Do you categorize the people in your life as either intelligent or not intelligent? Or do you believe people can become smarter with time? Do you label people “socially awkward” under the assumption that they will always come across that way? Or do you believe that wallflowers can become social butterflies with enough time and effort?
Carol Dweck describes the belief that intelligence and social skills are fixed, unchanging qualities as the “entity” theory of these traits. Conversely, people who believe that intelligence and social skills can be developed have an incremental theory of these qualities — or a “growth” mindset. You probably know people in both camps, but which theory is right? In his book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard Davidson uses neurobiological research to demonstrate that people can not only change their more malleable personality traits, like their levels of open-mindedness and extraversion, but also, can alter their more entrenched emotional styles, like their outlook, which ranges from positive to negative, and their sensitivity to context. Davidson illustrates how they can do this with activities empirically shown to transform neural pathways. This is strong evidence for those who endorse a growth mindset.
Although Davidson’s research is both fascinating and eye-opening, the question that is, perhaps, more meaningful than “Which mindset is more accurate?” is “Which mindset allows us to more fully actualize our potential as human beings?” Once again, research heavily favors a growth mindset.
Mindset researcher Carol Dweck found that teaching youth that humans, including bullies, can change predicted higher positivity and less stress after social exclusion. After these young people received lessons on the plasticity of the brain and its implication for personality traits, they viewed social adversity as an opportunity for personal growth, rather than a sign that they were permanently unlikeable or awkward. Dweck’s research on intelligence tells a similar story. In one study, the GPAs of 9th graders at an under-resourced school improved approximately a quarter of a grade point after they were taught that intelligence can grow with time. In a later experiment, community college students who received a lesson on the adult brain’s capacity for intellectual improvement were half as likely to drop out of a remedial math course than their peers in the control group. In both intelligence studies, students who learned the growth mindset viewed academic challenges as learning experiences, whereas students in the control condition were more likely to believe that struggling signified academic incompetence.
My own life is a testament to this research. I was a shy child. When I was five years old, I would retreat to the shadow behind my mother’s legs immediately upon hearing a knock at the door. My shyness followed me to elementary and middle school. I almost never raised my hand in class. I made new friends only when my teachers or parents facilitated my social interaction. During those years, I made very little effort to “come out of my shell.” I viewed my shyness as a fixed part of my personality. I thought being shy was an inextricable part of my biological fiber and resigned myself to miss out on the social benefits that my more outgoing peers so often enjoyed.
Then, a series of events challenged my view of my shyness as a permanent trait. Although multiple factors contributed to the shift in my mindset, the pivotal moment was learning about the past of my exuberant Aunt Debby. One day, when I was about 16, while my mother was telling me stories about her childhood, she mentioned how introverted her sister, my Aunt Debby, had been as a teenager. I started laughing. I thought my mother was joking: my Aunt Debby was quite possibly the most outgoing individual I knew. She coordinated all of our family’s holiday gatherings, had no qualms about striking up conversations with complete strangers at restaurants and parks, and was the life of every party she attended. My mom laughed at my naivete and explained that people change all the time. She cited several other astounding transformations, including a former bully who had grown into kind and loving friend and a near-high-school dropout who had become a highly intelligent business all-star. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this moment forever changed my conceptualization of personality traits as fixed.
Two years later, a few friends and I were sitting on the floor of my tiny college dorm room. Fueled by our freshman-year angst, we were talking about who we were and how we fit into our social worlds. When, in explaining her sporadic attendance at parties, my friend Sarah admitted that she was shy, I responded in kind, saying, “Yeah I have always been really shy too.” Everyone in the room laughed. When I looked at them questioningly, Sarah said, “Are you kidding? You are one the most outgoing people I know.” Everyone else nodded in assent.
All at once, it hit me. I wasn’t shy anymore. Or, at least, I didn’t come off as shy. I still occasionally experienced anxiety before entering parties unaccompanied or before going on job interviews, but, for the most part, I looked forward to social engagements rather than dreading them or avoiding them. I spoke up in class, I initiated friendships, and I ventured out at least four nights per week. Knowing I could change had allowed me to overcome my formerly paralyzing fear of rejection and take social risks.
Had I continued to believe my shyness was fixed, I would have most likely stayed extremely shy for the rest of my adult years. I would have avoided meeting new people, I would have shied away from participating in my college courses, and I would have cowered at the prospect of studying abroad and living with a host family in Costa Rica. I wouldn’t have moved to Houston, where I knew almost no one, for my first full-time job and wouldn’t have stayed there when I felt lonely or faced challenges at work. In other words, had I maintained my fixed theory of human traits, I would have missed out on some of the most rewarding and meaningful experiences of my life.
Put simply, knowing that you can change enables you to actually change. Realizing that humans, including the bullies of your life, can transform empowers you to respond to life’s challenges with resilience and face the future with ever-increasing amounts of social and intellectual strength. Free yourself to grow by realizing that you are, and always can be, a work in progress. You can contact us to make a counseling appointment or read about personal growth counseling if you feel that you need help with intellectual and social growth. If you liked this post, you may also be interested in Positive Thinking is Power.
Brought to you by Just Mind, counselors in Austin who are working to provide their clients with the best care possible.
Sources: The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard Davidson
David Scott Yeager & Carol S. Dweck (2012): Mindsets That Promote Resilience: When Students
Believe That Personal Characteristics Can Be Developed, Educational Psychologist, 47:4, 302-314