Applied Psychology OPUS

Children's Implicit Theories of Intelligence: Attributions, Goals, and Reactions to Challenges

Jazmine Russell

As children develop, they begin to form beliefs about the way intelligence may function in themselves and others. Children’s beliefs about intelligence may include assumptions about what it means to be smart, whether intelligence is based on effort or innate ability, and whether intelligence is something that changes with what you learn or stays relatively the same (Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006). Social-cognitive researchers have begun to examine these implicit theories about intelligence in an attempt to understand what motivates children to achieve academically (Molden & Dweck, 2006). Researchers focus on two primary implicit theories of intelligence in both children and adults, categorizing people into two groups based on their beliefs about how malleable intelligence is. People with entity mindsets believe intelligence is a fixed and static trait, indicative of one’s ability, while people with incremental mindsets believe that intelligence is malleable, dynamic, and can be changed with effort (Dweck, Chiu, & Hong; 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999).

When students ascribe to one of these two implicit theories, it can shape their interpretations of and responses to academic situations in unique ways, particularly in the face of challenges (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006). These differing mindsets influence what students attribute their academic failures to, how positively they perceive effort, the types of goals they set for themselves, their reactions to challenges and failure, and their overall academic achievement (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Dweck et al., 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Hong et al., 1999; Molden & Dweck, 2006). Understanding how motivational processes such as attribution, goals, and behaviors in the face of challenges may differ between those with entity and incremental mindsets are important for understanding the role of intelligence beliefs in academic achievement.

Attribution: Ability or Effort
 
One primary distinction between students with entity and incremental mindsets is that they attribute different reasons to poor performance in school, giving more weight to either effort or ability (Dweck et al., 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). Typically, students with entity mindsets believe abilities and achievement are uncontrollable, since they believe intelligence is fixed. Therefore, the student with a fixed view of intelligence usually only feels in control when they perceive themselves to have a high ability level, and attribute failure to low ability level (Hong et al., 1999). Moreover, if a student with an entity mindset is not performing well academically, they also tend to believe that any effort they put in will not make much of a difference in their achievement. (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). On the other hand, students with an incremental or more malleable view of intelligence may also attribute academic success to ability level, but focus far more on effort as an integral aspect of achievement (Dweck et al., 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). While students with entity mindsets understand academic outcomes as a result of fixed ability level and traits, those with incremental mindsets understand outcomes as a result of more malleable and contextual factors such as goals, desires, and effort (Dweck et al.,1995; Molden & Dweck, 2006).
Secondly, students with a fixed view of intelligence hold different beliefs about the relationship between effort and ability than those with the belief that intelligence is malleable (Hong et al., 1999; Molden & Dweck, 2006). For example, at a high academic achievement level, students with both mindsets may attribute their achievement to ability (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). However, when asked further, a student with an incremental mindset would typically say their performance is merely representative of their current skill set, while a student with an entity mindset would state that their performance is due to a stable quality within them (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). At a low achievement level, studies show students with an incremental mindset are more likely to take the steps needed to improve, believing that effort is necessary to improving ability. Students with an entity mindset, on the other hand, tend to believe that if a person needs to put in effort, it means he or she does not have the ability, and if they have the ability then he or she would not need to put in effort (Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). Because these mindsets can shape the way students think about effort and ability, they can be very influential in either helping students become motivated to improve with effortful learning or give them reason not to try (Molden & Dweck, 2006).  

Achievement Goals: Performance or Learning

    While students’ implicit theories on the fixed or flexible nature of intelligence may have an impact on the attribution of academic performance and the meaning of effort for the individual, both implicit theories and perceptions of effort are also correlated to the types of goals that students set for themselves (Dweck et al., 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). Students with entity mindsets emphasize ability over effort and therefore, tend to be more concerned with measuring and demonstrating their abilities through given tasks ability (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006; Hong et al., 1999). These students adopt performance goals meaning they would rather prove their ability level through their performance at a task, for example, a math test, than take the test to practice their skills or improve their ability (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Hong et al., 1999; Molden & Dweck, 2006).  Students with incremental mindsets, however, are usually more interested in process and improving their own abilities through effort and persistence at challenging tasks such as a math test, therefore adopting learning goals (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). The way that students think about intelligence can affect the way they perceive their own ability level and therefore, it influences how motivated they are to persist at a task and learn (Dweck et al., 1995; Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006).


The beliefs that shape learning and performance goals influence the meaning of the task for students (Hong et al., 1999; Molden & Dweck, 2006). For example, a task such as a math test may be viewed by students with entity mindsets as negative or as something in which others will judge their competency. For students with incremental mindsets, however, the test may be viewed as something positive, which will potentially improve their skills (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). These goals become more salient when students perceive themselves as having a low ability level in the particular task (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). For example, if a student typically receives poor scores in math, it is likely the student will either want to improve upon their math skills, if he or she holds an incremental mindset, or want to prove their ability, if he or she has an entity mindset (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). While neither type of goal is necessarily maladaptive, having the desire to prove ability can become problematic when they lead students to avoid challenges and show maladaptive behavior in the face of setbacks (Dweck et al., 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). Because students’ beliefs about intelligence can shape the kinds of goals they set for themselves, either to learn or to prove their competency, they can also affect how students handle difficult academic tasks (Dweck et al., 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006).

Reactions to Challenges: Helpless or Mastery Oriented

Researchers believe that achievement goals influence how much or how little students persist at a task and predicts their subsequent reactions to failure (Dweck et al., 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Heyman & Dweck, 1998). In the presence of challenging academic tasks, researchers categorize behavior into two different types: maladaptive helpless behavior in which the student gives up easily and avoids challenging tasks, and adaptive mastery-oriented behavior in which the student persists at a task until their skills become more developed (Dweck et al., 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Hong et al., 1999). Although students may begin tasks with similar strategies, or at similar interest and achievement levels, their reactions to failure or setbacks may be drastically different, and over time affect future academic performance in either positive or negative ways (Dweck & Leggett, 1998).


Because students with entity mindsets tend to be more ability focused and concerned with judgment, perceived failure also holds a greater significance to them (Dweck et al., 1995; Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006). For example, if a student with a fixed view of intelligence receives a low grade on a math test, it may indicate to them that they are simply bad at math and lack the skills to do well (Dweck et al., 1995; Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006). Therefore, students with this mindset are more likely to display helpless behavior, which Dweck and Leggett (1998) describe in three ways. First, in the face of a challenge or failure, students who ascribe to an entity mindset produce negative self-criticism and attribute the failure to their low ability level, perhaps stating that they are just bad at math and cannot do any better (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Heyman & Dweck, 1998). The students may then display negative affect such as boredom or anxiety, turning away from the math test, and may even create a diversion or talk about their talents in different domains, such as reading or art, presumably to bolster their self-image (Dweck & Leggett, 1998). Lastly, if disengagement persists, researchers typically see a decline in ability level, reaching levels even lower than what was shown mere minutes before at the same task (Dweck & Leggett, 1998). Therefore, students with entity mindsets can be so concerned with judgment and their presumed lack of ability, that they may miss out on important learning opportunities by avoiding the very tasks and challenges that could help them improve (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006).


In contrast, students who believe that intelligence is malleable have mastery-oriented goals and care more about improving their skills than proving ability (Dweck et al.,1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998). For students with incremental mindsets, challenges aren’t necessarily seen as failure, or as indicative of a fixed ability level (Dweck et al.,1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998). These students tend to believe that a bad score on a math test does not necessarily mean they are bad at math, but rather that it indicates they do not have the skills quite yet, though they can improve over time (Dweck et al., 1995). These students also display self-regulatory techniques as they strategize, self-monitor, and are more motivated to persist (Dweck & Leggett, 1998). They retain their optimism throughout the task and therefore, relish the opportunity to be challenged (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006). Overall, their ability level either stayed the same or improved after the challenging task since they persisted more than students with a fixed view of intelligence (Dweck & Leggett, 1998). When studying the correlation between implicit theories of intelligence and reactions to challenges, researchers see that students with entity mindsets are both more vulnerable to helpless behavior and are less equipped to cope with negative self-judgment, while students with incremental mindsets thrive more often in the face of challenges, revealing more problem-solving and self-regulatory behaviors (Dweck et al., 1995; Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006).

Conclusion

In order to further help students improve and succeed, it is important to understand how lay beliefs about intelligence may impact their achievement. Once the implicit beliefs behind motivational processes and behaviors are revealed, researchers and educators can take the necessary steps to help students build more adaptive mindsets that are conducive to learning (Blackwell et al., 2007; Molden & Dweck, 2006).  Many researchers have begun to experimentally induce or alter implicit theories in students, even implementing interventions based on implicit theory research (Blackwell et al., 2007; Dweck et al., 1995; Hong et al., 1999). These studies have shown that implicit theories may be preconditioned but are also changeable, and therefore, interventions can be used to increase more adaptive incremental beliefs in students (Blackwell et al., 2007; Dweck et al., 1995; Hong et al., 1999). Evidence from several experimental studies show that reading or learning about the flexibility of intelligence (i.e., endorsing an incremental theory of intelligence) can help students adopt learning goals, adaptive learning behavior, a positive view of effort, and become more inclined to take necessary steps needed to improve performance (Blackwell et al., 2007; Dweck et al., 1995; Hong et al., 1999). These interventions helped even the students who previously held entity or fixed views of intelligence in raising achievement scores and motivation (Blackwell et al., 2007; Dweck et al., 1995).


Despite the success of interventions, some researchers believe the implicit theory model lacks complexity and is seemingly one-dimensional and dualistic (Harackiewicz & Elliot, 1995; Graham, 1995). Implicit theories of intelligence only take into account the malleability of intelligence, and categorize individuals as believing it to be either fixed or flexible. Some researchers wonder what other factors may be related to beliefs about the flexibility of intelligence; if, for example, beliefs about whether or not intelligence is stable across time, hereditary, or influenced by environmental factors may be related to why one believes intelligence is changeable or not (Graham, 1995; Gelman, Heyman, & Legare, 2007; Gottfried, Gelman, &

Schulz, 1999; Haslam, Bastian, Bain & Kashmina, 2006; Haslam, Bastian & Bissett, 2004). Researchers understand psychological and biological beliefs about traits to change over time with new experiences and information learned in school and at home (Heyman & Dweck, 1998). These changing beliefs have broad implications for students’ implicit theories of intelligence, and future research should focus on understanding how many different contextual beliefs and factors may contribute to implicit theories of intelligence, in order to more comprehensively understand how people make inferences about intelligence and how these inferences interact to produce motivational and academic outcomes (Gelman et al., 2007; Haslam et al, 2006; Haslam et al., 2004; Heyman & Dweck, 1998).

However, implicit theory research does provide an initial, clear framework for understanding how students’ beliefs about intelligence can affect their attribution, goals, and reactions to challenges (Dweck & Leggett, 1998; Molden & Dweck). Students’ perceptions about their intelligence, their ability levels, and challenging academic tasks, all shape their motivation to learn and their academic success (Molden & Dweck, 2006). Therefore, to help students become motivated to learn and persist in the face of challenges, these implicit theories and assumptions must be understood as integral to development and achievement (Heyman & Dweck, 1998; Molden & Dweck, 2006).

References

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