A paradox of growth mindsets: wellbeing versus activism
In a new study, Crystal Hoyt, Jeni Burnette, Emma Nash, and Whitney Becker from the University of Richmond examine the societal implications of growth mindsets regarding anxiety (Hoyt et al., 2023). They consider whether the personal benefits offered by such a mindset can have unintended adverse social effects.
Growth mindsets and their potential effects
The research defines a growth mindset as the belief that traits and personal characteristics, such as fear, are changeable. This mindset is said to be associated with increased psychological well-being, resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity.
However, the researchers suggest that these personal benefits may have social costs. Reducing individual anxiety could reduce perceptions of societal threats, which may undermine motivation for social activism.
Design and results of the studies
In six studies with a total of 1761 participants, various social threats, such as gun violence, climate change, illegal immigration, natural disasters, and organized crime, are examined.
- In Study 1, 202 US participants examined how their beliefs about the mutability of fear (growth mindsets) were related to their well-being, resilience, and intention to engage in social activism. The results showed a positive correlation between stronger growth mindsets and increased well-being, resilience, and perseverance. At the same time, a negative correlation was observed between growth mindsets and activism intentions.
- In Study 2, the effects of the growth mindset on well-being and activism intentions were replicated, using an experimental paradigm to temporally manipulate fear mindsets. This study included 301 US participants.
- Study 3, with 302 participants, examined the link between mindsets and activism, with a particular focus on the theory that points to threat assessments as a major driver of the correlation between growth mindsets and reduced activism.
- Studies 4 and 5 were replication studies that confirmed the results of the previous studies, adding the Big 5 personality traits to the analysis.
- Study 6, with 301 participants, aimed to replicate the main findings of the previous studies.
Summary of the results
The results show that individuals with a growth mindset towards anxiety do indeed experience greater psychological well-being. However, these mindsets also lead to weakened threat assessments and indirectly predict reduced activism against social threats. This relationship persists even when factors such as political ideology, anxiety traits, and personality traits are taken into account.
While growth mindsets centered around fear are beneficial for individual psychological health, they can also contribute to a decrease in responses to social threats and thus hinder social activism.
Well, I have the following thoughts on this: Social activism based on fear is not necessarily good activism. In fact, it can lead to harmful activism, as we saw with the Capitol storming and the Corona riots. Leaders like Trump have fueled these fears (often against groups that have been scapegoated for problems) and exploited them to drive such harmful actions.
But there are also real problems. I've often heard people talk frivolously about existential threats — global warming, threats to democracy, nuclear war, the lack of regulation in AI, and so on — with comments along the lines of “Oh well, it'll all work out. Don't worry, they'll find a solution!" While I agree that fear mongering is not necessarily the right approach, I do believe that these people need to take these matters more seriously. Perhaps they should better understand the seriousness of these matters. And maybe a certain amount of fear is actually helpful.