GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show we're exploring how sometimes a nudge, a tiny change to the way we behave or to the way we think, can lead to big changes.
Can you go ahead and introduce yourself please?
CAROL DWECK: OK. My name is Carol Dweck. I'm a professor of psychology at Stanford, and I'm the author of "Mindset."
RAZ: So a part of Carol's research focuses on the idea that cues we get from the people around us - some of them subtle, some of them not so much - have the power to change our mindset. For instance...
DWECK: My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, seated us around the room in IQ order.
RAZ: That's brutal.
DWECK: It's brutal.
DWECK: And the thing was, of course the kids were totally anxious all the time. A new girl walked into the class in the middle of the year. And instead of thinking, maybe she'll be my friend, I thought, I hope she doesn't have a higher IQ.
RAZ: Wow. That's a lot of pressure.
DWECK: Yeah. It just kind of warped all your values.
RAZ: Of course, sorting children according to their IQ is more of the push than a nudge. And for Carol, looking back, she realized how profoundly it made her crave success and fear failure.
DWECK: And so I didn't ever want to go out of my comfort zone and try things that I might not succeed at. For example, my elementary school wanted to send me to the citywide spelling bee but I thought, wait a minute, I'm already a winner here, why should I go there and become a loser? So I restricted my world just to things I was sure I could do well at.
RAZ: With this in mind, when Carol became a psychologist, and as she explained on the TED stage, she decided to design experiments to find out how children respond to challenges.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DWECK: So I gave 10-year-olds problems that were slightly too hard for them. Some of them reacted in a shockingly positive way. They said things like, I love a challenge, or, you know, I was hoping this would be informative. They understood that their abilities could be developed. They had what I call a growth mindset. But other students felt it was tragic, catastrophic. From their more fixed mindset perspective, their intelligence had been up for judgment, and they failed. And in study after study, they have run from difficulty.
RAZ: So first of all, can you explain this concept of growth mindset?
DWECK: Well, let's start with a fixed mindset, which is the idea that your talents and abilities are just fixed. It's the idea that some people have a lot and some people have less, and that's the way it's always going to be. A growth mindset is the idea that talents and abilities can be further developed through hard work, good strategies, asking for help and input from others. It's not that everyone's the same, but it's that everyone can grow their abilities.
RAZ: So how do you - like, what kind of thing can nudge a kid into one mindset or another?
DWECK: We have studied a lot of things now that create a growth or a fixed mindset in kids. The first thing we studied was the praise that adults give to children. And we found - contrary to popular wisdom - that when you praise intelligence, it backfires. It puts kids into a fixed mindset and right away, they don't want a challenging task. But if the adult praises the child's process, the effort or strategy, and ties it to the learning they've done or the success they've achieved then we're putting kids into more of a growth mindset.
RAZ: OK. So, like, when a parent or a teacher says to a kid, you know, you're so smart or you're so talented, that is actually not a good thing? But if we say to kids, hey, that was a really great effort, you know, you're improving, that's - like, just that small change in language can actually change the way a kid thinks about him or herself?
DWECK: Yes. Just saying, I like those strategies and you improved, or that was really hard, you stuck to it and you mastered it - just tying that process to their progress, their learning, their outcome, teaches them they can grow their skills in that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
DWECK: I heard about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn't pass a course, they got the grade not yet. And I thought that was fantastic because if you get a failing grade, you think, I'm nothing, I'm nowhere. But if you get the grade not yet, you understand that you're on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future. We recently teamed up with game scientists from the University of Washington to create a new online math game. In this game, students were rewarded for effort, strategy and progress. The usual math game rewards you for getting answers right, right now. And we got more effort, more engagement over longer periods of time and more perseverance when they hit really, really hard problems. Just the words yet or not yet we're finding give kids greater confidence.
RAZ: You know, there are so many situations where kids could think, you know, I'm just no good at this, right, that I'm not talented. But we kind of condition them that way, right?
DWECK: Exactly. We condition them to show that they have talents and abilities all the time, and we think this is the road to their success. But in truth, the road to their success is learning how to think through problems, learning how to bounce back from failures. These are the things that create contributions to society.
RAZ: So as a parent, like, would it have a material impact on my own kids for instance, you know, on the way they kind of approach challenges, if I were to - like, instead of saying, you know, you're such a great reader, but to say, I'm really proud that you read that book?
DWECK: You know, I wouldn't say I'm really proud because it makes it yours. Then the next book they'll read to make you proud rather than because they value it or enjoy it. I would say, tell me about that book you read. That's really exciting.
RAZ: Wow, you're going to completely change the way I parent.
DWECK: You know, everything sends a message. Just a few different words, sometimes one different word, conveys a whole different world of meaning.
RAZ: Yeah. So I'm just amazed at how such a small nudge, right, like, framing can have such a powerful effect.
DWECK: Yes, it does. They're just different ways of seeing the self, where, am I this fixed creature that has to look good all the time and validate myself? Or am I this dynamic growing person who has this infinite, undetermined future that I can work toward? Does this struggle and confusion mean I'm dumb, or does this struggle and confusion mean I'm growing my brain, I'm making those neural connections stronger and getting smarter?
They're two different worlds, and we can choose which one we want to inhabit.
RAZ: You obviously study children. Is it - do you think it's possible for adults to, like, retrain themselves to develop more of a growth mindset?
DWECK: Absolutely. What we're finding informally is that people can identify their fixed mindset triggers. So when you're out of your comfort zone, does a voice say - watch out don't go there, you'll unmask your deficiencies? When you're struggling, does that voice say - you can still get out? So it's not about crushing the fixed mindset voice. It's about working with it. You know, you can say, I'd really like to take this challenge. Will you come along with me? Can can you get on board? Can I count on you to collaborate? Just kind of co-opt it. Make it work with you toward your goals.
RAZ: I mean, for a lot of people, the idea that by simply reframing the way they think about their own potential, that could actually change things in a big way is kind of hard to accept, right? Because a lot of people - they believe that they have limited capabilities.
DWECK: Right. And I'm not saying we have unlimited capabilities. I'm saying we have no idea. And I've learned that too. I knew I was changing when I heard a voice in my head say - this is hard. This is fun. It's exciting to go from the girl in Mrs. Wilson's (ph) sixth-grade class who was afraid to make a mistake to someone who is exhilarated at taking on the hardest unknown questions. Carol Dweck - she's a professor of psychology at Stanford. You can see her entire talk at TED.com
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.