Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team in 1978. He went on to become the greatest player in the game’s history. This is what he says about failure: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”On the other hand . . .
According to a theory that has swept education in the last few years, Jordan has what psychologists call a “growth mindset”. He believes that even if you can’t do something initially, you can improve your abilities, whether they involve basketball or maths or playing the oboe, through hard work. “I can accept failure,” he said. “Everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”
Psychologists say the growth mindset is contrasted to a “fixed mindset” – the belief that your skills are innate, genetically endowed and fixed. Someone with a fixed mindset, according to the theory, would look at a maths problem they couldn’t do, and think, I can’t do that, I’m not gifted at maths. They might give up. But someone with a growth mindset might apparently think, I just haven’t learnt enough maths to do that; I’ll learn some more and try again. They will keep trying in the face of difficulty – believing they can improve to meet challenges.
But some statisticians and psychologists are increasingly worried that mindset theory is not all it claims to be. The findings of Dweck’s key study have never been replicated in a published paper, which is noteworthy in so high-profile a work. One scientist told BuzzFeed News that his attempt to reproduce the findings has so far failed. An investigation found several small but revealing errors in the study that may require a correction.And on. The article overall is quite good at giving the pros and cons from both sides. Admirably so. Chivers doesn't provide sufficient evidence to completely debunk the Growth Mindset movement but he does introduce enough counterfactuals to call it sharply into question.
Bates told BuzzFeed News that he has been trying to replicate Dweck’s findings in that key mindset study for several years. “We’re running a third study in China now,” he said. “With 200 12-year-olds. And the results are just null.
“People with a growth mindset don’t cope any better with failure. If we give them the mindset intervention, it doesn’t make them behave better. Kids with the growth mindset aren’t getting better grades, either before or after our intervention study.”
Nick Brown, a PhD student in psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, is sceptical of this: “The question I have is: If your effect is so fragile that it can only be reproduced [under strictly controlled conditions], then why do you think it can be reproduced by schoolteachers?”
Using a statistical method he developed called Granularity-Related Inconsistency of Means or GRIM, Brown has tested whether means (averages) given for data in the 1998 study were mathematically possible.
It works like this: Imagine you have three children, and want to find how many siblings they have, on average. Finding an average, or mean, will always involve adding up the total number of siblings and dividing by the number of children – three. So the answer will always either be a whole number, or will end in .33 (a third) or .67 (two thirds). If there was a study that looked at three children and found they had, on average, 1.25 siblings, it would be wrong – because you can’t get that answer from the mean of three whole numbers.
Brown, who has previously debunked an influential study into “positive psychology”, looked at the 1998 study with the GRIM method. He found that of 50 means quoted in the data, 17 of them were impossible.
I like one of the summaries of the status quo:
Bates doesn’t think that the mindset hypothesis should be thrown out. He said that there is an uncontroversial reading of the idea – “a very conservative, old-fashioned one: ‘If you don’t work at it you won’t get the results’” – but that, in her TED talks and books, Dweck pushes a more dramatic version, that instilling a growth mindset in children “really works, and you can expect big things from it. She thinks it’s really big, that it’s massive.”"If you don't work, you won't get the results" versus "If you work hard you will always get the results."
Neither is completely true but the former is more true than the latter, but it is the latter which has caught on. It feels so good, utopian optimists want it to be true. Even if it quite possibly/likely isn't.