What do you think intelligence is?

Is it something that you are born with, largely inherited from your parents, leaving you with little room for improvement? Or is it something that can be changed through hard work and by taking advantage of opportunities to grow intellectually?

Your personal answer to this question turns out to be surprisingly important. It may even affect your intelligence! Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has spent her career studying how people’s beliefs about their own abilities—particularly mental abilities like intelligence—influence the kinds of challenges they give themselves. In much of her research, she has studied students, from their early prekindergarten days through college.

Dweck identified two broad “theories of intelligence” that people—from young children to mature adults—hold. Some people have an “entity” theory of intelligence. They believe that their intelligence is determined by factors present at birth, particularly related to their genetic inheritance. According to this theory, intelligence is a relatively unchangeable fact about who you are and about your potential to excel. You may work hard, but intelligence will always act as a limit for some people and as a supercharged fuel for others. Other people hold an “incremental” theory of intelligence. They believe that intelligence can be changed, particularly through efforts to learn and to excel. They believe that genetic factors are only a starting point, and people’s future competencies are not determined by their initial strengths and weaknesses.

These two theories of intelligence would only be vaguely interesting if they didn’t influence people’s behavior. But they do. It turns out that students who hold the entity theory of intelligence tend to avoid academic challenges. When given the opportunity to work on a really challenging task—with opportunity for success but also a real possibility of failure—they are less likely to take the opportunity than are their classmates who hold an incremental theory of intelligence. The students who believe that intelligence is unchangeable—the entity theory holders—are more likely to choose a task that they already know will lead to success.

Attitudes toward failure can also be predicted by knowing which theory a student has about intelligence. Students who have an entity theory of intelligence tend to interpret failure—in academics and in other aspects of life—as a message about their own inherent limitations, so failure or even the anticipation of failure reduces their motivation to work on something. For them, the way to protect their self-esteem is to avoid failure. For the students who have an incremental theory of intelligence, failure is more often seen as a challenge that can actually increase motivation. These students are more likely than their entity theorist classmates to see failure as an opportunity to discover and test their potential, thus inspiring them to try to see what they can do.

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