Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Tell your brain to be smarter

Edited by Jill Wright,

You might remember, next time you congratulate a child for an achievement, that it's better to praise her effort, than to tell her how clever she is.

I learned to do this some years ago, and had long forgotten where, but it's encouraging to learn that research by a clinical psychologist studying the way the brain works supports this approach. 

Hans Schroder, a doctoral student at Michigan State University's Clinical Psychophysiology Labs, wired up his subjects' brains and discovered that telling them that hard work counted more than inborn intelligence produced instant changes in the brain. 

“These subtle messages seem to have a big impact, and now we can see they have an immediate impact on how the brain handles information about performance,” Schroder said.

According to Schroder, "Giving people messages that encourage learning and motivation may promote more efficient performance. In contrast, telling people that intelligence is genetically fixed may inadvertently hamper learning."

Googling Hans Schroder led me to another interesting discovery: something called ERN, or the Error-Related Negativity, which is the "Oh crap!" response that tends to follow messing something up.

Schroder confesses to falling in love with the very idea of ERN after learning about the research of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck on “mindsets”, which his current research coincides with.

Schroder explains that people who think their intelligence is “fixed” tend to avoid mistakes at all costs. They believe any error is evidence that they lack ability. People who believe their intelligence is something that can be developed with learning and effort, however, view mistakes as opportunities for growth (the “growth” mindset).

In her book, Mindset, Dweck reveals that this simple discovery explains why praising brains and talent doesn't foster self-esteem and accomplishment, but instead puts them at risk.

Dweck's research found that elementary school students performing a task were either praised for their intelligence or their effort after correct responses. As the task became harder, children in the first group performed worse after their mistakes than those who had been told that effort was important.

Her site explains that people who have a growth mindset believe their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. "This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

"Teaching a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education and sports. It enhances relationships." 

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.