T4W: Talent Myth

I came across an interesting book called ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Sayed. The research reported suggests that we need to be extremely careful how we interact with students – we must praise effort rather than talent.

The ‘talent myth’ claims that it is your innate ability rather than practice that determines your success in life. The danger of this view is that it can rob people of the incentive to improve through effort – “there’s not much point trying to improve if success depends on having the right genes”!

In 1978 Carol Dweck did some research on this. She gave 300 twelve year old a questionnaire to find out their beliefs about intelligence.

Those who believed that intelligence was inherited were described as having a ‘fixed mindset’. Those who believed that intelligence can be changed through effort were said to have a ‘growth mindset’.

Both groups were given eight easy problems and then four hard ones. The results of the two groups were very different.

The Fixed Mindset Group had no issue with the easy problems but gave up quickly once they got to the difficult questions and started to blame their intelligence for their failure…. ‘I guess I am not very smart’. ‘I’m not good at things like this’. Their strategies became ineffective and deteriorated.

The Growth Mindset Group in contrast did not blame anything nor did they focus on reasons for failure because they didn’t consider themselves to be failing. When faced with the difficult problems, most of them learned new strategies to deal with the difficult problems.

In a follow up study, Dweck told the students that she was doing the same experiment at another school and that the children there would like to hear from students who had already taken the test.

She gave the students a sheet on which they could record their thoughts along with a space where they could record the number of problems they got right.

When Dweck looked at the children ‘praised for their efforts’ she found that almost all of them told the truth about their performance. Only one child in the group had doctored their score. But in the group ‘praised for their intelligence’, forty percent had lied about their scores.’ Dweck commented that, clearly doing well was so important to them that they felt compelled to distort their performance in order to impress unknown peers.’

A further experiment by Dweck confirms the importance of praising effort rather than talent.

In 1998 Carol Dweck gave 400 eleven year olds a series of simple puzzles. She gave each student their score plus six words of praise.

Half the students were praised for their intelligence: ‘you must be very intelligent you did so well at this!’ The other half were praised for effort: ‘You must have worked really hard to do this well’. Dweck wanted to see whether these simple words, with their subtle differences, would make affect the mindset of students. When they finished the puzzles the students were given a choice of whether to take a hard or an easy test.

The results were remarkable. Of those praised for their intelligence – two thirds chose the easy task: it looks like they did not want to risk losing their ‘intelligent label’ by potentially failing the harder test.

Of those praised for their efforts – ninety percent chose the tough test: they were interested in a new challenge. They wanted to prove just how hard working they were.

Next the students were given an impossible test. Again there was a dramatic difference in the response of the two groups. Those praised for intelligence interpreted their failures as proof that they were no good at puzzles after all. Those praised for effort persevered on the test far longer, enjoyed it more and did not lose confidence.

Finally the experiment came full circle and Dweck gave the students a test similar to the first one. The group praised for intelligence showed a twenty percent decline in performance compared with the first test. The group praised for effort increased their score by thirty per cent; failure had actually spurred them on.

And all these differences turned on the difference in six simple words spoken after the very first test. Dweck concluded that, ‘praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and their performance’…..

Praise effort rather than intelligence and avoid the statements below.

‘You learned that so quickly, you are so intelligent’.

‘Look at that drawing, looks like you will be the next Picasso’.

‘You are so clever that you got an A without even studying’.

These comments sound like the kind of messages we should give students. But the subliminal messages are,

If I don’t learn something quickly I’m not intelligent.

I shouldn’t try drawing anything hard or they’ll see I am no Picasso.

I’d better quit studying or they won’t think I am brilliant….