Saturday, July 12, 2014

Nature, nurture, or mindset?

(This post originally appeared at Bloomberg View.)

If you ever have the time, read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck. Actually, if you don’t have the time, try to make it. Because trying to do things you think you can’t do is the whole point of Mindset.
There’s a belief out there that Americans don’t try as hard at things as they used to -- that we used to persevere and hustle and have grit, but now we coast on our natural abilities and quit when the going gets tough. I’m not sure how to check if this is true, but Carol Dweck -- a Stanford psychologist whose life work has been to study this sort of thing -- agrees. Whether Americans are getting wimpier and more entitled, Dweck’s message is an absolutely crucial one. She’s truly a thinker for our age.
Dweck’s message, in a nutshell, is this: If you think you can’t improve, you won’t. If you think you can improve, you probably will, and you will be happier along the way. People with a “fixed mindset” live in constant fear of failing at things, because failure represents proof that their natural ability is low; they also don’t try hard, because they think it’s all in the genes. People with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, enjoy a challenge and relish hard work, so they end up getting better and better.
Many of us stumble on that idea independently. In October 2013, I co-authored an article about math education with my doctoral adviser Miles Kimball, which turned out to be the most popular thing either of us had ever written. Our article was about how people who think they are bad at math -- that is, most Americans -- end up not making the effort required to actually become good at math. We cited one of Dweck’s papers, but we had no idea how sweeping her vision is.
The book comes at a very important time in U.S. history. There are two faddish intellectual currents driving American thinking about success, and both have a gaping hole where Dweck’s insight should be.
The first of the two new American worldviews is nature-ism, which holds that life outcomes are basically frozen from birth. This idea is popular among libertarians, as well as some more extreme elements of the political right. Racism, of course, is steeped in nature-ism, but so is the idea that education is valuable only as a signal of inborn ability. Economist Bryan Caplan -- who, I should mention, is a personal friend of mine -- has been a champion of this idea.
On the political left, a more popular idea is nurture-ism, which holds that societal and parental influences can mold a child into any desired shape. This is the premise of Amy Chua’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she advocates an aggressive, controlling style of parenting. Another strain of nuture-ism blames society for any individual outcome, and puts too much emphasis on privilege.
I’m sad to see these two views gaining such currency in the U.S. They remind me uncomfortably of our two great opponents in the ideological contests of the 20th century -- fascism, which held that superior races would come to dominate inferior ones, and communism, which held that social engineering was the key to national greatness.
Carol Dweck asserts that there is a third way -- free will. Free will as a philosophical concept can be confusing (what makes you use your free will in a certain way, if not nature or society?). But as a practical tool, it has enormous value. When you exercise your free will and try hard at things, some social influence or subtle genetic effect may have played some part in your choice, but no one will ever know. So in the meantime, as the Nike ads used to say, “Just do it.” The first step is to pick up a copy of Mindset.


  1. Anonymous3:04 AM

    So is the free will ordained by god, in the quality of our non-materialistic souls? Or random like quantum mechanics? Or some magical concept that defies all earthly concepts of cause-and-effect? Because it's hard to think of any alternative, when you wrestle with the philosophical ramifications.

    1. I think of free will as a model, with a domain of applicability. Should I behave as if I have free will, or as if I don't? Usually, I think it behooves me to behave as if I have free will.

  2. Daniel6:47 AM

    Love it how liberals love to bash conservatives for being anti-science.

    Except liberals don't like science either when it gets in the way of their political project. Witness the mental gymnastics employed to deny heritability and the degree to which personality traits are hard-wired.

    Hey Noah, let me know when you manage to train a cat to fetch.

    1. Shadow_Nirvana7:28 PM

      Do you know what heritability even means? Hint: It doesn't show the ratio of the trait you have inherited.

      Try again.

    2. Lots of cats play fetch, actually. Mine loves to play with hair ties and similar. He didn't even need to be trained, he just started bringing them back to me.

    3. Daniel3:35 AM

      Do you know what heritability even means?

      It means your stupidity is due to bad genes. Which you got from your parents. Who must be as sharp as you.

    4. Shadow_Nirvana4:38 AM

      lol no :)

  3. Anonymous7:47 AM

    From the article you failed to comprehend the implications of:

    After combining the chimpanzees' performance on the IQ test with their genetic data, the researchers discovered that fifty percent of the variation in intelligence was due to genetic factors.

    Guess what the other 50% is? What effect would systemic differences in environment have?

    Glibertarians are case-studies in how Dunning-Kruger applies when socially malformed dorks fail to understand the limits of their understanding.

    This applies to both you and Bryan Caplan.

    It also to a lesser extent Noah's characterization of the left, at least the part in which he asserts that those views (and this includes the the naturism version as well) are gaining currency. That point is worthy of presenting evidence, unless he's just going to crap it out onto the internet to bolster the impact of his op-ed.

  4. Anonymous9:22 AM

    I haven't read Dweck's book, but from your synopsis Noah it sounds like the old 'whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right' mantra. How is this different than 90% of the self help books out there?

  5. Daniel9:23 AM

    Guess what the other 50% is?

    Guess what ? We don't know what the other 50% is, but it doesn't seem to be the "shared environment". That's the honest truth.


  6. Daniel9:25 AM

    Guess what the other 50% is?

    No, you moron, you guessed wrong.

    The correct answer is - we don't know, but it doesn't seem to be the "shared environment".

    Could be random noise, could be yet undetected pathogens, etc.

    1. Shadow_Nirvana7:25 PM

      Heritability percentages don't show the ratio of the trait you have inherited you science-illiterate fool.

    2. Daniel3:40 AM

      Please don't have children. The world is already over-populated with morons.

  7. My advice for those seeking success is to become good at brown-nosing. A good way to bond with those whose ass you want to kiss is piss to on some outgroup like rightwing neanderthals or strident hippies.

    I'm still impressed with successful Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page's take on the current context of where "now we coast on our natural abilities and quit when the going gets tough."

    "So the idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people's needs is just not true. I do think there's a problem that we don't recognize that. I think there's also a social problem that a lot of people aren't happy if they don't have anything to do. So we need to give people things to do. We need to feel like you're needed, wanted and have something productive to do. "

    If only people had the right mindset they could be in the workaholic elite. And since the workaholics believe everyone should be like them - and they want to please the boss - they want to end welfare as we know it and end unemployment insurance so people will go back to work and "improve themselves."

    1. What we have going on now is a mild version of the Great Depression which could turn into a less mild version.

      Education isn't one of the main problems or solutions. Imagine someone advocating education reform during the Great Depression. While its probably true that if people had better mindsets the Great Depression wouldn't have been so depressing it wasn't the main issue (except that the policy elite like the FOMC and Andrew Mellon had poor mindsets. FDR had a good mindset.)

      What happened was that in 2008 the labor force participation rate dropped way off and the unemployment went much higher. It wasn't because of employees' mindsets or willingness to work except that they or there businesses were low on the totem pole.

    2. Imagine someone advocating education reform during the Great Depression....

      Some of what will soon be the latest reforms were actually tried -- like paying teachers in scrip. Because psychic wage....

  8. Noah , another great post. Just for raising these issues you deserve praise. It's like teach the controversy. Then let people decide.

    With Gladwell’s star fading since 2008, people are seeking the truth from intellectuals that present the world from a deterministic viewpoint like Charles Murray and Steven Pinker, shunning the comforting but wholly inaccurate parables-packaged-as-facts of vacuous pop journalists like Malcom Gladwell.

    Nature-ism or biological determinism means individuals are born with 'original (cognitive) capacity' and practice can make people better at certain tasks, tasks outside of the capacity will be impossible, regardless of how much practice one does.

  9. I think it's wrong to equate "free will" with a "growth mindset." You can have growth and have no "free will." Nobody gains skills simply by mentally willing it to happen. They gain skills by learning: by absorbing information from the outside world and incorporating that into the ball of stuff that is their selves. Even if you just passively go along with life putting in no effort, you can still undergo tremendous growth if people just teach you properly. That doesn't necessarily mean social engineering or parents actively trying to mold you, we're always constantly absorbing information whether we want to or not, and so we're always growing whether we want to or not.

    And really, if we're going to bring up fascism, the idea that people can simply mold themselves into the sort of person they want to be seems very ubermenschian.

    1. I also think (paradoxically) that a more passive growth mindset can ultimately be conducive to getting people to actually "just do it."

      Fear of failure is not the only thing that prevents people from trying to change themselves. Another factor is just the belief that it'll be too hard. So the belief that change comes from hard work doesn't really do much to prevent that feeling. But on the other hand, if growth is something that occurs naturally and "hard work" is just nudging along the process along, then there's no pressure, just go at your own pace and you may find yourself growing faster than you think.

      People need to realize not merely that growth is possible, that growth can be fun. And if growth is painted as a struggle of grit and determination, then it's not going to seem very fun. Learning math doesn't mean trying to laboriously drill through problems, you can just play with puzzles and see how you go from there.

    2. R. Jones2:11 PM

      "And if growth is painted as a struggle of grit and determination, then it's not going to seem very fun. " This.

    3. I think a struggle of grit and determination sounds pretty fun! :-)

  10. Anonymous9:40 PM

    I'm not sure you've exactly escaped the debate. What causes someone to have a successful mindset?

  11. I like that you're opening this debate. There is definitely a trend towards stressing the innate rather than the adaptability. The thing is, as humans our most unique innate feature is our adaptability.

    On a somewhat different but similar topic, I highly recommend you read Frans de Waal's "Our Inner Ape." It counteracts the popular notion that ape life is all brutish dog-eat-dogism, though some of it of course is, and shows how apes are very much like us in their complex range of behaviors and adaptability. For example. the ancestors of chimps and bonobos separated from each other after their mutual ancestors separated from ours. Yet chimp and bonobo social structures are polar opposites: chimps are patriarchal with short careers for alpha males that usually end violently; bonobos are matriarchal with alphas serving long past the age they could fight off younger females and males reduced to begging and performing sex acts to obtain food. I believe this divergence isn't only genetic; it's also cultural. The adaptability was there before chimps and bonobos diverged.

    I'm not sure though Dweck's book is such an earth-shaker. Sounds kinda self-helpy. Besides it appears to be from 2007. Why highlight it now?

  12. I get the impression that Americans work just as hard and are just as innovative as ever. The problem is that they don't get rewarded for it. If they actually are slacking, that is what they have been taught. Over the last 30 years, they've been pounded with a simple lesson: You can become three times more productive, but you aren't even getting an extra ten cents an hour for it.

    It's like the kids with the marshmallows. In the experiment, they were all promised new art supplies. Some kids got them. Other kids got told tough luck, no new crayons for you. Needless to say, the tough luck kids ate that marshmallow right away, before someone could snatch it from them.

    People used to bitch about European peasants, but when those peasants moved to the US, they quickly became hard working, productive US farmers. Why? Because, the US government gave them free ownership of their land in exchange for the effort of farming it. Back in the old country, they could work a thousand years and get no closer to a quit claim deed.

    Into the 1970s, a high school graduate could get a job that let him support a non-working wife and a bunch of children. He could buy a house and a car, and his compensation included a pension plan. A modern high school graduate would be lucky to get a job that let him afford to eat and pay rent. Hell, even a modern college graduate would be hard pressed to get by without food stamps. The effort and initiative are there. The rewards for it are not.

    Mindset sounds like a profoundly silly book. The problem isn't with people's mindsets. The problem is with the playing field. When people are rewarded for hard work, imaginative thinking, pushing themselves to their limits, and so on, they'll do so. When it all goes to investor return and CEO salaries, they'll think twice.

    1. Anonymous3:39 PM

      I agree. This book sounds like just one more "Work Harder and Everything Will Be OK" lines that conservatives love to parrot which moralizes succes, thus obviating any kind of public or social policy designed to level the playing field.

      I think a more interesting course of research would be, "Why do some people have a more negative mindset than others? Poverty, family history, living conditions, etc. Just saying, "people who have a more positive mindset are more successful" ignores that fact that "positive mindsets" do not arise naturally out of the ether, they are formed by our life and experiences. If you have a parent who tells you all the time, "You're great a math. You have so much potential. You're really smart." (I know that's a little generic and over the top, but you get the point, an encouraging parent of role model) then you would likely have a more positive outlook.

  13. I covered this is a two part series on technology and how it is quickly altering American Morality using Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory....

    Is Liberalism a Handicap?

    It's hard for you to click and read ideas from outside your safe zone...this is part of mindset... so here's the tl;dr:

    The Internet alone has delivered gay marriage and drug legalization, it did so in just 15 years, simply by altering conservative moral foundations drawn from disgust, something seen as genetic and heritable...

    And over the next 15 years, Data Darwinism will do the very same thing to Liberal moral foundations based on Fairness / Cheating.

    Uber / Airbnb and the whole swath of coming apps that are all based on generating two sided markets with user feedback published on both sides (cred systems), are proving that even the staunchest lefties when the KNOW for sure someone is actually a lazy ass, they stop feeling for the person out of fairness.

    This is of course also heritable across twins sets, so again we have strong if not irrefutable evidence that technology can and will overwhelm human morality, literally by OVERWHELMING the human with a new life.

    You and I may or may not really dig having sex with women or men, but the evidence is clear that we CAN, with incredibly great expense, make both us alter our notions of what is sexually appealing by locking us up in a box for 10+ years with either men or women.

    The Internet and Data Darwinism hits us that hard. Compared to technology, politics is WORTHLESS at changing the culture.

    Go read the links, Haidt himself admits I hit nail on head.

    The Q is, do you want to call tech free will?

  14. Daniel3:44 AM

    That stuff is the weakest crap ever.

    So there are innate differences in average IQ (some of them quite large, on the order of a standard deviation or more), but they don't matter because ... IQ has a normal distribution ?

    Really now ? What kind of a moron do you have to be to buy that crap ?

    If that's the best you morons have got against HBD, then you've got nothing, just propaganda to spew at ignorants.

  15. It's true that the 'lefty' tendency, taken to extremes, generates a dependent mentality. I think Noah is justifiably on guard against that. But there are two realities we need to pay attention to in this area. One is that our 'work ethic' culture is overheated. People feel like they're on a tread mill, working frantically to keep afloat. As others have said, average people aren't rewarded for hard work in our society.

    Similarly, not everyone can be outstanding in their field. Since most people are 'average' by definition (!) do we really want a culture that looks down on people of average ability?

  16. Daniel8:37 AM

    Import East Asians, have them start out at the bottom of society - and in a couple of generations, they're upper-middle class.

    Import sub-Saharan Africans, grant them favours, and still they perform below average.

    Yep, looks like privilege.

    Some people were dropped on their heads. You were thrown against a wall.

  17. Shadow_Nirvana11:30 AM

    Didn't I destroy you pretty thoroughly up top? Do you really want to act like a little kid trying to grab my attention?

  18. Daniel12:24 PM

    Yeah, and by "destroy" you mean claiming that the reason a population where IQs over 130 are one in 10.000 does worse than one where they are one in 30 is lack of affirmative action.

  19. Shadow_Nirvana1:12 PM

    ahahahaha what? You are getting dumber by the second, unable to comprehend the basic stuff written to you.

    Btw, just so anyone reading your incoherent logic doesn't get the wrong idea, your schtick(black vs southeast asia) has already been adressed thoroughly:

    "How Whites Use Asians to Further Anti-Black Racism" by Tim Wise.,52881,.shtml

    "Whereas the African American population represents a cross-section of background and experience, the APA community is highly self-selected. Voluntary migrants from nations that are not contiguous to their country of destination tend to be those with the skills and money needed to leave their home country in the first place. As many scholars have found, Asian immigrants are largely drawn from an occupational and educational elite in their countries of origin. "


    "More importantly, claims of Asian success obscure the fact that the Asian American child poverty rate is nearly double the white rate, and according to a New York Times report in May of 1996, Southeast Asians as a whole have the highest rates of welfare dependence of any racial or ethnic group in the United States.

    Nearly half of all Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees in the U.S. live in poverty, with annual incomes in 1990 of less than $10,000 per year. Amazingly, even those Southeast Asians with college degrees face obstacles. Two-thirds of Lao and Hmong-American college grads live below the poverty level, as do nearly half of Cambodian Americans and over a third of Vietnamese Americans with degrees.

    Indeed, Asian "success" rhetoric ignores the persistent barriers to advancement faced by Asians relative to whites. On average, Asian Americans with a college degree earn 11% less than comparable whites; and APA's with only a high school diploma earn, on average, 26% less than their white counterparts. "

    Even when you think you are right, you are horribly wrong. That's what we love so much about people like you, Daniel.

  20. Daniel6:26 PM

    White men - is there something they're not guilty of ?

    Is there somebody they're not oppressing ?

  21. I'm beginning to suspect that y'all two are the same person.

  22. Shadow_Nirvana2:36 AM

    "White men - is there something they're not guilty of ? Is there somebody they're not oppressing ?"

    That's exactly what I'm saying. No comprehension problem there.

    "I'm beginning to suspect that y'all two are the same person."

    Hahahaha, Oy vey, the goyim know, shut it down!

    In all seriousness, of course no :)

    P.S. I wrote the "oy vey" sentence to reflect the general racism of the discussion, if it offends you in a way, you can delete it.