How a fixed mindset is related to depression


Mindset is about more than learning and performing. A new paper by Seo, et al. (2020) shows how the relationship between a fixed mindset and internalizing symptoms (such as depression) comes about.

The relationship between mindset and internalizing symptoms

Internalizing problems involve an over-control over emotions. These are directed inward and lead to inner unrest. Examples of internalizing problems are social withdrawal, anxiety, depression and psychosomatic complaints.

There have long been indications that there is a relationship between mindset and depressive symptoms (see eg Dweck, et al, 1995). Adolescents with a fixed mindset suffer more than average from depressive complaints (see eg Schleider, et al., 2015). Growth mindset interventions in this group reduce their symptoms (see eg Miu & Yeager, 2015).

Seo et al. conducted two studies to better understand the relationship between the fixed mindset and depression.

Fixed mindset predicts internalizing symptoms

Study 1 aimed to determine the extent to which the relationship between a fixed mindset and internalizing symptoms indeed exists. To this end, the researchers combined multiple datasets (N = 6,910) and analyzed them using structural equation modeling. This analysis showed that there was indeed a significant correlation between a fixed mindset and internalizing symptoms.

How does a fixed mindset lead to internalizing symptoms?

Study 2 explored potential mechanisms underlying this link using 8-month longitudinal data and 10-day diary records during the stressful first year of high school (N = 533, 4255 daily reports).

This analysis confirmed the results found in Study 1: a significant relationship was again found between a
fixed mindset and internalizing symptoms.

It was also found that adolescents with a relatively strong
fixed mindset of personality (+ 1SD) were about 2.5 times more likely to develop clinical depressive symptoms than those with a relatively weak (-1SD) fixed mindset of personality.

Finally, the study showed that the relationship between a
fixed mindset ('entity theory') and internalization came about through two mechanisms (see figure below).

  1. Fixed trait attribution about self: social stressors in adolescents with a fixed mindset triggered fixed attributions about themselves. These are the types of thoughts about yourself like "I'm not fun".
  2. Helpless Threat Assessment: stressors triggered ineffective assessments of the stressor (threat) along the lines of “I didn't feel I could deal with the negative things that happened to me today” and “The negative things that happen to me will probably never get better ”.


This research shows that adolescents with a fixed mindset about personality (the idea that people cannot really change who they are) is associated with internalizing symptoms such as depression.

Daily stressful events trigger in these adolescents a
fixed mindset about themselves and a helpless assessment of the threat (stressor) which leads to the inward directing of their own emotions, which is associated with, for example, depressive symptoms.

We should not just measure the value of mindset theory by the possible effects of mindset interventions on school grades and learning. The relationship between mindsets and other facets of human functioning, such as well-being, are at least as interesting and important.