How a False Belief Hinders Kids’ Academic Achievement

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The belief one’s intelligence is fixed and stable is harmful, and widely shared among lower-income youngsters.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Are we all born with a stable, unchanging level of intelligence? Or can we grow smarter through study and hard work?

New research from South America suggests a student’s answer to that question can hugely impact how well they do in school — particularly if they come from poverty.

“Students’ mindsets may temper, or exacerbate, the effects of economic disadvantage,” a group of researchers led by Susana Claro of Stanford University writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “This study is the first, to our knowledge, to show that a growth mindset — the belief that intelligence is not fixed, and can be developed — reliably predicts achievement among a national sample of students.”

The study featured 75 percent of all 10th graders enrolled in Chile’s public schools in 2012 — about 168,000 kids. Students filled out a survey in which they reported their level of agreement with such statements as “You can learn new things, but you can’t change a person’s intelligence.”

The researchers compared these views on the malleability of braininess to their scores on standardized reading and math tests, while also noting such variables as family income, their parents’ level of education, and whether they had books and a computer at home.

As expected, “we find that family income is a strong predictor of achievement,” the researchers write. Their key finding, however, was that the belief that intelligence can be developed “is a comparatively strong predictor of achievement.”

“The lowest-income Chilean students were twice as likely as the high-income students to report a fixed mindset.”

“Students from lower-income families were less likely to hold a growth mindset than their wealthier peers,” they report. “But those who did were appreciably buffered against the deleterious effects of poverty on achievement.”

Specifically, the researchers found “the lowest-income Chilean students were twice as likely as the high-income students to report a fixed mindset.” This belief that “they cannot grow their intellectual abilities” is a clear hindrance to academic success.

But, as the researchers note, there is evidence that targeted interventions can help students adopt the idea that intelligence can grow. And these results suggest that can make a huge difference.

One statistic provides startling evidence of their leveling effect: “Students in the lowest 10th percentile of family income who exhibited a growth mindset showed academic performance as high as that of fixed-mindset students from the 80th income percentile,” Claro and her team write.

The researchers stress that they do not consider changing kids’ mindsets “a substitute for systemic efforts to alleviate poverty and economic inequality.” But their results suggest “structural inequalities can give rise to psychological inequalities,” which can make it even more difficult for children to excel.

“Students with a fixed mindset tend to avoid situations in which they might struggle or fail, because those experiences undermine their sense of their intelligence,” Claro and her colleagues write. “In contrast, students who have a growth mindset tend to see difficult tasks as a way to increase their abilities, and seek out challenging learning experiences that enable them to do so.”

Perhaps the first lesson kids need to learn is that their potential is greater than they realize.