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Whether or not you think of yourself as 'the smart kid' might effect your grades a lot more than how smart you are.

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When you look or looked around your classroom, it’s usually pretty easy to identify the so-called “smart kids”. They’re typically the ones who get the best grades, and who often stick their hands up first to answer the question.

Depending on how you approach things, thinking of your classmates — or yourself — this way might not be the best idea. Doing well in school is definitely a good thing, and actually being smart is good. General intelligence plays a big role in people's lives, and is related to educational achievement, income, and how long you live.

But how you think about your abilities could lead to some problems. Specifically, if you think you can’t change them, or if you worry what other people will think when you mess up. Lots of scientists have studied intelligence, but many of the ideas about how people think about being smart have come from a researcher named Carol Dweck.

Starting around the 1980s, she proposed that kids from preschool to junior high are inclined toward one of two big ideas about their abilities and goals. At one end of the spectrum, they might subscribe to the entity orientation, which is the belief that your abilities are innate and fixed. In other words, if you’re good at something, it’s probably because you’re a natural at it, not because you worked hard.

At the other end is the incremental or mastery orientation, which says that, with effort, you can improve your abilities, and learn to do things better. These two concepts were supported by Dweck’s research, but in the 1990s, she took them one step further. In 1994, she and another researcher conducted a study that observed 78 four- and five-year-olds.

The study found that the kids were already starting to develop consistent preferences for activities. For example, they might prefer to do a puzzle they had already done over trying a new one. It also found that the kids who wanted to keep doing older puzzles were more likely to give negative self-evaluations when completing a more challenging puzzle.

They were more likely to make comparisons to others, too. Based on this, Dweck proposed that these two orientations —tt entity and incremental — didn’t just exist: They also came with their own motivations and goals. Specifically, people with a incremental orientation were more interested in putting effort toward mastering new skills.

Meanwhile, those with an entity orientation were motivated more by performance goals, like what others would think of them. . Thanks to work by other researchers, Dweck figured that these orientations came from what kind of praise kids got growing up. Basically, if you got a lot of praise for being smart, it would lead you toward an entity orientation, and you might get more nervous about screwing up.

After all, failing might not make you the supposed “smart kid”, anymore. On the other hand, if you were praised more for the effort you put into things, Dweck said you'd be more interested in putting more effort toward learning new skills. And you’d have an incremental orientation.

Over time, these two orientations came to be called a growth and fixed mindset. “Growth” for the idea that you can master new skills through challenging yourself, and “fixed” for the belief that your abilities are stable. Today, psychologists are pretty confident that these mindsets are a reliable way of thinking about yourself. But despite what you might see online or in parenting blogs, that doesn’t necessarily mean one mindset is better than the other.

The truth is, when you look at the research, there’s actually mixed evidence about how these ideas play out in real life. Some studies do suggest that having a fixed mindset might not be great when it comes to academics. Take a 2007 study of nearly 400 kids in New York Public Schools, for example.

In it, researchers found that seventh graders with a fixed mindset had worse math grades at the start of the study, and that they didn’t improve their grades over the next two years. Meanwhile, those with a growth mindset started out a little better, and then kept improving. Then again, more recent papers have painted a less clear picture about if mindset really matters at all.

In a more recent meta-analysis, researchers looked for studies that measured both students’ mindsets, and reported some academic outcome, like standardized tests or GPA. They found that, over 129 studies, the two things were related, but pretty weakly. In other words, mindset did make some difference, but there were probably lots of other things more important to kids’ grades.

This was supported by the fact that some studies trying to change people from a fixed to growth mindset didn’t seem to improve academic achievement compare to controls. Admittedly, this could be because the students’ mindsets didn’t actually change after a few days in the classroom. But it could also be because your mindset isn’t everything.

So if you think of yourself as smart, and if people have praised you for that throughout your life, that’s okay. It doesn’t determine your future. But if you feel like being the smart kid means there’s a lot of pressure to get good grades and never make any mistakes, it’s probably also okay to step outside your comfort zone and try some new things.

Everybody fails sometimes, and that’s alright. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, and special thanks to our patrons on. Patreon!

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