A recurring feature in this series has been the highlighting of the proposition that our attitude and how we think can have a strong bearing on our decision-making, with any consistent tendencies on that front capable of impacting strongly on the direction of our lives.
Recognising that how we see the world can impact upon the success or otherwise of our path in life should not be taken as an endorsement of the decidedly ‘pop’ psychology notion that if you want something enough that you will achieve it, or that through some mysterious process, the object of your desire will manifest or be somehow brought to you by the universe.
In essence, wanting something enough is not a pre-requisite or a guarantee of achieving it. And also, wanting something desperately, but for that ambition to not work out does not mean that you somehow didn’t want it enough. It is tempting sometimes to buy into such notions, but formal research into how the mind works invariably tells us that things are far more complicated than that.
So, at this point in my life, it doesn’t’ matter how much I decide I might want to be, say, an astronaut; it’s not going to happen. It’s not a matter of not wanting it enough; instead, at age 43, that ship has sailed, and I wasn’t on it when it departed. And that’s entirely ok. To cling to such an ambition at my age and with my educational background would be borderline delusional.
We touched on related ideas earlier in this series when we looked at self-efficacy. Without rehashing that entry, but to perhaps offer a timely reminder, self-efficacy refers to our beliefs in our abilities, i.e., to what extent I believe I am likely to be ‘good’ at a certain task or to succeed in a given sphere of activity. The key point here being our beliefs in our abilities, not an objective assessment of our strengths and talents. So, if I don’t believe I’m likely to succeed (low self-efficacy), that will influence the level of effort I put in and impact on how I react to obstacles and setbacks. In other words, if I don’t believe I am ‘good’ at certain things, then I am less likely to succeed, with the opposite also true. This, of course, sets up scenarios in which it is entirely plausible to imagine that someone with higher self-efficacy in a given sphere may well outperform someone with greater natural aptitude for the task if that someone has low self-efficacy beliefs around their skills. None of this requires the universe to intervene on our behalf. Also, it is worth emphasising that the key combination is high ability and high self-efficacy. High self-efficacy can only take you as far as your abilities will permit; so yes, it can certainly help you to maximise your potential, but the ceiling of that potential will be the ceiling of that potential.
Mindset theory addresses similar ideas. First proposed by U.S.-based academic psychologist Carol Dweck, this theory relates to the extent to which we believe we can improve at a given task. Dweck identifies two distinct kinds of mindset – fixed and growth. People with a fixed mindset will tend to think of their intelligence as a fixed thing, and so can have absolute beliefs around their ability, i.e., “I’m good at A” or “I’m not good at B”. The growth mindset is grounded in the assumption that we can improve, we can cultivate our skills, we can become more knowledgeable, and that we can’t expect to learn instantly, but setbacks are necessary landmarks along the way to the improvements we desire and believe we can achieve.
Dweck has conducted research around mindset with different populations, but findings from classroom settings have been particularly illuminating and thought-provoking. Dweck has reported on how teaching approaches based around praise for effort and achievement respectively can impact differently on students. When the emphasis is on praising achievement, this can have the unintended consequence of encouraging or reinforcing a fixed mindset. How so? The logic is that we like to be praised and so if we find something that we’re good at, the tendency can be to limit ourselves to it, to stay in the shallow water. In such a scenario, we can become reluctant to stretch and test ourselves because if we don’t succeed right away, then that praise we yearn for will not be forthcoming. This thought process might be particularly powerful among young individuals already leaning towards a fixed mindset view of their own talents.
On other hand, when teachers praise students for the effort they make, then this can provoke more positive responses. Taking the emphasis away from the outcome makes things less ‘result oriented’. Now, at first glance some of you might think this brings into the somewhat controversial realm of ‘participation awards for all’, with the implication being that moving away from a results focus lowers standards, rewards mediocrity, and undermines the drive for excellence. However, what Dweck reports suggests a very different picture. She has found that praise for effort encourages children to put in more effort and strive to improve. If praise is reserved for ‘getting it right’, then effort that falls short, but might represent the best a child can do at that given moment, isn’t recognised sufficiently and those children may then set their sights lower and seek to succeed at easier tasks so as to receive that all-important praise. Dweck proposes that a classroom that offers praise for effort is one that can cultivate a desire in students to stretch themselves, and therefore help to cultivate a growth mindset, which can only be an advantage in education and later in life.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.