Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Smarter, Stronger, Better Than Yesterday – The Beliefs That Will Make the Difference (And science has proven it.)

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Smarter, Stronger, Better Than Yesterday - The Beliefs That Will Make the Difference (And science has proven it.)

One of the most remarkable and oh-so-good-to-be-human findings in the last decade or so is that we human type beings can change our brain. Clever aren’t we. (Go ahead – straighten your crown.) In an exciting twist on the nature/nurture debate, it turns out that what’s more important than either nature or nurture, is what we believe. 

Research led by Hans Schroder and published in the journal Biological Psychology, has found that telling people that ‘effort trumps genetics’ causes instant changes in the brain that motivate people towards success. When we open up to the idea that we are able to build our intelligence and strengthen various skills and qualities, we give our brain the fuel it needs to change and propel us forward. 

The messages we tell ourselves (or let others convince us of) are critical. Our brain hears all of them. All of us have a brain that is able to change, grow and strengthen in remarkable ways, but for this to happen, we need to believe that our brain can do this (awww – brains do care what we think.)

Research has shown that when we believe effort will make a difference to our achievement, our brain will change in ways that will set us towards that path. But there’s a flip side – if we believe that intelligence and abilities are fixed at birth, and that there is little we can do to change this, our learning and growth will be stunted.

What we are born with is just a starting point. We humans have incredible brains that are willing and so very able to change and strengthen in any direction we choose, but we have to back ourselves. More importantly, we have to be receptive to the fact – and it is a proven fact – that our effort will produce the changes in our brains that will make us smarter, stronger and more capable than before. 

As explained by researcher Hans Schroder,

‘Giving people messages that encourage learning and motivation may promote more efficient performance. In contrast, telling people that intelligence is genetically fixed may inadvertently hamper learning.’

The study provides physiological evidence of the powerful effect of mindset on performance. Mindset refers to our beliefs. Here’s the difference. People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and abilities can grow and change with effort. People with a fixed mindset believe that our abilities and intelligence are largely genetic, and that time and effort won’t make a difference.

So the research … lay it on me.

In one of the first studies to explore the physiological changes that are brought about by mindset, researchers looked at how mindset affects brain activity. Participants were divided into two groups.

One group read an article explaining that intelligence is genetically determined and therefore largely unchangeable (fixed mindset).

The other group read an article that explained that the brilliance of da Vinci and Einstein was ‘probably due to a challenging environment. Their genius had little to do with genetic structure.’ The article implied that intelligence was changeable (growth mindset).

Participants were directed to keep in mind the main points of the article. They then completed a simple computer task while their brain activity was recorded. Here’s what they found.

The fixed mindset group (‘intelligence is fixed and not changeable’):

•  paid more attention to their responses and focussed on performance;

•  despite the extra attention they gave to their responses, there was no improvement in subsequent trials.

•  results suggested a disconnect between brain and behaviour – participants focussed more on performance, but their performance did not improve.

The growth mindset group (‘intelligence can be improved through effort’):

•  paid more attention to the task;

•  showed a more efficient brain response when they made a mistake and adapted their behaviour accordingly – probably because of the belief they could improve next trial;

•  the more attention participants paid to their mistakes, the better they performed on the next trial.

What does other research say?

An overwhelming body of research has demonstrated the importance of mindset on performance and the findings are consistent and irrefutable. Here’s what we know:

  1. The brain has incredible potential to change and grow – more than we ever thought possible. 
  2.  Learning nurtures key aspects of intelligence.
  3. Effort and persistence in the face of difficulties are the backbone of outstanding achievement.

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, has conducted extensive research in the area. Her work has been conducted primarily with children but her findings have implications for all of us.

In one study, students were praised for intelligence (‘You’re so smart!’) or effort (‘You worked really hard!’) when they responded correctly on a task. As the difficulty of the task increased, children who were praised for their effort performed better after mistakes than those who were told their performance was because of intelligence.

Dweck has studied thousands of children over three decades of research and concludes,

‘I think educators commonly hold two beliefs that (inadvertently hold students back). Many believe that praising students’ intelligence builds their confidence and motivation to learn; and students’ inherent intelligence is the major cause of their achievement in school. Our research has shown that the first belief is false and that the second can be harmful—even for the most competent students.’

What does it mean for me?

The study by Schroder and colleagues is the first study which has provided physiological evidence to support the importance of mindset on performance.

This study related to academic performance, as does an abundance of the research, but the relevance for this in other areas is enormous.

A growth mindset – the belief that effort makes the difference – is key in driving performance and has been shown to be effective in overcoming shyness, building resilience in the face of bullying, academic performance, weight loss and fitness, sporting ability and career success. It’s the key that unlocks the untapped potential in all of us.

What we think (or say) has a profound effect on our achievement and performance. We all – as in all of us – have a remarkable and proven capacity to change our brain. Being humans though, as bold, brilliant and beautiful as that is, we also have a remarkable capacity to get in our own way.

Some of our greatest barriers come from comparison. Sideways glances will too often cause us to stumble (or fall in love – sideways glances can do that too, but rarely while we are stuck in comparisons.) We are all born with flaws and we are all born with a great capacity for flight. Research is telling us clearly that we are born with a brain that is able to strengthen us towards lift-off, but only if we fuel it with the right messages. One of the most powerful of these is the belief that we can grow, learn, and strengthen.  

Of course, we need to back up those brain changing thoughts with a bit of action – brains are clever but they’re not magical – but what we think about our capacity to grow and strengthen our brain causes changes in the brain that can propel us forward. We were born to be bold, brilliant, strong and happy. The greatest power to achieve this lies in our own hands. The key is believing it’s there. 

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15 Comments

Maria Smith

I have started teaching “Growth Mindset” in my Gifted Classes.
Many think that Gifted students are already smart so why use this. If a gifted child is always told how smart he or she is, what is he to think when they fail at something? “I’m not really smart”/”I’m no longer smart”.
They are children and do not know how to reconcile failure with lack of effort when they get to a point they are no longer able to get by on just their natural ability.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes it makes so much sense that gifted children need to know this. Failure is such an important part of growth and learning, and it’s vital for children to be able to move forward through failure, rather than take it as a personal deficiency. I love that you are teaching them this.

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Amy Steindler

This is an important concept, and one that I have experienced personally. Growing up, I was praised for my intellectual and academic abilities, which felt good as a child, but created two significant problems for me as I grew older.

First, I identified with the label “smart,” and made that mean that I had to have all the answers. I subconsciously worked to reinforce that label, needing to show just how smart I was, and how much I deserved the label. All the time. Not a great way to make friends!

The second issue grew out of the first–my need to be right about things, or clever, or knowledgeable, actually killed my curiosity, as I strove to know what I thought others expected me to know. Instead of asking questions, I sought to show that I already knew the answers to them. All the time. Not a great way to actually increase my knowledge.

Not knowing an answer became a source of stress and a self-esteem issue, because I would never be smart enough–would never know all the answers–no matter how hard I tried.

So, before we praise our children for their intelligence, let’s think about encouraging effort and curiosity, and see if we raise happier, more well-integrated kids!

Karen, thanks for this thought-provoking and well-researched article.

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Jolanta

Dear`Karen, Thank you for your excellent articles. I think it is important to focus on the belief that we are capable of any achievements if we really focus and work hard. It is like a message we send to the universe, which comes back to us. However, sometimes the brain is stopped in processing this self encouragement. As a person, who had hypothyroidism, I was stopped from developing my full potential and my thoughts were like a ping pong ball going back and forwards. Once, I fixed my hypothyroid issues, I found the inner strength in me. Our health can affect the plasticity of our brain negatively at times.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes absolutely – the mind and body are so deeply connected aren’t they. Thank you for sharing your story – you make a lot of sense.

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Barbara

Thank You, as always you give me hope. I need it so badly. My body is giving out. My mind goes on.

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Hey Sigmund

Barbara you’re so welcome. Keep your hope. Always keep your hope. And any time you have trouble finding it, come back here and let me help you find it.

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Laura

When I was a kid it was nice to be placed in the smart or gifted track, however, it really worked against me when I had learning difficulties due to dyslexia and other comprehension problems. My parents thought that since I was ‘smart’ I wouldn’t benefit from tutoring since I should be able to figure things out. In college it was clear that my friends who worked harder did as well or better in the long term than friends who were ‘smarter’. The friends who kept working at learning developed skills to keep a Growth Mindset. The rest of us are trying to get by with what we already know. As my memory has diminished due to age, I find that actively trying to understand how to figure things out gives me more confidence. Also, accepting with grace and humor that I don’t know everything certainly helps. Thanks for your article, it further encourages me to want to remember to be in the Growth Mindset path.

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Hey Sigmund

Laura thank you for sharing your story. I’m so pleased the research is starting to confirm what so many people (yourself included) have learned the hard way. And I love that you use grace and humour the way you do – it makes a difference doesn’t it!

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Sharon Hutchinson

Like Barbara’s comment above, my body is crumbling but my mind still functions on a high level (not bragging, just stating a fact). As a child my IQ was clocked at 165. Yet here I am a wreck whose body is disintegrating and the feeling of being a failure in life is very high. High IQ people are more likely to develop increasingly severe bi-polar depression as we age. Part of it stems from our feelings of being apart from other people as we can’t understand them and only feel comfortable when we meet another high IQ person. This translates into feeling like an alien.

The IQ is passed down within my family, as my father was super smart and one of my nieces is also genius level and was exempted from several classes and nationwide tests because of it. But I can recognize the same feelings of alienation and she struggles also with severe depression.

I don’t know what to make of this article. All I know is that I feel like a failure and wish I had done something with my brain. But life seems to have chosen a different path for me. Sorry for the rant but this subject is extremely important to me as my struggles continue on with age. Thank you so much for sharing this information.

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joelle

thank you for an informative article; I have to say that until recently, I was a bit fed up with that “growth mindset” buzz word as it is something that my children’s school has promoted for many years but without explaining it clearly so that it felt a little bit of an empty concept.

I feel for you Sarah Hutchinson…. It is very difficult to be labelled a genius and thus be a mirror for everyone’s expectations, expectations which could be quite different from your own. Paradoxically, although parents tend to think their child is “special”, most children dislike being different; and being validated by adults who admire your academic prowess does not compensate for a lonely childhood. Feel free to laugh in my face but I would advise that you go back to that little girl who was still unaware of her intellectual gifts and start drawing, painting, singing as if you were 4, 5 or 6 year old…. Actively pursue playful activities where you do not use your brain; if she is too far to meet in the flesh, skype your special niece and play online… Multiply the occasions for play and playfulness and set yourself on that growth mindset for childish abandonment and immaturity. I wish you well.

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Sharon Hutchinson

Actually, it didn’t bother me as a child because I was so different from the others anyway. One recess while others were outside playing I used a few blackboards to figure out how scientists arrived at the speed of light. My calculations filled the boards. One nun brought all the other teachers into the room to show what I had done.

But I thank you for your kind words. I sort of messed up my own life 🙁 High IQ children and adults tend not to have too much interest in socializing. What I do hang onto is the childlike sense of wonder about the world and universe that we live in. And I love playing difficult PC video games involving solving crimes and such. So I still try to play.

My niece is already being scouted by a few universities. She isolates herself from all but a few-which includes me-but I totally understand why. She has gotten a lot of flack from adults and doesn’t trust very many. I love that she is a member of a marching band and next semester is going to be a section band leader.

There is a flip side to the coin: children who are told they are stupid over and over again until they get to believe it themselves. I’ve seen that happen. My horrible in-laws call their son who has cerebral palsy “our little retard” in front of others. Unbelievable.

Please don’t feel that I am “bragging”. A high IQ all too often becomes a curse. It also carries with it a 53% more chance of suicidal attempts and completed suicides. If the brain is not constantly “fed” it tends to turn in on itself. Hard to explain how it feels. But as I tell myself “I’m not dead yet!”
Thank you so much for caring.

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Tracy

Hello Sharon, I trust this post finds you well and that you will take this in the spirit of my intention to “help”*.

I suggest the following system for you to use to regain your footing: EBTKS. Never heard of it you say? It is Everything But The Kitchen Sink. And it breaks down like this:

1) find a framework (or a couple) that explains how the mind/personality works (Currently, I like IFS and in your case I also suggest checking out Quantum Techniques for body health). Both of these come with tools.

2) find tools to help with sorting out what aspects of your mind that you would like to keep and what you would like to change (note that who you are now is your identity, so when you are making changes, there might be push back, which is why a framework is required to understand what you are changing beyond a behaviour/thought pattern). I like EFT as a tool. Its framework comes across as more straight ahead goal/outcome based which is why I did not mention it before now.

3) Work at it. Work at it. Work at it. (note that this system is allowed to be easy). Also, you don’t have to do this by yourself.

For one’s purpose in life, that requires a framework that you need to choose or keep many in mind as there are several avenues to explore – happy choosing – it’s your life, you’re mind, you are in charge of you. (yes, I’m blathering) See 3)

Oh, I keep mentioning choosing and that is, generally, the underlying issue in that we are so “programmed” to be who we are, we stop making choices or we stop allowing ourselves to make choices (I know my free will is around here somewhere. [Checks pockets]) That is what needs to be sorted out.

*I understand that “help” is not always helpful or required.

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Sharon Hutchinson

Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. It is well thought out and very much appreciated. I’m a bit confused as it is something I’ve never heard of before and would like to discuss it with my psychologist, who is very open to new (often really ancient) techniques.

I am open to any and all suggestions. The mind has been called “the universe within” and IMO we are just standing on the brink peering inside and taking those tentative steps into its mysteries.

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