Mindset: What you Can and Cannot Change

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Mindset: What you Can and Cannot Change

Credulity is the man’s weakness but the child’s strength. (Charles Lamb, Essays on Elia, 1800)

Minds are like parachutes. They only function when they are open. (James Dewar, attributed, 1900)

Can you become more intelligent? Yes or No? If yes, how do you do it? Read more, do a university degree, complete difficult Sodoku and crosswords every day? Do you know adults who appear to be getting more intelligent? And why are there not courses called ’Learn how to be brighter’?

What can you change and learn and what not? Are you being unreasonably optimistic and naive to believe in change and development? Henry Ford famously said ’Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.’ In other words if you believe you can change you will…and vice versa.

Are those who believe intelligence does not and cannot be changed pessimists who don’t know the scientific literature? Equally, are those who think we can all become brighter naive optimists who hold these beliefs without any foundation?

As a result of what psychologists call ’reduced plasticity’ most of us have stopped changing much by around 30 years old. But this is now a very hot issue around what can and can’t be changed. The whole issue of malleability and immutability of abilities and temperament is at the heart of many psychological debates including the ’talent myth’ and 10,000-hour rule which suggests all expert/elite performance can be trained if people put in sufficient effort.

People vary in the degree to which they think intelligence is innate, unchangeable or fixed factors (’fixed’ mindset) but are there various factors that can be influenced through learning, effort, training and practice (’growth’ mindset)?


Read these ten statements and rate how much you agree with each on the following scale:

Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree

1 Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.

2 No matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit.

3 Only a few people will be truly good at sports, you have to be born with the ability.

4 The harder you work at something, the better you will be.

5 I often get angry when I get feedback about my performance.

6 I appreciate when people, parents, coaches or teachers give me feedback about my performance.

7 Truly smart people do not need to try hard.

8 You can always change how intelligent you are.

9 You are a certain kind of person and there is not much that can be done to really change that.

10 An important reason why I do my schoolwork is that I enjoy learning new things.


Points awarded: Strongly Agree (3), Agree (2), Disagree (1), Strongly Disagree (0) for even-numbered statements.

Strongly Agree (0) Agree (1) Disagree (2) Strongly Disagree (3) for odd-numbered statements.

22—30 = Strong growth mindset; 17—21 = Growth with some fixed ideas; 11—16 = Fixed with some growth ideas; 0—10 = Strong fixed mindset.

This is the work and concept of Carol Dweck. It is relatively easy to see to what extent one holds a Fixed or Growth Mindset (see above). But why this research is interesting is that she claims holding these ideas has very important consequences.

So growth or incremental theorists believe that intelligence can be increased and cultivated over a lifetime through hard work and continued learning. Fixed mindset people usually do not increase their level of effort in educational and work environments because they do not believe they can improve their performance. You can or you can’t do it, they assert. Incremental people, however, tend to acknowledge the importance of effort and then believe everything is possible as long as you are prepared to put in enough effort.

Dweck has argued that having a mindset about intelligence has serious consequences and implications, particularly for motivation to practice and learn. She initially called fixed mindset ’entity’ theorists and growth mindset people ’incremental’ theorists.

Interestingly, mindset does not only refer to intelligence. Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that personality, intelligence, values, etc are ’set in stone’ — probably genetically based, formed early and stable.

Individuals with a growth mindset believe that effort or training can change many qualities and traits: we are all ’captains of our ship’ and ’masters of our fate’.

Where the mindset work becomes really interesting is when you examine people in education and work settings. Fixed mindset people tend to be interested only in feedback on their success in activities because they do not use it to learn, simply because they tend not to believe that their success depends on their effort to learn. Negative feedback is particularly unpleasant and may be avoided or denied because it is so damning of failure.

A growth mindset emphasizes that success is about learning, investing effort, practising and mastering skills. Feedback of all types (positive and negative) is seen as potentially useful because it affords an opportunity to get better.

Researchers assessing mindset are particularly interested in how parents and teachers communicate with their children. If parents or teachers argue that success is down to inborn or innate abilities, children will probably develop a fixed mindset. If either praises or ’explains’ success as being down to the child being naturally bright, they are less likely to put in effort whether they succeed or fail.

Yet if parents or teachers say that both success and failure are caused by sufficient or insufficient effort and practice, children will be more likely to develop a growth mindset: ’You did well because you worked hard and are conscientious. This is something you can do again and do more of with many benefits.’

Differences in mindset can have effects in the workplace. A boss that has a fixed mindset may invest more on selecting high-ability employees than professional development and ongoing training. Fixed mindset people would also probably be less concerned with performance management and regular feedback sessions.


Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group.

Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Constable & Robinson Limited.