In order to succeed, we must first believe that we can. — Nikos Kazantzakis
Last week, we discussed the powerful, psychological phenomenon of fixed and growth mindsets of personal attributes. To briefly recap, let’s use extraversion as an example. If you have a fixed mindset toward this attribute, you believe that you are as extraverted as you will ever be; however, if you have a growth mindset, you believe your level of extraversion is malleable, e.g., you could develop yourself to become more extraverted.
Already, we learned how these fixed vs. growth mindsets have been applied to intelligence, such that students with (or who are taught to have) growth mindsets tend to academically outperform students with fixed mindsets.
But you may be thinking, “Okay, I can believe intelligence is malleable. But there are definitely some traits of mine that are automatic and unchangeable. What about those, tough guy?”
Well, inner dialogue, let’s put your question to the test: let’s come up with a trait that most people think you’re either high or low in and that’s that.
Let’s look at empathy.
Empathy is defined as vicariously feeling or experiencing another’s emotions, thoughts, or attitudes. And since the 1700’s, philosophers have contended that empathy is something automatic—either you’re empathetic or you’re not. However, as the research shows, that really depends on your mindset.
In one study, researchers had participants read a “credible Psychology Today article” (really, it was written by the researchers) that showed how empathy was either fixed (“like plaster and pretty stable over time”) or growth-able (“changeable and could be developed”).
Participants then listened to an audio recording of a college student—who was very different from them—talking about an emotional personal experience. For this 10-minute recording, however, participants were given the ability to fast forward if they wanted, where presumably, those with greater empathy would be less prone to skipping ahead.
As it turned out, the students who were taught empathy was malleable spent 20% longer listening to the recording than those who believed empathy was fixed. And in another study, those who were taught the growth (vs. fixed) mindset of empathy were twice as likely to volunteer to offer social support for a cancer group—a very empathetically demanding task!
So how can you possess more of a growth-oriented mindset toward a trait you believe is fixed? As always, let’s turn to the data:
- First, it is helpful to know some facts: Many studies have shown that the brain is like a muscle, such that the more we practice an attribute, the denser the neural networks related to that attribute become. For example, London taxi drivers, who have to memorize 25,000 different streets, show highly developed hippocampal regions in the brain (the area associated with memory) compared to equally intelligent but non-practiced controls.
- Try recalling other times in your life you have developed a skill. For example, take out a pen and paper and spend a few minutes writing down a personal example of when you used to not know something but then practiced and got better at it.
- Write a letter to a friend encouraging him/her to continue practicing something they don’t believe they can be better at. Often when we give advice or support to others (vs. ourselves), we’re able to articulate things more clearly and counter-argue it less.
- Jot down reasons why you want to get better at this personal attribute and how your life would benefit from improving it.
- Change your comparison point. Instead of continually asking yourself if you’re better at this skill than other people, ask yourself if you’re better today than you were yesterday.
- Don’t just work harder, work smarter. If you’ve been effortfully trying to improve a personal attribute, don’t keep using the same strategy just because you’re working hard at it. Taking a new approach to the problem may be all you ever needed.
Now, I should take a moment to stress that simply having a growth mindset isn’t suddenly going to make you an all-star at that attribute; however, it will provide you with the opportunity to develop that skill—for at least now you believe it can improve!
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: Although we’ve spent a lot of time talking about the benefits of growth-mindsets, can you think of some attributes where it’d be better to have a fixed-mindset? If so, what kind of mindset do you have toward those traits?
Schumann, K., Zaki, J., & Dweck, C. S. (2014). Addressing the empathy deficit: beliefs about the malleability of empathy predict effortful responses when empathy is challenging. Journal of personality and social psychology,107(3), 475.
Yeager, D. S., Romero, C., Paunesku, D., Hulleman, C. S., Schneider, B., Hinojosa, C., … & Trott, J. (2016). Using design thinking to improve psychological interventions: The case of the growth mindset during the transition to high school. Journal of Educational Psychology,108(3), 374.