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2012 February 16

Carol Dweck’s Mindset

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:28
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Last week I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, and I was not impressed.  I had previously read some of her shorter articles, and was hoping for more detail, but the book does not deliver.  Like many pop psych books, it takes a simple idea that can be adequately explained in 5 pages and tries to fill 239 pages with it. Most of the book is anecdotes about famous people (businessmen and athletes, for the most part) classifying them in a simple binary system: growth mindset or fixed mindset.  Occasionally there is some justification given for the classification, but more often it is just a bald statement, followed by a “growth-mindset-good” or “fixed-mindset-bad” outcome.  About the only anecdotes that have any feeling of depth to them are the ones about herself.

The binary distinction she makes is between a “fixed mindset”—a belief that one’s abilities and disabilities are innate, and a “growth mindset”—a belief that one can improve almost any aspect of oneself.  I know very few people who fall neatly into one or the the other of those categories.  Most people believe that they can improve easily at some things and only with difficulty at others.  Depending what things you ask about and how hard you force a binary choice, you can get very different classifications for the same person.  Her observation (backed up by some decent studies) is that people who approach a learning task with a fixed mindset for that task do not do as well as those who approach the same task with a growth mindset.  The main advice that comes out of this observation is to praise process and effortful achievement, rather than innate ability or effortless achievement.  This is a fairly obvious, common-sense thing to do (I’d been practicing it for years before reading Dweck), but it is nice to see the education community finally backing away from the rather stupid position of praising everyone all the time in order to “build their self-esteem”.  Self-esteem is only good if it reflects reality, which means that it must come from achievement, not empty praise.

If you want to know what is in the book, without wading through the 239 pages, read the Wikipedia article on it, as there isn’t much more content to the book than is in the one-page article.

I was hoping that Chapter 8: “Changing Mindsets: a Workshop” would finally give some useful advice, but it turned out to be just an advertisement for the author’s Brainology™ product with almost no useful information at all!  It is really very clever marketing, to get people to pay $17 for an advertisement!

So, if you want to know about Dweck’s work and its implications beyond the one-page summaries in Wikipedia, newspaper articles (like this one in the NY Times), or TV shows (like this piece in Good Morning America) (all of which are better written than her book), you should read her research papers on her website. They are meatier than the book, and you can get both the evidence and the conclusions in a fraction of the time that it would take to read the book.  Try starting with one of these, for example:

Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance.pdf

Person vs process praise and criticism – Implications for Contingent Self Worth and Coping.pdf

I’ve not been able to find out what is in the Brainology™ product—the website is full of testimonials and the results of studies that (naturally) conclude that the product is great, but almost nothing about what is actually taught.  At $79 for a student, it is a very pricey product for

Given the contentless nature of the website and the book chapter about it, I’m certainly not planning to waste any of my money on Brainology™.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly that the Dweck book was a disappointment. For me, the idea was potentially interesting, and accessible to psychological research. The book, though, was the worst kind of pop psychology where the ideas depend heavily on classification schemes that are never defined, making the entire argument circular. After reading the NY times articles, I was hoping for a book with some citations and data. Instead, we got the same repetition (of the study, which I’ve not found reported anywhere, that testing was impacted by the advice/praise given to children). The book had no more information than the articles.

    Brainology is similarly simply awful. I was able to get a glimpse of the program by signing up for the demo (I don’t know if they’re still offering demos) and it was a mind-numbingly slow video game, ostensibly based on the theories, but I cannot imagine it to be successful. And, now that it’s being marketed in the wild west zone of educational therapy/improvement, it will never be studied.

    For a similar theory that has a bit more research (and less marketing), check out the Duckworth Grit scale. Angela Duckworth makes the questionnaire available (it’s not behind a marketing wall) and there’s at least one research paper that correlates the duckworth scale to success (using data from West Point, and success measurements for what West Point needs).

    Comment by zb — 2012 February 17 @ 06:19 | Reply

  2. I think that it can only do good to praise children’s efforts. However, I accept that the dichotomy between fixed and growth mindset is a bit simplistic.

    Comment by psychologymum — 2012 February 17 @ 06:19 | Reply

    • It depends whether you’re actually praising their effort, or what you mistake for their effort. I can remember my teachers gushing, “Oh, you must have worked so hard on this,” for assignments that I’d actually dashed off, and it did me harm if anything. It sure as heck didn’t make me want to work harder.

      Comment by Irene — 2012 February 19 @ 13:39 | Reply

      • Agreed. I’ve heard teacher’s praising non-existent or trivial effort and that praise is certainly counter-productive. The includes things like praising my son for his recreational reading (a mistake I’ve noted in more than one teacher) while not praising him for the enormous effort it took him to struggle through the boredom of a drill exercise or getting past his writers’ block on a writing assignment.

        Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 February 19 @ 14:02 | Reply

      • I can see how praising work that did not take much effort is not a good thing. Hopefully, I can try and distinguish between real hard work and achievement.

        Comment by psychologymum — 2012 February 20 @ 04:07 | Reply

        • I don’t think that recognizing achievement is necessarily all bad. In fact, I think that it should be celebrated, whether the achievement was easy or hard. But I can see that praising attributes rather than achievements is a bad idea, and that praising easy wins is also counter-productive. The strongest positive responses should be reserved for achievements obtained through hard work.

          Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 February 20 @ 11:40 | Reply

  3. I too have read her articles and the book, and found the articles useful and the book a waste of time. Your critique is helpful in its details. Thank you.

    Comment by Sue VanHattum — 2012 February 17 @ 06:56 | Reply

  4. Agreed — Mindset is a self-help book. I haven’t read her Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development, but a quick skim of its table of contents and first chapter looked much closer to what I was seeking.

    Comment by Mylène — 2012 February 17 @ 11:46 | Reply

    • Mindset is not a self-help book, as it gives essentially no useful advice about how to change your mindset—just that you should have a growth mindset. (I fixed your link to the table of contents.)

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 February 17 @ 17:16 | Reply

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  7. A pity that Dweck’s research has been reduced to a commercial venture (but can we blame her?). As stated above, the research is worth reading and her earlier collection, ‘Self Theories’ (2000) does a better job of expanding on it.

    Comment by K Birch — 2013 March 13 @ 17:48 | Reply

  8. My entire school system is reading it, and everyone in town is being encouraged also. I have some issues with the book as well and have been digging to find someone who does not ooze love for it. Found this old post buried way down in google–yes, I had to go past the second page of results to find it. I hope it is not used to control the kids, so that they won’t quit when we are forcing them to do what we want them to do, and when they are being forced to learn what we want them to learn.

    Comment by pbogushpaul bogush — 2013 March 20 @ 06:11 | Reply

    • Paul, that’s a different concern than the others expressed here. It may be worth a blog post.

      Comment by suevanhattum — 2013 March 20 @ 09:27 | Reply

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