a little of. Entity theorists would say that some people are just more intelligent than others.

Incremental theorist. Some people believe that intelligence is a malleable quality that can developed. If you are more of an incremental theorist, you think of intelligence more as a muscle that can get stronger with effort.  Incremental theorists would say that anyone can achieve if they work hard at it.

Although I’ve divided these believes into two camps, the reality is that they exist on a continuum  – you may be a pure entity theorist, a pure incremental theorist or fall anywhere in between. For example, a lot of people might endorse the idea that while some people are more intelligent than others, with hard work, people can reach their peak intelligence.

Why does it matter what we believe? It turns out that the views you have about intelligence can help or hinder your motivation and achievement. People who more strongly endorse entity beliefs are more likely to give up after failure. If intelligence is fixed and you are performing poorly, obviously you just aren’t that smart so why keep trying? On the other hand, endorsing incremental beliefs is associated with viewing poor performance as a challenge and seeking improvement through hard work. Your beliefs might also affect the types of activities you engage in. For entity theorists – performance is diagnostic of an innate intelligence, so entity theorists are more likely to avoid difficult and challenging tasks in case they perform poorly. For incremental theorists – difficult and challenging tasks are a chance to grow and improve, so they will be more concerned with learning than with performance outcomes.

Do our beliefs about intelligence predict our achievement outcomes?Not only do these different theories influence people’s motivations, they actually affect achievement outcomes. Students who endorse more incremental beliefs earn higher grades and receive better scores on achievement tests. This is true whether you measure naturally occurring beliefs (Henderson & Dweck, 1990) or use an incremental theory intervention (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002). These beliefs have long term effects: 7th graders who believed that intelligence was malleable experienced an upward trend in grades over the two years of junior high, whereas the belief that intelligence is fixed was associated with a flat trajectory (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007).

How to raise your kids to be incremental theorists: when they come home from school with a big smile because they got a good grade tell them “Congrats, I knew you could do it, you worked so hard!” not “Congrats, I knew you could do it, you’re so smart!”

And for those of us who are already grown up… the experimental evidence suggests that our beliefs about intelligence are, themselves, malleable. Regardless of what beliefs you currently hold, it’s not too late to start approaching challenges with the belief that hard work and effort pay off.

Are you an incremental theorist or an entity theorist? Do you find yourself giving up after failure?

Related articles:

Aronson, J., Fried, C., & Good, C. (2002). Reducing the Effects of Stereotype Threat on African American College Students by Shaping Theories of Intelligence Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(2), 113-125 DOI: 10.1006/jesp.2001.1491

Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., & Dweck, C. (2007). Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention Child Development, 78 (1), 246-263 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.00995.x

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  1. Tim

    We think people are a variation to entity and incremental. We do believe people have a base or entity level intelligence however if you use that base level of intelligence to exercise your mind you will be able to absorb more information to use in every day life.

    Whilst this incremental approach does not change your ‘intelligence’ it does give you the opportunity to leverage what you have, using your noodle to etc maximum potential.