Do you have a fixed or growth mindset?

Are you born intelligent or made intelligent?

What is your perspective on intelligence and your abilities? Do you think of it as something that you are born with and that you can’t do much to change? Or do you think that you can change your level of intelligence or abilities considerably if you want to?

Depending on your response to these questions you are likely to display a different set of behaviours and ways of thinking about the world. There are two extreme positions or two mindsets we can adopt: a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Mindsets are meaning systems that help people to make sense of their experiences. The idea of two distinct mindsets was developed by the Standford Psychologist Carol Dweck. When investigating why some people are more likely to achieve than others even though they seem to have the same level of talent, Dweck realised that it is people’s attitude that matters and that can make the difference in terms of self-believe and subsequent performance.

Fixed mindset

A belief that you are born intelligent is likely to make you give up more readily when you hit a challenge. The premise would be that your brain will only take you so far and if you can’t deal with the challenge it means you have achieved your maximum intellectual capability. You think of intelligence and your abilities as largely set in stone. Following on from this you are likely to structure your thinking in terms of the beliefs you hold about your intellect and your abilities. With a fixed mindset you are less likely to try new things which you perceive to be beyond your ability level. You are consequently more likely to be afraid of failure. As children people with a fixed mindset would have learned what Dweck calls, “learned helplessness”, believing that an adverse situation cannot be overcome as they lack the necessary ability.

Growth mindset

Adopting a growth mindset, on the other hand, helps you to overcome setbacks because you believe that you can learn new things. If you have a growth mindset you are more likely to think of intelligence and ability as malleable, as something that can grow, change and develop in time. A challenge is not seen as having reached an intellectual or capability limit but as something that requires more effort. With a growth mind set your inclination would be motivated by ‘failure’ rather than to give up.

Mindsets are learned

When we hold on to a fixed mind set it is often for a reason, usually related to messages we received as children. At some point in our life our mind set served a good purpose. It told us who we were or we wanted to be. For example, our parents may have described us as clever or talented which in turn encouraged us to be in a certain way, e.g. to always perform well. In this way the praise provided a formula for self-esteem and love from the primary carers. Dweck argues that children benefit more from being praised for effort rather than for being talented. Praising effort encourages a growth mind set; your child will be more likely to enjoy the learning process and try as hard as they can.

The brain science

The idea of the developing a malleable brain is born out by the recent findings in neuroscience where scientists talk about brain- or neuroplasticity. Far from being fully developed at some point in our life our brain grows on a regular basis; our learning never stops. For example, when we think a thought, talk to someone or practice an instrument our brain communicates this message via neurons which establish new pathways. 

As we learn new things the brain makes new connections. The more we learn about a specific subject the stronger the connections are. This is why our brains get denser when we practice things. For example playing an instrument regularly will develop the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain. Another study showed that cab drivers had a larger hippocampus compared with other people. This is a part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animal.

Change the way you think

The underlying positive message is that the way you think about yourself can be changed and new learning never stops. Mindsets can shift: for example I may have a fixed mindset in relation to my beliefs as a guitar player and a growth mindset when thinking about myself as being an athlete. Mindsets are a mental attitude that will determine how I interpret situations and respond to them.

How you interpret difficulties and challenges can be your choice. Your perception determines your view of the world. Changing from a fixed to a growth mindset does of course not happen overnight and is not only a question of simply willing it to be different. After years and years as adults we all are quite invested in our view of the world. However, paying more attention to instances when you approach difficulties with a fixed mindset gives you a starting point for questioning whether this way of looking at difficulties is stopping you from learning something new or developing to your full potential.  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, Greater London, N14 7BH
Written by Angela Dierks, MStud (Oxon), MA Integrative Counselling, MBACP (Acc)
London, Greater London, N14 7BH

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