Self-downing and the fixed mindset

"I'm just stupid. Just a loser," said a 19 year old boy after he failed his final exam. A sad response. New research sheds some light into how such response may happen. 

Mindset influences learning and performing

Mindsets about intelligence influence behaviors that have to do with learning and performing. In a growth mindset, it is easy to put effort into our work, persist after setbacks and ask for help when needed. In a fixed mindset we tend to view effort and persistence more negatively. We give up more easily and are more reluctant to ask for help out of fear that it might be interpreted as a sign of a lack of intelligence.

Consequences for emotions

In addition, mindsets about intelligence have consequences for emotions, especially in challenging circumstances (read more). In a growth mindset, it is generally easier to remain resilient and positive after setbacks. But in a fixed mindset, making mistakes and experiencing failure tend to be associated with negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression and shame.

Research by Gál et al. (2021)

Gál et al. (2021) did a study into which cognitive mechanisms play a role in these negative emotions. They did a study with exam candidates (N=310) to find out to what extent the following factors may mediate the relationship between a fized mindset and negative emotions: 1) self-downing (global negative self-evaluation), 2) depressive symptoms, 3) low frustration tolerance, 4) demandingness and 5) catastrophizing about the exam failure. 


The analysis showed that self-downing and depressive symptoms mediated the effect of a fixed intelligence mindset on emotions in a causal chain. The other types of irrational beliefs, such as low frustration tolerance for poor exam performance, demandingness and catastrophizing were not found to be mediating factors.

These findings suggest that students with fixed intelligence mindset interpret exam performance from the perspective of its repercussions on their self and its worth, which, in turn, predisposes them to poorer mental health during the exam period. The figure below shows the relationships found in the study:


If hear adolescents make self-depreciating comments about themselves like the ones mentioned above, it may be useful to try to influence their mindset about intelligence. Here, you can find a few suggestions for how you can do that. Perhaps you may help them develop a growth mindset which might not only benefit their learning and performing but also their mental health.