False growth mindset: Superficial parroting of growth mindset ideas

A growth mindset is the belief that abilities can change. Having a growth mindset is beneficial for motivation and seeking challenges. But more and more researchers are concerned about the existence of a false growth mindset. Does it indeed exist? If so, what are its meaning, causes and relevance?

The observation of false growth mindsets 

Founder of mindset theory Carol Dweck shared her observation in 2015 that some teachers said they embraced the growth mindset without it being reflected in their actions. For example, they continued to compliment students on their intelligence (something which is inconsistent with a growth mindset). Dweck called this a "false growth mindset." 

What does a false growth mindset mean? 

Michael Barger and some colleagues have delved into the false growth mindset (Barger et al., 2022). They speculate that in practice there could be superficial parroting of growth mindset ideas. Barger et al. define a false growth mindset as a superficial belief that people can develop their abilities that is not accompanied by behavior consistent with this belief." 
A false growth mindset means that an individual subscribes to statements that ability can change, but lacks the associated beliefs that effort is essential to growth (versus talent) and that our capabilities are developable. 

Are we measuring mindsets wrong?

Barger et al. ask whether we are measuring mindsets incorrectly. Mindsets of people are traditionally measured in research through simple questionnaires. In these questionnaires participants have to say to what extent they agree with a small number of statements. An example of such a statement is: “No matter who they are, people can change their intelligence a lot.” 
But the relationship between individuals' self-reported beliefs and their behavior is generally not particularly strong. So it could be that people are quick to say they agree with statements like “people can develop their abilities” without acting accordingly. Agreeing with such statements could also be partly a reflection of social desirability or general optimism. 

Research Barger et al.

Barger et al. were the first to attempt to establish empirically whether individuals can indeed have a false mindset. To this end, they not only measured mindsets in the traditional way through short questionnaires with statements. They added some measures. For example, they measured the extent to which people attributed growth in competence to effort or talent and to what extent people believed that capabilities are capable of great change.

Five mindset groups 

In three studies with US adults (N = 294), college students (N = 214), and elementary school teachers (N = 132), the researchers used cluster analyzes to identify individuals with a false growth mindset. Based on the answers provided by the participants, the researchers identified five mindset groups:
  1. Fixed mindset: people who had little faith in the developability of capabilities 
  2. Moderate mindset: people who scored roughly in the middle on the measured variables (thus falling between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset)
  3. False growth mindset: people who, in the traditional way of measuring, came up with a growth mindset (i.e. agreed with the statements that correspond to a growth mindset) but who did not score highly on the other two variables (importance of effort and changeability of abilities). 
  4. Effort mindset: People who believed in the traditional growth mindset, and in addition strongly believed in the importance of effort (rather than natural aptitude) for growth.
  5. Extreme Flexibility Mindset: People who believed in the traditional growth mindset and also believed that capabilities are greatly developable. 

The false growth mindset exists

The researchers thus showed that a false growth mindset does indeed exist. In their research, a significant proportion of adults (15%), students (12%), and teachers (25%) were found to have a false growth mindset. Based on the traditional mindset measurement alone, these people appeared to have a growth mindset. However, they shared similarities with individuals with a fixed mindset on two alternative mindset measures.
The research also showed that mindset was related to competence and challenge-seeking. The mindset groups differed in their perceived competence in math (Studies 1-3), preference for challenge (Study 1), seeking challenge on optional math problems and math value (Study 2), and beliefs that only some students can learn math and math- anxiety (study 3).


People who say they embrace a growth mindset but actually have a false growth mindset are behaving more in line with a fixed mindset than a growth mindset.
An important implication of this research is that we should probably start measuring mindset differently. With the traditional questionnaires we cannot distinguish a true (consistent) growth mindset from a false mindset. By also explicitly measuring beliefs about effort and the flexibility of abilities in studies, we can start identifying this difference.
This allows us to better understand the relationships between mindsets on the one hand and performance and other outcome variables on the other. In the current studies, these are presumably suppressed by the fact that participants with growth mindset scores probably include participants with a false growth mindset.