Carol Dweck - Developmental Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Carol Dweck
Developmental Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1946, Brooklyn, New York


Educated at Columbia University and Yale University



Of all the theorists discussed in this book, Carol Dweck is likely the most contemporary; her career is as active as can be. Dweck is best known for her implicit theories of intelligence, which explore where we believe our abilities come from. Like the work of Noam Chomsky, Dweck’s work could have been discussed in several other chapters of this book, but that discussion is most appropriate in this chapter, given Dweck’s research into raising and teaching children.

The research question that came to define Dweck’s work is relatively simple: Why do some children persist on a task after setbacks or failures, whereas other children give up or avoid attempting to perform the task in the first place? In 1978, Dweck observed that teachers and parents can inadvertently foster a sense of helplessness in a child when they blame the child’s failure on lack of ability rather than on lack of effort. In other words, teachers who do this tend to ratify the child’s conclusion, after she has done poorly on a math test, that she just isn’t good at math, even if the actual problem is that she didn’t practice enough or didn’t spend enough time checking for careless mistakes. The child who thinks she’s just poor at math will go on to question the value of making much of an effort at all, but if she believed that she could develop strategies for working harder and not making the same mistakes, she would be more motivated to try those strategies out in preparation for her next math test.

In her later research, Dweck began to look at how children are praised. As parents and teachers, we can praise traits and abilities (“What a great artist you are! You are so talented!”) or we can praise effort (“Look at how carefully you drew that picture! You spent so much time on it, with all the different colors!”). Dweck discovered that the nature of the praise children receive is associated with how they tend to think of themselves, and specifically with what they think is responsible for their successes. Dweck was struck by the extent to which these associations come to affect not just how hard children are willing to try but also how afraid they are of failure, and how readily they bounce back from failure if it does occur.

Dweck’s work has contrasted two different mindsets associated with the long-term use of different types of praise. Children who are constantly praised for their inherent abilities and traits will be more prone to develop the fixed mindset. These children think of their intelligence or abilities as static, unchangeable attributes. They think they’re either smart or not smart, good at spelling or not good at spelling. If a child’s self-assessment is poor—if the child believes that he is just never going to be intelligent—then it is clear how helpless he may feel, and how unmotivated he may become after a setback. But even if the child’s self-assessment is good, Dweck has argued, his fixed mindset will present serious drawbacks. A child who believes that everyone views him as smart will be more fearful of failure because he is desperate to keep proving everyone right. He doesn’t want to make mistakes, lest he lose the “smart” mantle he’s been wearing for so long. Terrified to do anything that might disprove the trait everyone says he possesses, he sticks to the tasks he’s most comfortable with, the ones he already knows he can do well.

On the other hand, children with the growth mindset fare much better. This mindset, according to Dweck, is defined by the belief that effort and work will pay off, that one always has the potential to grow and get better at something, and that intelligence can be developed. The child with this mindset knows she is capable of trying hard, and she connects this knowledge with the idea that she can eventually overcome challenges. She is much less fearful of failure because she isn’t bound by the belief that failure will automatically discount who she purports to be. Failure, instead of representing a wrecking ball aimed at the very core of her identity, simply indicates the need to practice longer, learn more, or come up with new strategies. She isn’t crushed by setbacks, and so she is much less likely to shy away from challenges and much more likely to try things outside her comfort zone, bouncing back when she doesn’t get the top score on a test.

Children’s ability to view their abilities as malleable may have implications for areas beyond how much effort they put into a math test or how willing they are to try a new sport. As a culture, we tend to have beliefs about who is good at what, and it is thought that these beliefs may even affect who chooses to go into what fields. Women’s underrepresentation in science and engineering, for example, may have something to do with the messages that girls pick up about what girls are naturally supposed to be capable of. As children grow, and as school and life in general become more challenging, especially during the emotional upheaval of the teen years, their mindsets may determine which of them will continue to achieve and even improve (those will be the kids with the growth mindset) and which of them will see their academic performance decline (the kids with the fixed mindset).

The question of whether one has the fixed or the growth mindset continues to be relevant in adulthood. For better or for worse, and long after our school days have ended, many of us continue to recognize in ourselves one of these mindsets, and its effects, when it comes to how we see our intelligence and abilities. Thankfully, the growth mindset can be built and learned.


Dweck’s research is still in the process of revolutionizing many different facets of education and performance. Her ideas have become absorbed into school systems and educational curricula and have made their way into mainstream parenting advice. Athletic coaches and music teachers have also been widely affected by her findings, which have spurred additional research into motivation, performance, and the internalization of praise.


If you are a parent, you may already be familiar with some of Dweck’s research. Perhaps you’ve observed other parents praising their children’s efforts rather than their abilities. Nevertheless, whenever a psychological theory is adopted by large numbers of people who are not psychologists, something may get lost in translation. Dweck has expressed concern that, as effort is praised more and more (a good thing in general), effort itself may become the main focus, at the expense of the finer nuances of the growth mindset. In Dweck’s theory, effort is not meant to be the main goal but rather a means to achieve learning. Empty praise for effort that doesn’t result in any new learning (“Great try! Your paper airplane doesn’t fly, but you gave it your all!”) may not do much good, in contrast with praise for effort that focuses on learning new ways to overcome challenges. (“Great try! You really put a lot into it. I wonder what you could do differently next time to get it to fly farther.”) In other words, simply telling a child to do his best and then giving him a gold star for effort can backfire if the effort doesn’t lead anywhere, as it’s not really creating new insights within the child, and it may even subtly teach him to adopt a fixed mindset about the likelihood that he’ll continue to fail.

There is also some concern that as Dweck’s theories grow more and more prevalent in American education systems—her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success continues to be quite popular—the notion of the growth mindset itself may become little more than a meaningless buzzword if it is not correctly understood. For example, many teachers know that they are supposed to embody the growth mindset, and that they should even use the term growth mindset to demonstrate their familiarity with up-to-date educational theory. But the problem is that the popularity of Dweck’s ideas may lead to the creation of false growth mindsets if the fixed mindset is understood only as something to be feared and covered up. It may also be too easily forgotten that nurturing the growth mindset is not just about praising children’s successes but also about helping kids bounce back from failure. Dweck’s more recent research has identified some teaching patterns that espouse the growth mindset but still react to mistakes as harmful and to be avoided. In reality, for Dweck, failure is a way to learn.

Perhaps you think that Dweck’s theories sound a bit too much like “All of you are super smart!” and that they reek of the “Trophies for everyone!” parenting practices that appeared during the 1980s. Such practices, said to result from a misguided focus on the importance of self-esteem, still seem prevalent in many quarters. But Dweck’s theory actually runs completely counter to those practices. It focuses not on covering up differences in ability and pretending that everyone is the same but on meeting children individually where they are and helping them do their best. The truest applications of Dweck’s theory don’t use indiscriminate or meaningless praise. Instead, they demonstrate that effort brings learning, and that learning—even and perhaps especially the kind of learning that comes through mistakes—brings improvement.