In Search of Refinement

A Work In Progress (Carol Dweck)


Image by Brittany.lee2

Blame it on my physics background. When I first arranged to sit down with world- renowned psychologist Carol Dweck, I was pretty skeptical of the prospect of any genuine insights coming out of the experience. After all, I generally make a habit of avoiding the self-help section of a bookstore with a disdainful smirk, and Carol’s 2006 bestselling work, Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential seemed to me as good a poster boy of the pop psychology genre as one might find. Still, I told myself, as the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, she was a highly respected academic with a lifetime’s worth of accomplishment. Of course, I couldn’t help immediately reflexively adding, that was in psychology. Which is all to say that, awards, publications and an endowed chair at Stanford notwithstanding, expectations were still emphatically low.

But then I dug into Mindset and began to feel decidedly uncomfortable. Not only because it was quickly apparent that there was definitely something to Carol’s argument, but, more worrying still, I couldn’t help recognizing myself in some of her illuminating and often not terribly flattering examples.

The essential thesis of Mindset is that there are two fundamental approaches to life and learning that we adopt: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Those in the fixed mindset believe that intelligence and ability is both innate and limited, while those in the growth mindset are convinced that things are much more fluid and open.

At first glance, this seems to be precisely the sort of touchy-feely, quasi-tautological vagueness that leaves me decidedly underwhelmed: success depends on working hard and having a good attitude.

But it turns out to be much deeper than that. If you believe that your capabilities are somehow pre-ordained, you will often deliberately shirk challenges for fear of failing to live up to your allocated spot on the social hierarchy. After all, if you’re already regarded as “the top math student in your class”, say, what do you have to gain by tackling a difficult problem that one of your classmates might crack first? Nothing at all. In a fixed-mindset world, the only direction you have to go is down.

For those in a growth-mindset, however, things are radically different, springing from a clear understanding that the act of grappling with a tough problem is a vital ingredient for further development.

“Those in a growth mindset believe their basic abilities can be developed through hard work, good strategies, and help and mentoring from others. They don’t think everyone’s the same, or that anyone can be Einstein, but they understand that people don’t become the people that they become without effort – just as Einstein didn’t become Einstein until he worked at it. So people with a growth mindset are more likely to take on hard challenges and stick to them, because that’s how you learn and grow.”

One particularly intriguing implication of Carol’s research focused on the role of praise in childhood development as she began to appreciate that some types of praise could actually be counter-productive.

“I had been doing the mindset work and we were hearing all these self-esteem gurus tell parents, ‘Praise your children lavishly and frequently. Tell them how smart they are. Tell them how talented they are.’

“And my students and I thought, Well, wait a minute, those kids with a fixed mindset, those vulnerable kids, are obsessed with how smart they are and always measuring it. Wouldn’t praising intelligence communicate to kids that, first of all, I can look inside you and see this fixed thing; and, secondly, that’s what I care about, that’s what’s important to me; and therefore, thirdly, you better be smart all the time. It seemed to us that praising intelligence could communicate a fixed mindset with all of its vulnerabilities.”

And so it proved to be. Carol and her colleagues conducted a number of rigorous experiments with teachers and students to distinguish the effects of praising intelligence (telling students “how smart they were”) and so-called “process praise” (praising them for the effort they made in engaging with the problem).

“We saw, over and over and over again, that the kids praised for intelligence developed, in that situation, more of a fixed mindset. They didn’t want a hard task. When we gave them a hard task, they lost their confidence, their performance plummeted, and they lied about it later. Because, in that mindset, where intelligence is revered as the be all and end all, they couldn’t come to terms with doing poorly, even on something that was new, unfamiliar, and difficult.

“But when we praised the process, the effort, or the strategy, they adopted more of a growth mindset about those skills. Most of them, and in some cases over 90% of the kids in a given study, wanted the hard task that they could learn from even if they made mistakes. When we later gave them a hard task, they stayed confident and resilient and their performance kept improving and improving.”

Despite its importance for learning and personal development, Carol still required a bit of convincing to turn her academic work into a popular book, which she only did after repeated entreaties by friends and students. And once engaged, she took the unusually candid step of admitting that notwithstanding all her academic success, she, too, was once beset with a fixed mindset.

Meanwhile, scientifically-speaking, the story gets increasingly interesting, with a plethora of avenues to explore at the cross-over frontier of neuroscience and traditional psychology. Carol likes to talk about how a growth mindset can “grow your brain,” which I had naturally first concluded was simply an eye-catching metaphor. But it turns out that it could well be a much more literal assessment of what is actually going on.

“I’m really excited about the explosion of research speaking to the plasticity of the brain. For example, there was a recent study looking at teenagers, following them across four years, which showed that there were large changes in IQ for some of the kids that were paralleled by changes in the density of neurons, nerve-endings, in the relevant parts of the brain.

“The idea is that, if you use it, you’ll grow it: your connections will be strengthened and the density will be increased. It is very exciting. It puts kids in charge of their brains and it tells them that what they are doing now makes a difference for them. It’s not saying everyone is the same, or anyone can be anyone or anything, but it’s saying that you can really grow your brain through hard work, good instruction, and so forth. I’m also very excited by work in cognitive science that is identifying the components of intelligence, of “executive function,” and figuring out how to teach it.

“Intelligence has always been this mysterious thing that some people seem to have and some don’t, but now there’s a growing recognition that it’s a set of skills, many of which can be taught or enhanced, which is really exciting.”

All told, then, a far cry from what I had imagined “pop psychology” might be. But, of course, I’m much more broadminded now.


For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos with Carol Dweck, click here. The IR eBook Mindsets containing the unabridged Ideas Roadshow conversation with Carol and a range of additional resources will be available on Amazon later this week, while the podcast of our one-hour video with Carol is now freely available on iTunes.

University staff and students may already have full access to all Ideas Roadshow resources on our Academic Portal through an institutional subscription (subscribers include Harvard, Princeton, Imperial College, University of Michigan, and many more), while select high school teachers and members of the general public have access to our School and Public Library Portals.  For more information please contact

Redefining Ourselves (Quentin Skinner)


Sometimes it’s good to take a little distance.

As we begin the week that formally ushers in an era in American politics that few saw coming and many regard as little short of catastrophic, we turn to the eminent intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, Barber Beaumont Professor of Humanities at Queen Mary University of London for some much-needed perspective.

Not, as it happens, to try to understand how we got here, for Quentin will be the first to tell you that he is not that sort of historian.

“I’m very interested in the history of moral and political philosophy, but I’m not interested in the history because it’s what we talk about now.

“I believe that the sensibility of the historian is to try to study the past on its own terms, insofar as we can manage.  If we do that, then what we find is that in our modern culture there are many paths not taken.

“We tend to write history as the history of the winners. We write the history of wars as the history of the winners, but we also write the history of our culture as the history of the winners. But did the winners always deserve to win?” (more…)

Gesturing Towards Diversity (Carol Padden)

Gesture Symbol Finger Characters Hand Sculpture

Last week’s post, Reasons for Optimism, highlighted the work of famed primatologist Frans de Waal and our ever-growing, albeit gradual, acknowledgement of the deep similarities between humans and other animals across a wide range of domains, from the intellectual to the ethical.

Language, however, seems to be different. While it’s clear that other animals have developed numerous ways to effectively communicate with each other, it’s equally clear that the gulf between animal and human communication is overwhelmingly vast. In other words, however much we narrow the gap between humans and our fellow creatures, to speak of a chimpanzee or dolphin Shakespeare seems to stretch credulity to the point of absurdity. Little wonder, then, that throughout the ages many have regarded language as the single most defining characteristic of being human.

But what, you might ask, is language anyway? This might seem an obvious question, but a few moments of reflection demonstrate that it’s hardly so simple. While most languages exist in written form, not all do (or did). And while language obviously allows us to communicate basic information to each other (The food is over there), by limiting any definition to such a rudimentary level we are running a serious risk of blurring the very distinction that gives language its unique evocative power. (more…)

Reasons For Optimism (Frans de Waal)


Young Chimps by Tambako The Jaguar

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about our fellow humans these days, but starting a new year is as good a reason as any to embrace a little bit of optimism.

An obvious way to proceed is by appreciating the progress recently made that, due to its gradual pace, has been largely imperceptible. A noted example involves Frans de Waal, the noted primatologist and writer.

Frans has been urging us to focus our attention on the animal kingdom for years now, through such books as Chimpanzee Politics, The Age of Empathy, The Bonobo and the Atheist and, most recently, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?

These books, I must confess, hardly produce unequivocally positive sentiments, filled as they are with untold examples of our collective sense of grandiosity and hubris as we continue to dogmatically maintain our own superiority – emotionally, intellectually and ethically – to the other nonhuman life that surrounds us, often in the face of much concrete evidence to the contrary. (more…)

What Memories Are Made Of (Elizabeth Loftus)


Elizabeth Loftus in conversation with Howard Burton

The holiday season, for better or worse, is a time of year richly associated with memories: sometimes good, sometimes bad, but nearly always formative.  Or so we all believe.

We usher in the new year with Auld Lang Syne, the Robert Burns poem that begins Should old (auld) acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind and continues for a further five verses or so that most of us have, rather ironically, either resoundingly forgotten or never bothered to learn.

In short, memory is the vital human ingredient for reflection, taking stock, and – hopefully – making progress.

But what if memory itself is far more tenuous, very far from the reliably objective record of the past that we all believe? What if, instead, they are foggy, unreliable accounts that can be fairly easily manipulated? (more…)

Telling It Like It Is (Paul Steinhardt)


Paul Steinhardt in conversation with Howard Burton

One of the greatest challenges for teachers of science and mathematics, it is often declared, is finding ways of attracting young people to their vitally important subjects.

All too often this results in skeptical students being bombarded with an uninspiring mix of obvious propaganda (Science is fun!), appeals to self-interest (Mathematics is the key to unlocking doors to a successful career!), and a bit of social guilt thrown in for good measure (A background in science is essential for grappling with the next generation of societal issues!).

Unsurprisingly, such tactics don’t tend to work very well. The very nature of fun is that it is inherently self-evident: trying to convince people that something is fun is very much like trying to convince them that their healthy vegetables are also great-tasting. (more…)

The Relevance of Human Wrongs (Emilie Hafner-Burton)


Emilie Hafner-Burton in conversation wit Howard Burton

There’s a growing tendency these days for academics to justify the relevance of their work. To my mind, that’s certainly not without its dangers, often leading otherwise boldly idealistic researchers to publicly shy away from their true motivations as they desperately try to demonstrate how current interpretations of Renaissance humanism, say, can positively affect our GDP.

I’ve done my share of this sort of silliness myself. Years ago, when running a physics institute and lobbying hard for government funding, I’d frequently cite how Einstein’s general theory of relativity – once considered impossible to even conceive of applying to everyday human life – was now actively used in GPS devices. This is the sort of story that academic administrators and government officials love: a tangible “you never know” example of how supporting basic research might one day help give us a better widget. There is something pretty loathsome about the whole business, I must admit: “justifying” general relativity through GPS technology is pretty much like “vindicating” the collected works of Shakespeare by its effectiveness as a paperweight. After all, if revolutionizing our understanding of space and time only counts if it can be used to assist us in finding the right highway exit, that’s pretty good evidence that we’ve well and truly lost the plot on what the human enterprise should be all about.

But there are many areas of scholarship when the “relevance” shoe is very much on the other foot, when burying oneself in detached theoretical frameworks turns out to be just as counterproductive as groping for vacuous “applied rationalizations.”

Take human rights research. It’s pretty hard to imagine studying human rights without tangibly grappling with the horrors of what’s actually happening on the ground, and why. And yet, to a very real extent, that seems to be what many human rights experts actually do. (more…)

Neurorelevance (Nita Farahany)


Nita Farahany in conversation with Howard Burton

When someone starts talking about free will, I normally look searchingly for the exits.

I’ve read enough to know that philosophers, as they are wont to do, have created all sorts of categories over the years to describe different intellectual positions: compatibilists and incompatibilists, soft determinists and hard determinists, radical libertarians and modest libertarians. But I can’t shake the feeling that all of these categorizations, and many more besides, often end up obscuring the issues much more than clarifying them. Frankly, the only philosopher who makes any sense to me on this issue is John Searle, who has a refreshing ability to pare away all the silly jargon and simply get right to the heart of the matter.

Which is this: every serious scientist these days believes that the world around us is made of material stuff – atoms and molecules. This naturally applies not only to tables and chairs, but to ourselves too – and, equally obviously, not just to our legs and fingernails, but to our brains as well.

This is hardly a very surprising insight, given how our brains respond to LSD, alcohol or even headache medication. Moreover, since our brains seem to be located very much in the natural world, it’s pretty hard to imagine how they could somehow consist of non-material stuff at all.


Situation Rooms (Philip Zimbardo)

When I sat down with famed psychologist Philip Zimbardo, I had a pretty good sense of the main topics we’d be focusing on during our discussion: his notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, a detailed explanation of how situational factors affect our behavior, and his present work on the Heroic Imagination Project and how we might be able to “prime” people for acts of heroism.


Philip Zimbardo in conversation with Howard Burton

What I certainly hadn’t expected was to spend more than an hour talking to Phil about his childhood, starting with being diagnosed with whooping cough at the age of 5 and his long quarantine in Manhattan’s Willard Parker Hospital with other children suffering from contagious diseases in a pre-antibiotic era.

As he watched many of his childhood comrades die around him, Phil developed various survival tactics: praying to both God and the Devil to live to fight another day while routinely ingratiating himself with the surrounding nurses to procure at least some small measure of preferential treatment.

But perhaps the most significant thing the young Phil learned from his hospital experience was the value of being a leader by inventing games and stories for the other boys in the ward. At first, this was simply a way to relieve the omnipresent boredom. But slowly, other benefits began to impress themselves upon him.

Essentially, from age five on, I began to take a leadership role, not because I wanted to be a leader, but because I was bored out of my mind and I wanted something to do. (more…)

Information Loss (Roger Penrose)


Roger Penrose in conversation with Howard Burton

You might think that a blog post about Roger Penrose that’s called “Information Loss” would necessarily involve black holes, entropy, and Hawking radiation, perhaps also touching on bets over encyclopedias and all that.

Not this time. Instead, I’d like to talk about a more everyday sort of information problem: how best to communicate science. I’ve been puzzling about this issue for as long as I can remember: first as a keen undergraduate anxious to share the sorts of things I was learning, and later as a physics graduate student trying to describe the essentials of my tiny corner of understanding to anyone who might listen. I always had a lingering sense of frustration that, somehow, I was unable to coherently capture the fundamental aspects of what attracted me, and what frustrated me, about physics. But I thought it was just me.

Years later, when I found myself running Perimeter Institute, I tried again: taking advantage of our robust scientific visitor program to put together a series of monthly public lectures of internationally renowned physicists. (more…)

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