Who performs the best: Students who believe they’re naturally smart or students who believe they get smarter through effort?
Research suggests it’s the latter.
Students who think they’re born with smarts are reluctant to jeopardize their self-image with challenging tasks. On the flip side, students who belong to groups stereotyped as naturally inferior may get anxious about those biases and perform below their potential on tests.
A recent study suggests those attitudes may help shape university careers, too.
That study, based on a nationwide survey of academics, shows that women and African-Americans are least represented in the fields where professors believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success, according to the journal Science.
As cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik put it in the Wall Street Journal:
Professors of philosophy, music, economics and math thought that “innate talent” was more important than did their peers in molecular biology, neuroscience and psychology. And they found this relationship: The more that people in a field believed success was due to intrinsic ability, the fewer women and African-Americans made it in that field.
Gopnik argues that attributing success in a complex field to “innate talent” is an outdated idea given what science now knows about the complex interactions between genetics and environment, which begin at the moment of conception.
To ask how much innate talent you need to succeed at philosophy is like asking how much fire, earth, air and water you need to make gold. That medieval theory of elements just doesn’t make sense any more, and neither does the nature/nurture distinction.
Science may have moved on, but beliefs about “raw talent” can take root early in a child’s education.
Psychologist Carol Dweck’s “mindset” research has shown that kids who believe they’re naturally smart may be more concerned about “looking smart” and become easily shaken if learning doesn’t come quickly and easily. But children who believe they get smarter through effort relish the chance to grapple with challenging problems and are more willing to take risks and make mistakes to stretch themselves.
Likewise, psychologists Claude Steele, Joshua Aronson, and Steven Spencer have shown that stereotypes about natural ability such as “girls can’t do math” and “African-Americans don’t value education” can spark doubt and anxiety in members of those groups that inhibit their performance on tests.