Thursday, April 09, 2015

Fixed mindsets


Carol Dweck is one of America's most important public intellectuals, and I believe that her idea, the Growth Mindset, is one of the most good and useful in America today. She's also a hedgehog. Meaning, of course, that she applies her One Big Idea to everything and anything, and tends to exaggerate its power and the evidence in favor of it. That's OK. Most promoters of big good ideas are hedgehogs. There are plenty of hedgehogs in the econ blogosphere - Scott Sumner, Paul Krugman, Steve Williamson. It's no big deal. I think that as a society we've gotten good at recognizing hedgehogs and mentally correcting for the hedgehogginess.

So because Dweck is a hedgehog, I won't totally lambaste Scott Alexander for attacking a straw man in his latest 10,000-word essay. Part of Scott's confusion and misdirection comes from Dweck's over-selling of her idea.

But only part. The rest is derp.

Scott gives a pretty good definition of the growth mindset idea:
[G]rowth mindset is the belief that people who believe ability doesn’t matter and only effort determines success are more resilient, skillful, hard-working, perseverant in the face of failure, and better-in-a-bunch-of-other-ways than people who emphasize the importance of ability. Therefore, we can make everyone better off by telling them ability doesn’t matter and only hard work does. 
This is similar to how Dweck herself would describe the idea. However, Scott does not differentiate between the following two statements:

1. Natural ability doesn't matter; only effort matters.

2. Natural ability doesn't matter on the margin, but the marginal effect of effort is large.

I guess economics just makes me automatically think about whether an effect is an average effect o a marginal effect (or an average marginal effect, if we're running regressions!).

Now, in her book, Dweck makes it clear many times that natural ability does, in fact, matter. She states that among people of similar natural ability, having a growth mindset makes a big difference. What she is saying is that the marginal effect of the growth mindset on performance is large for most people, even though natural ability matters a lot in the average.

But what Dweck does not clarify is whether the optimal growth mindset is itself a belief about average or marginal effects of effort on performance! In other words, to get the effect, do I have to believe that natural ability doesn't matter? Or does it work if I believe that although natural ability matters, effort can have a big effect?

If it's the former, we have trouble. If the only way to get the positive effect of the growth mindset is to convince people that natural ability doesn't matter - i.e., a fiction - then eventually they will realize that the fiction is a fiction, and the growth mindset will go away.

But I don't think that's what the growth mindset is. I think that very few if any people, including the people Dweck describes as having strong growth mindsets, actually do believe that effort could make them as good a basketball player as Michael Jordan, as good a mathematician as Terence Tao, or as good a blogger as Noah Smith (cue hearty laughter).

I am betting that the growth mindset is a belief about marginal effects ("if I work hard I will get better") rather than average effects ("anyone can do anything if they work hard"). Scott Alexander, on the other hand, seems convinced that it is the latter.

One reason I would make that bet is the nature of the experiments that have tested the power of the growth mindset. Scott runs through a couple of the experiments in his post. Basically, these are priming experiments. It would be incredibly weird if a priming task could change people's bedrock beliefs.

Scott sees this and concludes (paraphrasing): "Since the growth mindset is a belief about average effects, and a priming task couldn't change people's beliefs about something as big as average effects, there must be something wrong with this research, and therefore with Dweck's thesis."

I look at the same facts and conclude: "Since a priming task can't change beliefs about something as big as average effects, the growth mindset must be a belief in marginal effects."

I find it highly likely that a priming task could change someone's belief about marginal effects. Marginal effects are local, average effects are global. Going from thinking "Trying harder won't help" to "Trying harder will help" is a lot easier than going from thinking "Natural ability matters" to "Natural ability doesn't matter at all."

(I'm going to stop explaining the difference between average and marginal now, since if you haven't gotten it yet, you just need to give up and be a janitor go back and try harder.)

Anyway, Scott goes on to discuss some other studies that might or might not support mindset theory. With a little rewording, most of his post - the substantive part, the part about research and evidence - could actually have been a post in support of Dweck's idea.

But it is not. It is a post criticizing Dweck's idea. And here is where the derp comes in.

At the beginning of his post, Scott - who is rightly renowned as being an intellectually honest person - states his priors:
I’ll admit it: I have a huge bias against growth mindset... 
I can sometimes be contrarian, and growth mindset is pretty much the only idea from social psychology that is universally beloved... 
Which brings me to the second reason I’m biased against it. Good research shows that inborn ability (including but not limited to IQ) matters a lot, and that the popular prejudice that people who fail just weren’t trying hard enough is both wrong and harmful... 
Which brings me to the third reason I’m biased against it. It is right smack in the middle of a bunch of fields that have all started seeming a little dubious recently. Most of the growth mindset experiments have used priming to get people in an effort-focused or an ability-focused state of mind, but recent priming experiments have famously failed to replicate and cast doubt on the entire field. And growth mindset has an obvious relationship to stereotype threat, which has also started seeming very shaky recently.
Scott is a big believer in the importance of inborn ability. He thinks social psych and related fields have been captured by people who want to deny that fact. He thinks these fields have been using junk science to push their nurture-over-nature agenda. And this biases him against Dweck's ideas, and biases him toward skepticism with regards to research results that support Dweck's ideas.

Remember, derp is not confirmation bias. It is more rational than that. Derp is just repeating your strong priors over and over. That's what Scott's post is.

He cites some research in favor of the growth mindset idea, and expresses skepticism of the results. He restates his priors.

He then cites some research that might or might not favor it, and expresses no skepticism of the results. He again restates his priors.

He then cites some research that shows some stuff that might or might not suggest alternative explanations for the results that support the growth mindset, and expresses no skepticism of the results. He again restates his priors.

Then he restates his priors once more in the concluding section. Derp!

Actually, maybe I'm being too generous to Scott. Looking for flaws in studies that contradict your priors, while not looking for flaws in studies that agree with your priors, is confirmation bias. It is not Bayesian-rational. It appears to be what Scott does in this post. So calling Scott's post "derp", rather than "confirmation bias", is giving him the benefit of the doubt! :-)

Anyway, when discussing the growth mindset idea, I think we all need to keep the following things in mind:

1. Hedgehogs gonna hog (and not hedge). We should remember that Carol Dweck, like most promoters of big ideas, overstates her case. That doesn't mean her idea is not a good and useful one.

2. Average is not marginal. Belief in the average effect of natural ability and belief in the marginal effect of effort are two very different things.

3. Science is really hard. Even in physics and chem it's insanely hard to get robust, reliable, definitive conclusions. In psych it's much harder. That doesn't mean we should ignore big ideas in psych.


Update

Someone asked me how my post squares with the following part of Scott's post:
Likewise, mindset theory suggests that believing intelligence to be mostly malleable has lots of useful benefits. That doesn’t mean intelligence really is mostly malleable. Consider, if you will, my horrible graph: 

Suppose this is one of Dweck’s experiments on three children. Each has a different level of innate talent, represented by point 1. After they get a growth mindset and have the right attitude and practice a lot, they make it to point 2. 
Two things are simultaneously true of this model. First, all of Dweck’s experiments will come out exactly as they did in the real world. Children who adopt a growth mindset and try hard and practice will do better than children who don’t. If many of them are aggregated into groups, the growth mindset group will on average do better than the ability-focused group. Intelligence is flexible, and if you don’t bother practicing than you fail to realize your full potential.
Scott seems to think that his graph, if true, contradicts Dweck's idea. But I think that his graph is exactly Dweck's idea.

Scott also seems to think that in order to realize the benefit of a growth mindset, it is necessary to convince children of a fiction (i.e. that the overall effect of natural ability is 0). But Dweck doesn't think that. That seems unlikely to me. My guess is that you just need to convince kids of the truth - i.e., that effort matters a lot on the margin for most people. No fantasies required.


Update 2

Scott has a follow-up post.

When reading this discussion, it is important to remember that the following three things are different:

1. Dweck et al.'s belief about the effect of the growth mindset on performance

2. The belief of a person with the growth mindset about the effects of effort and ability on performance

3. Dweck et al.'s belief about the effects of effort and ability on performance

59 comments:

  1. "I am betting that the growth mindset is a belief about marginal effects ("if I work hard I will get better") rather than average effects ("anyone can do anything if they work hard"). Scott Alexander, on the other hand, seems convinced that it is the former."

    Don't you mean the latter?

    "He thinks these fields have been using junk science to push their nature-over-nurture agenda."

    Don't you mean nurture-over-nature?

    I'm not trying to be pedantic here. If I'm wrong in thinking these are typos, I think I misunderstood the post, and I should probably read it again an try harder.

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  2. Unless I am understanding what you mean by marginal versus average effects, this seems like a strawman that accuses me of believing things I specifically and clearly deny believing in my post, while ignoring my real arguments.

    The only place I bring up anything that might be called marginal versus average effects is Part V, which I clearly preface with "I want to end by correcting a very important mistake about growth mindset that Dweck mostly avoids but which her partisans constantly commit egregiously".

    You then go on and on about how my entire post is flawed because Dweck doesn't commit this mistake.

    I continue by saying that some people believe growth mindset is about how effort is important but talent isn't (the people whose articles I specifically link so no one can deny they exist), but that actually it is about how effort matters at the margins of talent (the Alice-Bob-Carol chart I include).

    I feel like you're accusing me of not understanding something I carefully explain, something I criticize others for not understanding, and something I make sure to praise Dweck for not doing.

    This is only a tiny part of the essay, and the points I make through every other part of the essay are relative to Dweck directly and have nothing to do with marginal effects. If you addressed any of them, I have missed it. I'm talking aboutL

    - Part II, where I point out that a lot of the early studies conflict about whether ability is protective or problematic
    - Part III, where I point out that growth mindset does not seem to ecologically be associated with good outcomes
    - Part IV, where I point out that the learned-helplessness models fail to explain children's different behavior when they aren't being watched

    I can sort of, almost see how you can confuse the point I listed in Part III - the one in my Part III - with me not understanding average versus marginal effects, but I think that's a misreading. Suppose that cancer rates are mostly genetic, but that smoking adds a small marginal effect onto your genetic risk. You should be able to detect that by looking at non-smokers versus people who have been smoking for fifty years, and seeing a higher average cancer rate in the latter group. If smoking is only a small effect, it will only be slightly higher, but the effect will be there.

    Likewise, if success is mostly genetic but growth mindset adds a small marginal effect onto your genetic talents, you should be able to detect that by looking at non-growth-mindsetters versus people who have been using a growth mindset their entire lives, and seeing a higher average attainment in the latter group. If growth mindset is only a small effect, it will only be slightly higher, but the effect will be there.

    If you do that with smoking, you certainly see the effect. If you do that with growth mindset, you see nothing.

    >> "Since the growth mindset is a belief about average effects, and a priming task couldn't change people's beliefs about something as big as average effects, there must be something wrong with this research, and therefore with Dweck's thesis."

    In Aronson et al, after the prime, several months after the study people were asked whether intelligence was fundamentally malleable *in general*. People who had received the prime differed from those who hadn't at p < 0.0001. How is that not a priming task changing people's bedrock beliefs?

    You said one or two nice things about me in the post above, but overall I'm pretty upset. You keep repeating the word "derp" to describe me with little evidence that you've read my whole post or any of the studies it cited. You then critique my intellectual honesty and say that even to call me "derp" is to give me the benefit of the doubt. I'm happy to listen to informed criticism if you can avoid ad hominem arguments, but your post seems very weak on the former and a little too strong on the latter.

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    Replies
    1. Scott:

      1. See the update for an explicit explanation of where I think you go wrong. You seem to think that for the growth mindset to work, people have to believe that ability doesn't matter. I think that's obviously not the theory.

      2. In addition, the "alternative" idea you present in your Section V is congruent with what I perceive to be Dweck's beliefs about the state of the world. You should read her book.

      3. Likewise, if success is mostly genetic but growth mindset adds a small marginal effect onto your genetic talents, you should be able to detect that by looking at non-growth-mindsetters versus people who have been using a growth mindset their entire lives, and seeing a higher average attainment in the latter group. If growth mindset is only a small effect, it will only be slightly higher, but the effect will be there.

      If you do that with smoking, you certainly see the effect. If you do that with growth mindset, you see nothing.


      This is not actually correct. It assumes that growth mindset is uncorrelated with other variables in the population being examined, which may not be the case.

      4. You said one or two nice things about me in the post above, but overall I'm pretty upset.

      You shouldn't get upset, Scott. It's not good for your health! :-)

      You then critique my intellectual honesty and say that even to call me "derp" is to give me the benefit of the doubt.

      No. In fact I explicitly credited you with intellectual honesty. Derp - the annoying habit of loudly repeating one's strongly held pre-existing ideas - is not intellectually dishonest. Nor is confirmation bias intellectually dishonest - it's a natural human tendency which almost all of us share.

      These are not ad hominem. Ad hominem is an attack on an interlocutor's character, and I have not impugned your character in any way: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Delete
    2. Oh, and I should add:

      5. Of course I read the middle three sections of your post, which discuss the relevant research. I think:
      * Your reading of the research in favor of the growth mindset theory is extremely critical.
      * Your reading of the other research draws conclusions that are a bit more contradictory to the growth mindset theory than the conclusions I would draw.
      * Your reading of that other research (i.e., the research that you interpret as casting doubt on the growth mindset hypothesis) is very uncritical.
      * You do not go looking for additional research that might corroborate the growth mindset theory, instead sticking to the couple most commonly cited studies.

      My own priors are not very much shifted by your critique.

      Delete
    3. Anonymous8:16 AM

      > You shouldn't get upset, Scott. It's not good for your health! :-)

      This statement reads as overly patronizing and trivializing Scott's feelings, but I'm not familiar with your usual writing style (having come here via pingback link from SSC), so maybe this interpretation isn't intended.

      Also, I'm not sure I understand how are you using "derp" here. It's not like Scott says "Well, I'm sceptical about growth mindset", and then you say "Have you heard about $study_1?", and then Scott replies with "No, I haven't heard about it, but look at the table 2: it only further proves my point that growth mindset is suspicous!".

      Instead, Scott starts with "Well, I'm sceptical about growth mindset. Here are my pieces of evidence: $study_0, $study_1 and $study_2. Here is my analysis of this evidence. A warning – I am way out of my league here and post this only hoping it will spark further discussion".

      Updating your priors in this situation would be double-counting the evidence, wouldn't it?

      Delete
    4. Anonymous9:32 AM

      Noah, your update misses the mark. When introducing the graph Scott explicitly states: "I want to end by correcting a very important mistake about growth mindset that Dweck mostly avoids but which her partisans constantly commit egregiously." You then go and say that this is Scott's view of Dweck. A good half of your post seems to be based around this misreading.

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    5. Honestly, I have no idea how you read Scott's post as "the annoying habit of loudly repeating one's strongly held pre-existing ideas." Did you read the once sentence about his claimed bias against growth mindset and then skip over every actual argument or piece of evidence he brought up, in favor of re-defining insults like "derp" so you can claim they're not insulting?

      Also, it's totally BS to claim that you're not insulting Scott's intellectual honesty. You said that he was "rightly renowned as being an intellectually honest person" but then that he was strawmanning Dweck and only seeking confirmatory evidence.

      Honestly I found your take on the essay--and your behavior--really disappointing. Oh well, insults get the pageviews, right?

      PS: your claim that growth mindset is belief in the marginal and not average effect of effort would totally fall over if you actually read a growth mindset questionnaire, which includes things like "you can always change basic things about the kind of person you are" and "no matter how much intelligence you have, you can always change it quite a bit," compared to "your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can't change very much" (taken directly from Dweck's book). If Dweck were trying to test for people's beliefs about marginal importance, these are not the questions she would have used!

      Delete
    6. (comment 1 of 2)

      So far, all you've been doing is acting as if I believe:

      (G1): Growth mindset means talent doesn't matter at all, only effort matters.

      I don't believe that, and I've tried to insist I don't believe it. I also don't think Dweck believes that.

      I think we both agree that the correct model is:

      (G1): Talent matters somewhat, but everyone, even the very talented, can benefit from hard work and practice.

      This is what I was trying to get at in my Alice-Bob graph, as well as with my earlier post on basketball. This is also the point you're trying to make in your post above, under the misconception that you're arguing against me.

      But I do think we have a disagreement, and one that you aren't addressing. I think you believe the content of growth mindset theory is just (G1), and I believe it's:

      (G2): People are more likely to work hard in proportion to the degree that they think talent doesn't matter and only effort does. In proportion to the degree they believe talent matters, people are more likely to lie, cheat, self-sabotage, and avoid challenges, rather than work hard.

      This is very different from G1. Under G1, a person who believes that success is 90% talent, but also 10% practice is doing fine, as long as she can decide to practice hard to get that extra 10%. Under G2, that person's belief in a high fixed value of talent has given her a whole host of bad qualities compared to the person who believes success is 10% talent and 90% effort.

      I think Dweck is genuinely pushing (G2). For example, she writes: "The more a player believed athletic ability was a result of effort and practice rather than just natural ability, the better that player performed".

      There is nothing in there about "the more a player realizes that, no matter how important talent is, effort matters too." Her statement says that it's entirely about what degree a player attributes success to effort versus talent.

      The natural conclusion there is that the player who believes success is 0% talent and 100% effort will do the best. Is this confusing average and marginal too much? Maybe. But no one, especially not Dweck, ever says "it's important to believe effort matters a little, but after a certain point more effort-attribution doesn't help", or "Maybe there's a U-shaped relationship between effort and ability" or whatever. It's always "the more you attribute results to effort, the better you'll do".

      Her studies reflect this as well. The most common design uses the IAR, a test where children are asked to attribute different things to effort versus ability. Those who attribute too many things to ability are classified as "helpless" and "fixed mindset". There's no question about "Okay, some things are due to ability, but if you work hard that still helps, right?"

      I'd like to be able to teach my children that success is X% talent and Y% practice, for non-zero values of both X and Y. I think growth mindset theory claims that if some other parent teaches their kids the same thing for a lower value of X and higher value of Y, their children will be more honest, harder-working, and more successful. That obviously bottoms out in "say 0% talent and 100% practice". If growth mindset people don't believe that, they're not doing a very good job expressing that belief.

      I think your post above is ignoring all of this and just accusing me of arguing against the irrelevant (G0), which none of us believe.

      Delete
    7. (comment 2 of 2)

      So far, all you've been doing is acting as if I believe:

      (G1): Growth mindset means talent doesn't matter at all, only effort matters.

      I don't believe that, and I've tried to insist I don't believe it. I also don't think Dweck believes that.

      I think we both agree that the correct model is:

      (G1): Talent matters somewhat, but everyone, even the very talented, can benefit from hard work and practice.

      This is what I was trying to get at in my Alice-Bob graph, as well as with my earlier post on basketball. This is also the point you're trying to make in your post above, under the misconception that you're arguing against me.

      But I do think we have a disagreement, and one that you aren't addressing. I think you believe the content of growth mindset theory is just (G1), and I believe it's:

      (G2): People are more likely to work hard in proportion to the degree that they think talent doesn't matter and only effort does. In proportion to the degree they believe talent matters, people are more likely to lie, cheat, self-sabotage, and avoid challenges, rather than work hard.

      This is very different from G1. Under G1, a person who believes that success is 90% talent, but also 10% practice is doing fine, as long as she can decide to practice hard to get that extra 10%. Under G2, that person's belief in a high fixed value of talent has given her a whole host of bad qualities compared to the person who believes success is 10% talent and 90% effort.

      I think Dweck is genuinely pushing (G2). For example, she writes: "The more a player believed athletic ability was a result of effort and practice rather than just natural ability, the better that player performed".

      There is nothing in there about "the more a player realizes that, no matter how important talent is, effort matters too." Her statement says that it's entirely about what degree a player attributes success to effort versus talent.

      The natural conclusion there is that the player who believes success is 0% talent and 100% effort will do the best. Is this confusing average and marginal too much? Maybe. But no one, especially not Dweck, ever says "it's important to believe effort matters a little, but after a certain point more effort-attribution doesn't help", or "Maybe there's a U-shaped relationship between effort and ability" or whatever. It's always "the more you attribute results to effort, the better you'll do".

      Her studies reflect this as well. The most common design uses the IAR, a test where children are asked to attribute different things to effort versus ability. Those who attribute too many things to ability are classified as "helpless" and "fixed mindset". There's no question about "Okay, some things are due to ability, but if you work hard that still helps, right?"

      I'd like to be able to teach my children that success is X% talent and Y% practice, for non-zero values of both X and Y. I think growth mindset theory claims that if some other parent teaches their kids the same thing for a lower value of X and higher value of Y, their children will be more honest, harder-working, and more successful. That obviously bottoms out in "say 0% talent and 100% practice". If growth mindset people don't believe that, they're not doing a very good job expressing that belief.

      I think your post above is ignoring all of this and just accusing me of arguing against the irrelevant (G0), which none of us believe.

      Delete
    8. Anonymous12:12 PM

      Scott,

      Noah doesn't admit when he's behaving badly (derp is obviously ad hominem despite his attempt to redefine it) and doesn't really like engaging in reasoned debate with people on some of his pet peeves - genetics, identity politics etc. He much prefers hatchet jobs in this context. I find it frustrating because he thinks quite clearly on other issues but has clearly demonstrated that he does not on these (he would describe this as a brain eating memetic virus).

      Delete
    9. (comment 3 of 2 because the last one was accidentally the first one again, you can delete it, have I mentioned I hate character limits?)

      None of this is the meat of the argument, which is parts II, III, and IV. You dismiss me as just "loudly repeating my pre-existing ideas", which is nonsense. I cite seven studies in support of my ideas, then go over three of Dweck's most important studies and say why I don't find them convincing.

      You dismiss that as just being "extremely critical", and "drawing conclusions different than what I would have drawn".

      I think the way you're supposed to argue is that you leave out all the parts where you speculate about how biased and “derp” I must be, and in all the space you've saved, go into detail about *why* you would have drawn contrary conclusions, and why being critical is inappropriate in this case.

      Then you say I "didn't go looking for research that might have corroborated growth mindset". Aaargh. My procedure for looking into this was to go through one of Dweck's systematic reviews about growth mindset and look up every study in it. The ones I found where the ones I mentioned, except for about five that appear to be unpublished, and whose existence I made sure to mention. I also cited a meta-analysis of over a hundred studies. I made sure to go into detail about Dweck's two strongest studies in Part I, then I said that although I recognized they were extremely convincing, I wanted to see what there was out there which might cast doubt upon their findings.

      Compare to your own style of argument, which is to call ideas you don't like parasites, write long posts about how dumb other people would have to be to hold them, and never discuss a single study in support or opposition to them at all.

      In all your responses so far, I've only seen one argument against an idea, which is this sentence: "This is not actually correct. It assumes that growth mindset is uncorrelated with other variables in the population being examined, which may not be the case."

      It is an argument, but it's also a fully general argument against all correlational studies. Yes, correlational studies have problems. On the other hand, it is traditional to mention what some of those problems might be, rather than dismissing them with a wave of your hand. If I said that eating pizza causes cancer, and you showed me a study that people who ate lots of pizza had less cancer than those who didn't, I would have a lot of explaining to do.

      Delete
    10. [comment 4 of 2, for mysterious reasons]

      >> Derp - the annoying habit of loudly repeating one's strongly held pre-existing ideas - is not intellectually dishonest. Nor is confirmation bias intellectually dishonest - it's a natural human tendency which almost all of us share. These are not ad hominem. Ad hominem is an attack on an interlocutor's character, and I have not impugned your character in any way: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ad_hominem

      Consider the following statement: "Noah Smith only believes in growth mindset because his brain is too small to process arguments. This is probably because, as a child, people always beat him up because he was so ugly. I feel sorry for him, intellectual dwarf that he is, doomed to spew effluvia like the above for the rest of his life."

      At no point in that paragraph have I insulted your character - there's no shame in having a constitutionally small brain But I've gotten distracted from debating the merit of your arguments by speculating on what inferior personal qualities may have led you to produce them. The point of avoiding "ad hominem" isn't to be able to point to Wikipedia show you didn't meet its exact definition, it's to focus on which arguments are right or wrong instead of the character traits that you think produced them. Everything can be attributed to "oh, he's just biased", which makes it a totally unproductive debate.

      Delete
    11. I remember Noah posting about how meeting in person an economist that he'd insulted on his blog made him realize that civility was important and that he should moderate his nastly style somewhat. Apparently that courtesy only applies to economists.

      Delete
    12. I know tone is difficult to convey over text. However I've just read this whole exchange and I think Noah should apologize to Scott. Noah, your insistence that "derp" accusations are not ad hominem and downright rude is clearly wrong and frankly off-putting. I think you use it as a crutch to paper over instances where you're being a jerk.

      Delete
    13. Anonymous5:01 PM

      This whole "Derp' business is odd. Bill's being a fucking idiot. "Fucking idiot" is the term I use for people who fall into the all to common and perfectly understandable trap of loudly affirming their biases. So I'm not being condescending.

      However, providing arguments for my claims isn't worth it as Bill's being a fucking idiot.

      Delete
    14. Anonymous5:01 PM

      I wonder if this will be another one of those incidents where Noah just disengages rather than admitting that he's wrong.

      Delete
    15. Consider the following statement: "Noah Smith only believes in growth mindset because his brain is too small to process arguments. This is probably because, as a child, people always beat him up because he was so ugly. I feel sorry for him, intellectual dwarf that he is, doomed to spew effluvia like the above for the rest of his life."

      At no point in that paragraph have I insulted your character - there's no shame in having a constitutionally small brain But I've gotten distracted from debating the merit of your arguments by speculating on what inferior personal qualities may have led you to produce them. The point of avoiding "ad hominem" isn't to be able to point to Wikipedia show you didn't meet its exact definition, it's to focus on which arguments are right or wrong instead of the character traits that you think produced them. Everything can be attributed to "oh, he's just biased", which makes it a totally unproductive debate.


      Oh, gosh.

      Scott, I would love to have a productive and civil intellectual debate/discussion here, but I can't do it if you think I'm insulting you, so let's try to get that out of the way and then, if that proves successful, we can move onto other things.

      First of all, I am not insulting your intelligence. People of all intelligence levels suffer from things like confirmation bias. *I* certainly suffer from it. And I've seen people much smarter than me suffer from it. The same goes for strong priors.

      But even if I were insulting your intelligence (which I am not; I think you are quite obviously a very smart guy), that would not constitute an impeachment of your character or honesty.

      I do think that your post was indicative of strong priors and confirmation bias, but I think the same could be said about many posts of my own. That doesn't make confirmation bias rational, but it does mean that I'm not trying to place myself above you in any way.

      Does that clear things up?

      Delete
    16. Anonymous11:56 PM

      The problem is that by redefining "derp" to mean something else, and you can't be upset when people get confused by what you mean. What you are doing matches the anonymous comment about redefining "fucking idiot."

      Delete
    17. It is true, I am quite fond of my own definition of derp! :-)

      Delete
    18. Anonymous4:59 PM

      Noah,

      Are you purposefully missing the point with those smug replies?

      You totally fail to engage with any of the substantive points.



      Delete
    19. Scott: I have to add one thing - don't think too much about all this, Noah has his way of writing things that sometimes border on being insulting. However to his credit he tries to engage with different people all the time to search for interesting topics. And in this instance it is through this blogpost that I found yours blog exist.

      For this reason Noah has a lot of intelligent "followers" that often disagree with him (like me) but who still find these discussions worthwhile. So don't hold grudges and just move on.

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  3. When I was a little kid "The Little Engine That Could" was one of my favorite stories. That little engine had the heart of a champion. Another story I remember really liking was "The Value of Tenacity: The Story of Maurice Richard".

    One day I'm going to write a book called "Epiphyte Mindset". It's going to be all about thinking outside the box. You're going to love it!

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  4. "As to innate intelligence: I don't think that can possibly exist because of the universality of computation. Basically, intelligence or any kind of measure of quality of thinking is a measure of quality of software, not hardware. People might say, "Well, what hardware you have might affect how well your software can address problems." But because of universality, that isn't so: we know that hardware can at most affect the speed of computation. The thing that people call intelligence in everyday life — like the ability of some people like Einstein or Feynman to see their way through to a solution to a problem while other people can't — simply doesn't take the form that the person you regard as 'unintelligent' would take a year to do something that Einstein could do in a week; it's not a matter of speed. What we really mean is the person can't understand at all what Einstein can understand. And that cannot be a matter of (inborn) hardware, it is a matter of (learned) software."
    ----David Deutsch
    http://beginningofinfinity.com/interview

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    1. Anonymous4:08 PM

      I'm confused. Why does the universality of computation imply that quality of thinking is directly analogous to software quality?

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    2. If you need to buy a computer, I believe my parents still have an 8088s in working order that they don't need. Don't worry about the ancient processor; it's instruction set is Turing complete so it's just as capable as any other.

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    3. Surely you are not thinking a theoretical physicist can't see through that...Are you?

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  5. Anonymous4:52 AM

    But what if having a growth mindset is innate, not something that you can decide. Effort, tenacity etc are just as genetic as height and eye colour.

    Ariel Adam

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    1. Then why are we paying some teachers more than others? Why are some schools more highly rated than others? Why are we keen to have our kids read the right books, watch the right TV shows, and try to be the right sort of parents?

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    2. If in fact effort etc is genetic, then we have a funny little paradox. Low social class people who neglect their children are precisely the people doing the right thing, while high social class, intelligent individuals are actually the ones being dumb collectively, and wasting their time on a vast scale.

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    3. Ariel: Too much exogenous variables...
      The experiments is such a world mindset have not been very succesfull. There is no solution, except..., the "final solution".
      If this were the case (which I do not believe nor wish) the better solution would be, without doubt: to convince children of a fiction. Fortunatelly, the experiments on intelligence malleability are increasingly deniyng that grim prospect.

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  6. Anonymous5:51 AM

    It seems to be impossible to say how important or not the mindset theory is when the research by Dweck and others is so poorly done. I'd like to see the following study:

    1) Recruit a big, nationally representative sample of kids.

    2) Find out whether or not they have "growth mindsets." Also administer tests of intelligence, personality, etc.

    3) Follow them up for a decade or two. Collect data on their accomplishments in school and elsewhere and also repeat the questionnaires and tests in #2.

    4) Compare the success over years of those with growth mindsets to those with fixed mindsets. Also compare how mindset predicts success compared to IQ, personality, etc.

    For the mindset theory to have any legitimacy, it would have to be a good predictor of success, preferably over and above other measures.

    For proper causal inferences, this study would have to be genetically informative, e.g., the sample would consist of MZ and DZ twins. The expectation, based on stylized facts from behavioral genetics, is that differences in mindsets are determined by genetic differences and non-shared environments (i.e., home environment, socioeconomic status, etc. are unlikely to have much significance).

    Until research like this is done, there is no reason to believe that Dweck's ideas are important.

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    1. Anonymous5:54 AM

      Additionally, in the study design above, you could select some subsample and inculcate the growth mindset in them, and then see if they become more successful over years compared to controls.

      Delete
  7. Two economists Noah and Scott are hiking in the deep woods of the Upper Peninsula when they encounter a big, swift, man eating hungry Grizzly bear.

    "We are going to be eaten !" says Scott. " What should we do."
    Noah turns on his heels, "I am running." Scott rolls his eyes, "No way you outrun a Grizzly bear"

    Noah yells over his shoulder as he bolts: "I don't need to outrun the bear, I just need to outrun you."

    P.S. When I look around, there are no bears or Einsteins where I work, just a bunch of people who work pretty hard, sometimes on weekends, to git 'er done.

    P.P.S. Coaches often admonish players that while they are partying, someone else is in the gym working out, getting better. Most High School sports coaches I know think the difference between the good teams and the average teams are that "those girls spend time in the off season conditioning just for fun."

    P.P.P.S. Many people in my family are late bloomers. My SIL just got her accounting degree late in life degree after having kids. Most of the things one can achieve in life (e.g. nice job) are well within reach of the most people, just add sweat.. Most middle aged and older people I know would go back and tell their younger self to work harder and party less. Because you can still party just as hard later in life, in your own house even, unless you have to kick people out early because you have to work the night shift to pay the bills, again, still. Gee, if I had only done this or that when I was younger I would have that job that does not require me to kick people out early.

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    1. Anonymous3:50 PM

      "P.S. When I look around, there are no bears or Einsteins where I work, just a bunch of people who work pretty hard, sometimes on weekends, to git 'er done."

      Maybe all the Einsteins have better jobs.

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    2. Sounds like sour grapes. I have an excellent day job.

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    3. Nice bunch of anecdotes, I can do even better.

      1) Most people on deathbead wish they worked less and spend more time with their families or in general more time outside of everyday workday threadmill

      2) Over 33% of jobs are filled thanks to employee referrals. These jobs also bring the most satisfaction. Who knows, maybe if you invest into your social networks when partying hard during your college and if you don't completely suck at your work it may pay off in the future.

      Anyways I read through the whole discussion and I think Noah completely misunderstood Scott's main point. Scott does not criticise the idea that effort matters, he criticizes a supposed idea that you should somehow condition yourself so that you believe that effort matters more than ability and then you will be sucessful.

      To be honest this just smells too much like crappy self-motivation literature to me.

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    4. Anonymous9:33 AM

      "To be honest this just smells too much like crappy self-motivation literature to me."

      I think religion after God is always going to seem alien to me.

      Delete
  8. "We've gone beyond the capacity of the human mind to an extraordinary degree. And by the way, that's one of the reasons that I'm not interested in the debate about I.Q., about whether some groups have higher I.Q.s than other groups. It's completely irrelevant. What's relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas, and how well they're cooperating, not how clever the individuals are. So we've created something called the collective brain. We're just the nodes in the network. We're the neurons in this brain. It's the interchange of ideas, the meeting and mating of ideas between them, that is causing technological progress, incrementally, bit by bit. However, bad things happen. And in the future, as we go forward, we will, of course, experience terrible things. There will be wars; there will be depressions; there will be natural disasters. Awful things will happen in this century, I'm absolutely sure. But I'm also sure that, because of the connections people are making, and the ability of ideas to meet and to mate as never before, I'm also sure that technology will advance, and therefore living standards will advance. Because through the cloud, through crowd sourcing, through the bottom-up world that we've created, where not just the elites but everybody is able to have their ideas and make them meet and mate, we are surely accelerating the rate of innovation."
    ----Matt Ridley
    https://www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex/transcript?language=en

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    1. "The principle that the multitude ought to be supreme rather than the few best is capable of a satisfactory explanation, and, though not free from difficulty, yet seems to contain an element of truth. For the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse. For each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses; that is a figure of their mind and disposition. Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them, they understand the whole. There is a similar combination of qualities in good men, who differ from any individual of the many, as the beautiful are said to differ from those who are not beautiful, and works of art from realities, because in them the scattered elements are combined, although, if taken separately, the eye of one person or some other feature in another person would be fairer than in the picture." - Aristotle, The Politics

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  9. Very germane to this discussion, An Ability Versus Effort experiment is happening with disastrous results in our nation's school system.

    There is a truly evil (maybe unintended) to the No Child Left Behind/Common Core initiative. A child, the teacher, principal, and school is a failure if just about the whole student body cannot pass the prescribed tests.

    IQ does not matter, income does not, the home values do not, parents do not, social skills do not. Nothing matters except the test. I predicted much of this when the whole initiative began.

    What we do not do, which is evil, is accept the child as and where she is, and then set suitable goals for that child. If someone is interested I have about a one page discussion as to how testing ought to be done, and how to go about assessing the more optimistic goals for each child, and how to find out how to achieve the goals. Hint: it does not involve blaming the student, parents, teachers or principals. It does involve setting achievable goals for all of them.

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    1. I did not make it clear. There is a profound failure in school systems and the accepted testing regime to assess both ability and effort of various students. Students are blindly assumed to have the same talents or abilities. It is also assumed that all students will be able to muster the same effort. Both assumptions are simply false.

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    2. Agreed, and there is also a naive to the point of reality-denying belief among the testing movement that aggregate test results reveal differences in teachers and schools rather than differences in student bodies and the neighborhoods they come from. This, combined with the widespread belief that the goal isn't to help teachers teach but to force them to do so against their will are a big part of what is maddening about the standardized testing movement. Take away these premises and the movement makes little sense -- why disrupt several days of classes with tests many teachers don't see value in when you could provide tests and a grading service that teachers could work into their classes when they thought students were ready to take them? Because 1) the whole point is to have tests valid for comparing across schools, not simply valid for a teacher to evaluate their students' progress, and 2) wait do you think if we provided useful materials to teachers they would actually teach their classes voluntarily? It's gotten nuts, and whatever value there might be to occasional standardized tests they are certainly not worth weeks of lost class time every year.

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  10. Anonymous12:30 PM

    Noah,

    This article appears to be both dishonest and rude. I just went over to Scott's article and read it; it was a million miles away from what you describe.

    You should be apologising to Scott rather than making smug comments.

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    1. Anonymous6:01 PM

      Gonna second this.

      Delete
  11. Anonymous1:18 PM

    Question for Scott.

    If "Talent matters somewhat, but everyone, even the very talented, can benefit from hard work and practice." is true, then why doesn't that show in the studies(?) you describe in

    "Likewise, if success is mostly genetic but growth mindset adds a small marginal effect onto your genetic talents, you should be able to detect that by looking at non-growth-mindsetters versus people who have been using a growth mindset their entire lives, and seeing a higher average attainment in the latter group. If growth mindset is only a small effect, it will only be slightly higher, but the effect will be there. If you do that with smoking, you certainly see the effect. If you do that with growth mindset, you see nothing."

    Wouldn't people with a "non-growth-mindsetters" have lower levels of "hard work and practice." that would lead to detectable lower levels of attainment ?

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    1. I'm not totally sure.

      One possibility is that non-growth-mindsetters do study and work hard, but for different reasons and in different ways. Another is that the distinction between "growth mindsetters" and "non-growth mindsetters" isn't as stable or interesting as we think

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  12. I've never quite understood what you were getting at with your redefinition of 'derp'; it never seemed to me to describe any real bad behavior that I see in the wild. Now I suspect that this is because, in practice, you use it to mean 'drawing different conclusions than I do from the same evidence because of having different priors'. Which, you know, isn't actually bad behavior.

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    1. It is strange when I see someone claim to authoritatively define a word in a way that I have never seen before, after having seen the word used hundreds of times.
      I have seen someone do the same with "trolling"

      Delete
    2. I'm a true believer in god and in gold in all raibows and tea party's and fox news6:36 PM

      THE LAWS OF PROBABILITY EXPLAIN WHY A TEA PARTY PARTICLE CAN YES THEY CAN BE CAPTURED BY THE GOD THAT INHABITS BY HABIT IN THE HEAVY ATOMS OF THE BIBLE BELT ...THERE ARE SEVERAL POSSIBLE (OR ALLOWED FOR GOD) STATES OF GRACE IN GRACELAND AND A CLINTON OR A CLITORIS CAN YES THEY CAN BE IN SEVERAL OF THESE STATES OR EVEN IN HEAVEN IN ALL OF THEM IN THE SAME TIME ....IT'S A STATE OF AFFAIRS NORMAL IN the fox world or the moronic universe von Us of A,,,

      hey....

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  13. I will be derp here.

    From my anthropological experience (talking with your grandama in Spain is really talking to someone from another tribe that was expelled from it due to the great Spanish migration in the 50's) I know absolutely for sure that:

    Efforts is what makes the average

    Natural ability is what makes the marginal.

    In other words, in any particular culture the average of any subgroup ability just relates with the average effort. The capacity to hunt or to have a given amount of atheltic abilities is just obtained from the effort. And then, on the margin, comes the ability to be slightly better because of "nature". A person with a better natural ability is better .. on the margin.

    For example, in my humble 80's Barcelona city world I was an athletic non-existent child. Yes I played soccer (futbol as we call it here), and tennis, and run and all that stuff.. but only on my "free time" from school. My grandma just stopped going to school at 14 (as any other kid in a small village central Spain during the 30's) an she really did athelitc stuff. My gosh. Carrying huge amounts of water from the fountain to the house, feeding the livestoch, loading and unloading the big system of crazyy transport ("la mula"). 12 hours a day. Go and beat it!

    It is not strange then that with 70 years old she could carry like 30 kg and wlak fast for more than a kilometer while I was absolutely unable to carry that weigh without hurting my hands. And do not make me start tallking about opening lids and bottles. You know when a different in pressure would render a can unopenable unless you got some air inside but you think it is just some problem with the lid? Well, she managed to counteract huge amounts of pressure. She could easily generate pressures and movements with the jar that were plainly amazing from a purely experimentalists (physicist) point of view. I was one at the time I observed her doing it (now I moved to biophysics.. it is cooler)

    In other words, if a given average effort is present, this gives you the average. If females were the ones supposed to be strong and bullies... they would be without doubt stronger. Stronger and with average muscles and complexion much higher.

    Just like efforts is the average, nature is the margin. Men can run, on the margin, slightly faster than women. Just look at world records. The speed of an average women running in the olypmics is larger than any male around my social life, because effort and training is "the main thing".. but the one (the female) who finally wins the gold medal is either natural ability with a bunch of things (better oxygenation, focus, and concentration...) or drugs to try to improve that natrual ability (also called doping).

    I have read the discussion and some of the references... and nothing I see there changes my priors... nothing beats the cross-cultural natural study that I just lived with my grandma

    I am a derp...I guess :) My grandma would not let me be anything but in this case.


    A pleasure

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  14. Hmm. Not criticising your analysis, Noah, though people REALLY don't get the average/marginal distinction.....I had a go at that a while ago (marginal versus average propensity to consume, which seem to be nearly always confused or conflated). But there is a hidden assumption underlying the "growth mindset" theory that I think needs to be exposed and challenged.

    The underlying assumption seems to be that every human has an equal ability to work hard. If this is true, then we must assume that the ability to work hard is an innate quality, rather than learned, since humans come from a diverse range of cultural backgrounds not all of which place great store by hard work. So the fact that some humans appear to lack the propensity to work as hard as other humans must be an environmental failure of some kind, whether education, culture, incentives....Hence the "growth mindset". Just change the education/culture/incentives and hey presto everyone will work equally hard. Any differences in attainment will then be due to differences in talent, not differences in effort.

    But if the ability to work hard is innate, then we actually can't assume that it is equal among all humans - after all, no other innate ability is uniform across the whole human race, is it? Why should everyone be equally talented in "hard work" when they are not equally talented in anything else? Surely, if the ability (not the propensity) to work hard is innate, there must be people who don't increase effort not because they are lazy but because they lack the ability to do so. The ability to work hard is itself a "talent".


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  15. Granted there are differences in innate intelligence and physical abilities, and granted that a big part of intelligence and learning skills are acquired very early in life and get progressively more difficult to improve with age. But all ability is more learned than natural. My understanding of Dweck's thesis is that the most successful people are those who know best how to learn.

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    1. In other words I think you're misrepresenting Dweck's thesis by overemphasizing effort and underemphasizing learning. "Growth" implies learning, not mere effort. Dweck's thesis is entirely compatible with Lou Reed's law of economics.

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  16. Good research shows that inborn ability (including but not limited to IQ) matters a lot, and that the popular prejudice that people who fail just weren’t trying hard enough is both wrong and harmful.

    This is an interesting point on Scott's part. The nature side gets a bad rap due to its association with racial theorizers, but this whole "Anyone can do anything if they work hard" attitude doesn't get the bad rap it deserves for how we pathologize poverty. I can almost imagine The Onion hosting the debate: Nature vs. Nurture: Is poverty the result of genetically inferior people or are some people just too lazy to work hard and lift themselves up by their own bootstraps?

    "But wait," Noah would object. "I didn't say that people are poor because they just didn't work hard enough; I just said we should tell them they're poor because they just didn't work hard enough."

    In seriousness, I really think any healthy attitude is going to recognize that one's lot in life is due to a combination of circumstances under your control, circumstances under others' control, and circumstances under no one's control.

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  17. This is a little OT but someone could argue that we try to hard in the industrialized nations and that we should relax and enjoy our childhoods and the rest of our lives more. One could attack the encouragement of Growth Mindset on that basis. Let people believe what they want and act accordingly. That is an argument that many Democrats make for Northern European Governments being superior to USA Government.

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    1. BTW I looks to me like talents are somewhat more evenly distributed in Korea and Japan and so the Growth Mindset sells a better and children work harder than in most of the rest of the world. In Korea the children go to school from 8:00 am to 10:00 pm. This could be seem by some as sub-optimal by many.

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  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  19. "If it's the former, we have trouble. If the only way to get the positive effect of the growth mindset is to convince people that natural ability doesn't matter - i.e., a fiction - then eventually they will realize that the fiction is a fiction, and the growth mindset will go away."

    That's a good point, but there is something interesting related to that. There are all kinds of "useful fictions" out there that help students learn (and move on to more accurate conceptions/beliefs/models). Like Lamarckian evolution (giraffes get their long necks by stretching them over generations) - it's not a death knell for student learning if they temporarily believe teleological or anthropological (non-scientific) explanations
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/(SICI)1098-237X(199811)82:6%3C679::AID-SCE3%3E3.0.CO;2-E/abstract

    Another example is the now much villified Learning Styles. Even though applying learning styles to teaching may not have much evidence, students have been shown to learn more from teachers who themselves learned about learning styles, probably because it encouraged them to try new things in their teaching.

    I don't see it as terribly harmful that we over-simplify our explanations of neuroplasticity and long-term potentiation and other stuff going on in the brain during learning for students, especially younger students. Simply saying, "the brain is a muscle" or "the brain grows [connections]" seems like a good analogy and simplification.

    But, about the other critiques from the other blog, I would say that a valid critique of growth mindset is that the effect sizes are relatively small, and sometimes non-existent for all but certain sub-populations. But then again, the intervention is typically small (watch a short video, or change a few words of praise). More useful questions for me would be things like: how can we increase the effects of growth mindset interventions, and what are other kinds of interventions that can be combined with growth mindset interventions to create even larger positive effects?

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