November 24, 2010

The belief that beneficial change is under our control is a prerequisite to achieving it

Research into self-theories has shown that the belief that beneficial change is under your control is often a prerequisite to achieving it. This even applies to personal attributes which have long been viewed as immutable both by psychologists and laymen, like intelligence and personality. Research by Carol Dweck has shown that people who see intelligence as unchangeable, a view which she calls a fixed mindset, develop a tendency to focus on proving that they have that characteristic instead of focusing on the process of learning. They tend to avoid challenges and respond defensively to failure. When people view intelligence as a potential that can be developed, a view which Dweck calls a growth mindset, this leads to the tendency to put effort into learning and performing and into developing strategies that enhance learning and long term accomplishments (Dweck, 2006).

Recent research shows that the growth mindset is not only applicable to intelligence but that it also applies to other domains like personality (Dweck, 2008). Dweck’s work shows that the expectation of beneficial change is a prerequisite for the change. Fortunately, a fixed mindset can be very easily transformed into a growth mindset by means of a brief workshop (Heslin, et al, 2006; Aronson, Fried & Good, 2002). The research into self-beliefs shows that, at least in some cases, positive expectations not only enable positive outcomes but are indeed a prerequisite to them.

Perhaps you have noticed, like me, that people often speak in rather pessimistic terms about all kinds of topics that concern us. I think this can be seen as a reflection of their concern about these topics. Yet, perhaps there is a way to chenge our thinking a bit. We might keep on taking problems very seriously but add to this a growth mindset perspective. It might be interesting to explore to what other domains this growth mindset thinking can be taken. From the top of my head, here is a table with some topics for which it might be relevant.

Fixed mindset /pessimistic formulation
Growth mindset /optimistic formulation
Everyone has a "set point" for happiness: we can improve or hinder our well-being, but we cannot take long leaps in either direction from our set point.
Genetics place no limits on how much happiness one may experience. Everyone has the potential to experience happiness.
Human nature
Human nature is inherently bad, there is nothing we can do about that
“Our beliefs about human nature help shape human nature itself” (quote by Robert Frank). Human nature can and will improve
Organizational change
80% of all organizational change fails because people naturally resist change
This view is debunked here. People can and do change all the time especially when they feel they are taken seriously and treated fairly
Inter-ethnic performance gaps
Ethnic differences in performance are genetically caused and therefore not bridgeable
Over longer hauls of time, performance gaps can and do disappear all the time. Possible genetic differences do not prevent this
Interreligious conflict
Religious convictions have such deep roots that interreligious conflict will never disappear
Religious conflict is solvable. People’s views on religion have changed significantly over time. Religious conflicts have disappeared in the past (as have religions)
Financial crisis
National debts have become so high that financial meltdown has become inevitable
Even after financial crashes, financial systems will be restored. Financial meltdown is not inevitable. Relatively simple measures such as modest tax raises may restore  financial stability sooner than many think.
Equal treatment of men and women
Cultures in many countries will resist to equal treatment of men and women making it an unattainable goal
There is already a slow (and sometimes not so slow) but steady trend towards emancipation of females throughout the world. Here is an example.
Crime rates
We have become powerless against organized crime and must except that we will never be able to get back to the safe society of the nineteen fifties
Preventing and fighting crime may require new approaches but there is nothing inevitable about high crimerates. Here is an example of a promising approach.
Violence will grow because the inherently violent human nature now has access to more destructive weaponry
Although there will sometimes be local exceptions, throughout history the prevalence   of violence has gone down and continues to go down.
Global environmental crisis is inevitable because of human indifference and corporate greed  
People has shown the capability of avoiding environmental crisis. Technological advances and human cooperation will help to help solve current problems, like they did before.
Hunger and poverty
Hunger and poverty in Africa is unsolvable
Over the last 6 decades great successes have been made in fighting poverty and hunger. The coming decades will show the decline of hunger and poverty in Africa.  

Our theories about phenomena are extremely important. They are the narratives we tell ourselves upon which we base our actions. Fatalistic narratives will make us feel bad and prevent us from doing anything about problems. Hopeful narratives make us get out of our chairs, take action and are likely to give us a sense of fulfillment.

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