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How Firm Are the Foundations of Mind-Set Theory? The Claims Appear Stronger Than the Evidence

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How Firm Are the Foundations of Mind-Set Theory? The Claims Appear Stronger Than the Evidence

Abstract and Figures

Mind-set refers to people’s beliefs about whether attributes are malleable ( growth mind-set) or unchangeable ( fixed mind-set). Proponents of mind-set theory have made bold claims about mind-set’s importance. For example, one’s mind-set is described as having profound effects on one’s motivation and achievements, creating different psychological worlds for people, and forming the core of people’s meaning systems. We examined the evidentiary strength of six key premises of mind-set theory in 438 participants; we reasoned that strongly worded claims should be supported by equally strong evidence. However, no support was found for most premises. All associations ( rs) were significantly weaker than .20. Other achievement-motivation constructs, such as self-efficacy and need for achievement, have been found to correlate much more strongly with presumed associates of mind-set. The strongest association with mind-set ( r = −.12) was opposite from the predicted direction. The results suggest that the foundations of mind-set theory are not firm and that bold claims about mind-set appear to be overstated.
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TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY
1
This paper is published in Psychological Science.
Please cite the published version at https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619897588
How Firm Are the Foundations of Mindset Theory?
The Claims Appear Stronger than the Evidence
1Alexander P. Burgoyne, 1David Z. Hambrick, & 2Brooke N. Macnamara
1Michigan State University, 2Case Western Reserve University
Corresponding author:
Brooke N. Macnamara
Department of Psychological Sciences
Case Western Reserve University
brooke.macnamara@case.edu
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 2
Abstract
Mindset refers to people’s beliefs about whether attributes are malleable (growth mindset) or
unchangeable (fixed mindset). Proponents of mindset have made bold claims about mindset's
importance. For example, mindset is described as having “profound” effects on motivation and
achievement, creating different "psychological worlds" for people, and forming the "core" of
people's "meaning systems." We examined the evidentiary strength of six key premises of
mindset theory in 438 participants, reasoning that strongly worded claims should be supported by
equally strong evidence. However, most premises had no support. All associations were
significantly weaker than r = .20. Other achievement motivation constructs, such as self-efficacy
and need for achievement, correlate much more strongly with presumed associates of
mindset. The strongest association with mindset (r = -.12) was opposite the predicted direction.
The results suggest that the foundations of mindset theory are not firm, and that bold claims
about mindset appear to be overstated.
Keywords: mindset theory, implicit theories, growth mindset, fixed mindset, achievement
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 3
How Firm Are the Foundations of Mindset Theory?
The Claims Appear Stronger than the Evidence
There is currently a great deal of scientific interest in mindset (i.e., implicit theories).
Mindset refers to people’s beliefs about the nature of personal attributes, such as intelligence.
People who hold growth mindsets (i.e., incremental theorists) believe attributes are malleable,
whereas those who hold fixed mindsets (i.e., entity theorists) believe attributes are unchangeable
(Dweck, 2006). According to Dweck (2006), “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects
the way you lead your life” (p. 6). The rationale is that mindsets form the “core” of people’s
meaning systems, bringing together goals, beliefs, and behaviors to shape people’s thoughts and
actions (Dweck & Yeager, 2019).
The presumed importance of mindset rests on several theoretical premises. Many of these
premises are concisely summarized by Rattan, Savani, Chugh, and Dweck (2015) in their call to
make funding mindset research a “national education priority” (p. 723); they state, “students with
growth mindsets seek to learn and develop their abilities, and thus pursue challenges, value
effort, and are resilient to setbacks; in contrast, students with fixed mindsets avoid challenges
(which could reveal “permanent” deficiencies), dislike effort (which they think signals low
ability), and give up more easily when facing setbacks” (p. 722). The goal of this study was to
test six of these key premises of mindset theory.
Premise 1: People with Growth Mindsets Hold Learning Goals
Rattan et al. (2015) stated, “students with growth mindsets seek to learn and develop their
abilities” (p. 722), Indeed, according to Dweck and Yeager (2019), mindset theory was
developed to explain why some people care more about improving their ability (i.e., learning
goals) whereas others care more about proving their ability (i.e., performance goals). As Dweck
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 4
(2009) explained, people with growth mindsets “care first and foremost about learning” and “the
cardinal rule is: Learn, learn, learn!” (p. 4). Thus, mindset should predict learning goal
orientation, such that people with more of a growth mindset endorse learning goals more than
people with less of a growth mindset.
Premise 2: People with Fixed Mindsets Hold Performance Goals
Dweck (2000) stated,
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency
to prove yourself over and over….I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming
goal of proving themselves—in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships.
Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character (p.
6, emphasis added).
Additionally, Dweck (2009) explained, people with fixed mindsets “have to look good at all
times” and “the cardinal rule is: Look talented at all costs” (p. 4). Thus, mindset should predict
performance goal orientation, such that people with more of a fixed mindset endorse
performance goals more than people with less of a fixed mindset.
Premise 3: People with Fixed Mindsets Hold Performance-Avoidance Goals
Burnette, O'Boyle, VanEpps, Pollack, and Finkel (2013) stated, “although entity theorists
prioritize performance goals more than incremental theorists do, we suggest that this difference
is especially strong for performance-avoidance goals.” (p. 660). Dweck (2002) has also
described how people with fixed mindsets supposedly avoid performing tasks if they might fail:
“Even some of the most talented college students with the fixed view, when we ask them, have
told us plainly: ‘If I knew I wasn’t going to do well at a task, I probably wouldn’t do it even if I
might learn a lot from it’” (p. 30). Thus, mindset should predict performance-avoidance goal
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 5
orientation, such that people with more of a fixed mindset endorse performance-avoidance goals
more than people with less of a fixed mindset.
Premise 4: People with Fixed Mindsets Believe That Talent Alone–Without Effort–Creates
Success
Dweck (2009) claimed, “Those with a fixed mindset believe that if you have natural
talent, you shouldn’t need much effort” (p. 2). Also, as stated on Dweck’s website, people with
fixed mindsets “believe that talent alone creates success–without effort”
(https://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/). Thus, mindset should predict agreement with the
statement “Talent alone–without effort–creates success,” such that people with more of a fixed
mindset agree with this statement more than people with less of a fixed mindset.
Premise 5: People with Growth Mindsets Persist to Overcome Challenge
Rattan et al. (2015) explained, “students with growth mindsets…pursue challenges…and
are resilient to setbacks; in contrast, students with fixed mindsets avoid challenges…and give up
more easily when facing setbacks” (p. 722). Indeed, mindset has been described as “a theory of
challenge-seeking and resilience” (Dweck & Yeager, 2019, p. 482). According to Dweck (2006),
“perseverance and resilience [are] produced by a growth mindset” (p. 12). Likewise, the for-
profit mindset-intervention company Mindset Works (co-founded by Dweck) explains on their
website: “Children with a growth mindset persist in the face of challenges”
(https://www.mindsetworks.com/parents/). Thus, mindset should predict endorsement of
statements about persisting to overcome a challenge, such that people with more of a growth
mindset endorse these statements more than people with less of a growth mindset.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 6
Premise 6: People with Growth Mindsets Are More Resilient Following Failure
According to Yeager and Dweck (2012), mindsets “appear to create different
psychological worlds for students: one that promotes resilience and one that does not” (p. 304).
Boaler (2013) further explained, “The implications of this mindset are profound—students with a
growth mindset work and learn more effectively, displaying a desire for challenge and resilience
in the face of failure” (p. 143). By contrast, individuals with fixed mindsets are “devastated by
setbacks” (Dweck, 2008). Thus, mindset should predict performance following failure, such that
people with more of a growth mindset perform better following failure than people with less of a
growth mindset. These results should also hold after controlling for ability.
Prior Evidence for Premises
The available evidence suggests that these claims are overstated. For example, despite the
claim that people with growth mindsets care first and foremost about learning (Premise 1), a
recent meta-analysis found the correlation between mindset and learning goal orientation was
only
!
̅ = .19 (Burnette et al., 2013). For comparison, other personality constructs correlate much
more strongly with learning goal orientation: self-efficacy (
!
̅ = .56); need for achievement (
!
̅ =
.38); openness to experience (
!
̅ = .34) (Payne, Youngcourt, & Beaubien, 2007). Burnette et al.’s
meta-analysis also revealed weak evidence for Premises 2 and 3: mindset only correlated
!
̅ = -.15
with performance goal orientation and
!
̅ = -.18 with performance-avoidance goal orientation. For
comparison, Payne et al.’s meta-analysis (2007) found that self-efficacy correlated
!
̅ = -.47 with
performance-avoidance goal orientation. Referring to mindset, Payne et al. (2007) concluded that
“the effect sizes were very small, providing little evidence for Dweck’s (1986) view that implicit
theories are the primary underlying antecedent of GO [goal orientation]” (p. 140).
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 7
We could find no evidence that people with fixed mindsets believe that talent without
effort creates success (Premise 4). Some studies have examined the relationship between mindset
and persisting to overcome a challenge (Premise 5). For example, Robins and Pals (2002) found
that mindset correlated .48 with a response to challenge scale in college students, and Brown
(2009) found that mindset correlated .22 with persistence on a challenging task in children.
However, while the implication is that persistence on an experimental task translates into real-
world behavior, most studies do not test mindset’s relationship with persistence towards a real-
world challenging goal that is important to the individual.
Few studies have examined the relationship between one’s naturally-held mindset and
resilience to failure (Premise 6). Rather, studies that examined resilience to failure by “helpless”
and “mastery-oriented” children (with no measures of mindset; e.g., Diener & Dweck, 1978) or
after manipulating praise (Mueller & Dweck, 1998) have been interpreted as evidence of
mindset’s relationship with resilience (see e.g., Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Good, Rattan, &
Dweck, 2012). However, Li & Bates (2019) directly tested this relationship. In one sample, they
found no association between mindset and performance following failure. In another sample,
they found that students with fixed mindsets performed better than students with growth mindsets
following failure.
Present Study
Proponents of mindset theory have made bold claims about the importance of mindset.
Dweck herself has stated multiple times that mindset has “profound” effects on motivation and
achievement (Dweck, 2006; Dweck, 2008). This is not to say that every claim about mindset
implies strong effects or that none are more nuanced. However, strong claims about mindset
appear often enough that they warrant evidence.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 8
The goal of the present study was to test the strength of the evidence for these claims.
Therefore, we evaluated mindset theory’s predicted associations against the mean effect size
found in social psychological research, r = .20 (see Effect Size Benchmarks below). We also
compare effects of mindset to effects of other achievement motivation constructs.
To preview the results, the claims appear much stronger than the evidence. Only two
relationships were statistically significant in the predicted direction. In all cases, mindset’s
effects were significantly weaker than r = .20. The strongest association (r = -.12) was in the
opposite direction predicted by mindset theory. That is, fixed mindset was associated with better
test performance following failure feedback (Premise 6).
Method
All hypotheses, planned sample sizes, sampling plan, and the data collection stopping
rule were pre-registered at
https://osf.io/gkwrv/?view_only=4b7cfdd7d6b9459ca9714f204678daa5 and
https://osf.io/32bxf/?view_only=add1e240ab57496096680e66be1f2aae. Materials and
Supplemental Materials are available at
https://osf.io/buazk/?view_only=36f87228fc0a4773a859f0681219e66f. The Institutional Review
Boards of Case Western Reserve University and Michigan State University approved this study.
Effect Size Benchmarks
For each premise, we tested the prediction made by mindset theory. The analyses and
pattern of results that would support each premise was pre-registered at
https://osf.io/gkwrv/?view_only=4b7cfdd7d6b9459ca9714f204678daa5 and
https://osf.io/32bxf/?view_only=add1e240ab57496096680e66be1f2aae.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 9
The criterion for robust evidence supporting claims about mindset was determined as
follows: significant, standardized regression coefficients, ßs |.20|, in the direction predicted by
mindset theory. We tested whether ßs were significantly smaller than |.20| via inferiority tests
(Lakens, Scheel, & Isager, 2018).
We chose to test against ß = .20 (i.e., r = .20) for two reasons. First, statistical
significance alone is insufficient to corroborate a theory or establish a meaningful empirical
finding (Cohen, 1994; Lykken, 1968). Second, the strength of a psychological theory should be
evaluated, at least in part, by its explanatory power: the effect size (Shäfer & Schwarz, 2019). In
particular, strongly worded claims should be supported by equally strong evidence. As such,
effects described as profound should at least meet the mean effect size in social psychological
research, r .20 (Richard, Bond Jr., & Stokes-Zoota, 2003). In addition to using this benchmark,
we contextualize mindset’s effect sizes alongside other constructs in the same research area. The
purpose of these contrasts is to illustrate how effects of mindset compare to effects within the
field of social psychology in general and the achievement motivation literature in particular.
Participants
According to G*Power (Faul, Erdfelder, Lang, & Buchner, 2007), a minimum of 73
participants was needed to observe at least a ΔR2 = .13 effect size (G*Power’s medium-sized
effect benchmark based on Cohen’s (1988) convention; we initially planned to test against
medium-sized effects, see Supplemental Material) in a hierarchical regression analysis (our most
complex analysis) at .90 power. Our pre-registered stopping rule for data collection was to run
146 participants (i.e., 73*2), or to continue collecting data until the end of the semester,
whichever occurred second.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 10
A total of 438 undergraduate students from Case Western Reserve University (n = 102)
and Michigan State University (n = 336) participated in the study in exchange for partial course
credit or extra credit. Our power to detect significant effects of ß |.20| was .99 for all analyses.
Measures
Mindset of Intelligence. Dweck’s (2000) Implicit Theories of Intelligence Questionnaire
was used to measure mindset. Participants responded to 8 items using a 5-point Likert scale,
rating the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “You can always
substantially change how intelligent you are.” Higher scores on this measure correspond to more
of a growth mindset, reflecting the belief that intelligence is malleable. Lower scores correspond
to more of a fixed mindset, reflecting the belief that intelligence is relatively stable.
Goal Orientation. An adapted version of Elliot and Church’s (1997) Goal Orientation
Questionnaire was used to measure goal orientation. Participants responded to 16 items using a
5-point Likert scale, rating the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with learning goal
statements such as “I want to learn as much as possible,” performance-approach goal statements
such as “I strive to demonstrate my ability relative to others,” and performance-avoidance goal
statements such as “I worry about the possibility of performing poorly.” Higher scores
correspond to greater endorsement of each goal orientation.
Belief in Talent vs. Effort. Participants responded to 3 items using a 5-point Likert
scale, rating the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with the following statements: 1)
Belief in Talent Alone: “Talent alone—without effort—creates success.” 2) Belief in Talent and
Effort: “Both talent and effort are needed for success.” And 3) Belief in Effort Alone: “Effort
alone—without talent—creates success.” Higher scores correspond to stronger agreement with
these statements.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 11
Response to Challenge. Participants were asked to think about a current important and
challenging goal in their life. They rated how important this goal was to them, how challenging
this goal was, and how confident they were in their ability to achieve it. Next, participants
responded to 4 items using a 5-point Likert scale, rating how likely they were to persist at
working towards this goal in the face of challenge. The 4 items consisted of the following
statements: 1) “I am working hard to accomplish this goal and overcome this challenge.” 2)
When this goal or challenge has proven difficult, I have worked harder to accomplish it.” 3)
When this goal or challenge has proven difficult, I have taken a break from working toward this
goal” (reverse scored). And 4) “If confronted with potential failure, I will stop trying to
accomplish this goal” (reverse scored). A Response to Challenge score was computed by taking
the mean response to the 4 items.
Cognitive Ability. We created a composite variable representing cognitive ability by
averaging standardized scores (i.e., z scores) on the Cattell Culture Fair Test 4 and Letter Sets.
Cattell Culture Fair Test 4. Participants were presented with a target geometric design
with one or two dots located in it. Participants were to select from five other geometric designs
the response option that would allow them to place the dots in an analogous location as in the
target design. Participants were given 2.5 minutes to complete 10 items (Cattell & Cattell, 1949).
The outcome measure was the number correct.
Letter Sets. Participants were presented with five sets of four letters (e.g., ABCD)
arranged in a row, and attempted to choose the set that did not follow the same pattern as the
other four. Participants were given 5 minutes to complete 20 items (Ekstrom, French, Harmon, &
Derman, 1976). The outcome measure was the number correct.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 12
Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices Challenge Test. Participants were presented
with a set of patterns with the lower-right portion missing. Participants attempted to choose the
portion that best completed the pattern from a set of options (Raven, Raven, & Court, 1998). The
outcome measure was the number correct.
In the challenge portion of this task (i.e., Part 1), participants were given 2.5 minutes to
complete 4 challenging Raven’s items (items 36, 35, 34, and 33, in that order). After 2.5 minutes,
they were given honest feedback on their performance on the first 4 items, in the form of bold,
red text (e.g., “Your accuracy was 0% on this first set”). In the test portion of this task (i.e., Part
2), participants were given 7.5 minutes to complete 14 less-challenging Raven’s items (odd
numbered items 5-31, presented in order of increasing difficulty). The outcome measure was the
number correct.
Procedure
First, participants completed the following questionnaires, listed in order of
administration: Mindset of Intelligence, Goal Orientation, Response to Challenge, and Belief in
Talent vs. Effort. Next, participants completed the Cattell Culture Fair Test 4, Letter Sets, and
the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices Challenge Test.
Results
Data are openly available at:
https://osf.io/buazk/?view_only=36f87228fc0a4773a859f0681219e66f. No participants met our
exclusion criteria. Thus, no participants were excluded from any analyses. Results from
exploratory analyses are presented in the Supplemental Materials. Descriptive statistics are
presented in Table 1. Correlations are presented in Table 2.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 13
Table 1
Descriptive Statistics (N = 438)
M
SD
Reliability
Mindset
3.68
0.77
α
Learning Goals
4.13
0.55
α
Performance Goals
3.73
0.63
α
Performance-Avoidance Goals
3.91
0.71
α
Belief in Talent Alone
1.81
0.94
-
Response to Challenge
3.96
0.64
α
Cattell Test 4
5.11
1.59
r
Letter Sets
9.85
2.90
r
Raven’s Challenge (Part 1)
0.34
0.55
-
Raven’s Test (Part 2)
7.39
2.65
r
Note. α = Cronbach’s alpha. Cronbach’s alpha is used as the measure of reliability for the
untimed, Likert scale questionnaires. r = split-half reliability (odd/even) with Spearman-Brown
corrections. Split-half reliability is used for progressively difficult and timed tasks. N/A =
reliability could not be computed for a single-item measure, and is not computed for the
experimental manipulation.
Table 2
Correlations for Personality and Cognitive Ability Measures (N = 438)
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
1. Mindset
---
2. Learning Goals
.10
---
3. Performance Goals
-.11
.16
---
4. Perf.-Avoidance Goals
-.04
.05
.78
---
5. Belief in Talent Alone
-.06
-.09
.06
.04
---
6. Response to Challenge
.06
.33
.06
-.10
-.09
---
7. Cattell Test 4
-.10
-.02
-.07
-.11
-.07
-.03
---
8. Letter Sets
-.11
.03
.03
-.01
-.06
-.05
.21
---
9. Raven’s Test (Part 2)
-.12
.01
-.10
-.11
-.21
-.03
.36
.40
Note. Bolded correlations are statistically significant at p < .05. Perf.-Avoidance Goals =
Performance-Avoidance Goals.
Higher scores on the mindset measure indicate more of a growth mindset; thus,
statistically significant positive effects indicate an association between growth mindset and
another measure. By contrast, statistically significant negative effects indicate an association
between fixed mindset and another measure.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 14
Each analysis was conducted to test a different hypothesis. Thus, there were no alpha
adjustments. A summary of the evidence can be found in Figure 1. Scatterplots are presented in
Figure 2.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY
15
Figure 1. Forest plot depicting associations of mindset with measures hypothesized to relate to mindset. Error bars are 95% CIs. All
effects were significantly weaker than .20 in the predicted direction. The effect for Premise 6 was in the opposite direction predicted
by mindset theory.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY
16
Testing Premise 1: People with Growth Mindsets Hold Learning Goals
If people with growth mindsets hold learning goals, we should find a positive association
between mindset and learning goal orientation. Regression analysis revealed that mindset
significantly predicted learning goal orientation, b = .10, 95% CI [.004, .19], t = 2.05, p = .041,
however, an inferiority test indicated that the association was significantly weaker than b = .20, p
= .015.
Testing Premise 2: People with Fixed Mindsets Hold Performance Goals
If people with fixed mindsets hold performance goals, we should find a negative
association between mindset and performance goal orientation. Regression analysis indicated
that fixed mindset significantly predicted performance goal orientation, b = -.11, 95% CI [-.20, -
.02], t = -2.29, p = .022, however, an inferiority test indicated that the association was
significantly weaker than b = -.20, p = .026.
Testing Premise 3: People with Fixed Mindsets Hold Performance-Avoidance Goals
If people with fixed mindsets hold performance-avoidance goals, we should find a
negative association between mindset and performance-avoidance goal orientation. Regression
analysis indicated that mindset did not significantly predict holding performance-avoidance
goals, b = -.04, 95% CI [-.13, .05], t = -0.82, p = .414. An inferiority test indicated that the
association between mindset and performance-avoidance goal orientation was significantly
weaker than b = -.20, p < .001.
Testing Premise 4: People with Fixed Mindsets Believe That Talent Alone–Without Effort–
Creates Success
If people with fixed mindsets believe that talent alone–without effort–creates success, we
should find a negative association between mindset and agreement with the statement “talent
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 17
alone–without effort–creates success.” Regression analysis revealed that fixed mindset did not
significantly predict the belief that talent alone is responsible for success, b = -.06, 95% CI [-.16,
.03], t = -1.28, p = .201. An inferiority test indicated that the association between fixed mindset
and the belief that talent alone creates success was significantly weaker than b = -.20, p = .002.
Testing Premise 5: People with Growth Mindsets Persist to Overcome Challenges
If people with growth mindsets persist to overcome challenges, we should find a positive
association between mindset and agreement with statements about persisting to overcome
challenges. Regression analysis indicated that growth mindset did not significantly predict
agreement with persisting to overcome a challenge, b = .06, 95% CI [-.04, .15], t = 1.17, p =
.242. An inferiority test indicated that the association between growth mindset and persistence in
the face of challenge was significantly weaker than b = .20, p = .001.
Testing Premise 6: People with Growth Mindsets Are More Resilient Following Failure
If people with growth mindsets are more resilient following failure, we should find a
positive association between mindset and performance on a task after receiving failure feedback.
The mean score on Part 1 of the Raven’s Matrices Test (i.e., the failure manipulation),
was M = 0.34 (SD = .55) problems correct out of four. No participant correctly answered the four
items. Thus, all participants received failure messages presented in bold red text.
Having experienced failure, does mindset predict which participants “bounce back” and
which are “devastated by setbacks” on Part 2 of the test? Indeed, mindset significantly predicted
performance on Part 2 of the test, but in the opposite direction predicted by mindset theory, b = -
.12, 95% CI [-.22, -.03], t = -2.56, p = .011. That is, students with more of a fixed mindset
outperformed students with more of a growth mindset (see Figures 1 and 2). An inferiority test
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 18
indicated that the association between growth mindset and performance following failure
feedback was significantly weaker than b = .20, p < .001.
Next, we conducted hierarchical regression analyses to investigate whether mindset
predicted performance on Part 2 of the Raven’s Matrices Test after controlling for cognitive
ability. In Step 1 of the models we entered the cognitive ability composite variable. In Step 2 we
added mindset.
The overall model accounted for 24.1% of the variance in performance in Part 2 of the
Raven’s Matrices Test, F(2, 435) = 69.099, p < .001. The effect of cognitive ability was
significant (β = .48, 95% CI [.40, .56], rsemi-partial = .48, t = 11.39, p < .001), whereas the effect of
mindset was not significant (β = -.06, 95% CI [-.14, .03], rsemi-partial = -.05, t = -1.31, p = .190).
The change in R2 from Step 1 to Step 2 was not statistically significant, ΔR2 = .003, p = .190.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY
19
Figure 2. Scatterplots depicting relationships between mindset (higher scores = more of a growth mindset) and measures hypothesized
to relate to mindset. Data points have been made semi-transparent and jittered slightly for readability. Confidence bands are 95% CIs.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY
20
Discussion
Mindset is a popular construct in psychological research and educational practice
(Moreau, Macnamara, & Hambrick, 2018). Often, the language used to describe the importance
of mindset is bold. Such claims have led to vast amounts of funding devoted to mindset research
and a proliferation of growth mindset interventions (Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, & Macnamara,
2018).
We empirically tested six key premises of mindset theory. We found that the strength of
the claims appears to outweigh the strength of the evidence. That is, in all cases, mindset’s
effects were significantly weaker than the average effect size found in social psychological
research. Only two of the six associations with mindset were statistically significant in the
predicted direction. The strongest association (r = -.12) was in the opposite direction predicted
by mindset theory. That is, fixed mindset was associated with better test performance following
failure feedback. This result is consistent with Li and Bates’ (2019) findings.
Although we did not find robust support for mindset theory’s premises in terms of
statistical significance, some might argue that small associations have practical significance.
However, without robust evidence that associations are nonzero, as is the case with half the
premises tested, there is no evidence of practical significance. Furthermore, other personality
constructs may have greater practical significance than mindset. For instance, one reason mindset
is presumed to be important is because of its relationship with learning goal orientation. We
found that mindset accounted for 1% of learning goal orientation variance. By comparison, a
meta-analysis found that self-esteem, need for achievement, and general self-efficacy explained
10%, 14%, and 31% of learning goal orientation variance, respectively (Payne et al., 2007).
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 21
Therefore, mindset may not be “the core of meaning systems(p. 483) as Dweck and Yeager
(2019) recently claimed.
Proponents of mindset theory have made efforts to promote mindset interventions and
shape education policy (see, e.g., Rattan et al., 2015). However, the results of this investigation
and others suggest that the theoretical basis for these programs may not be sound. Time and
money spent on mindset-related programs diverts resources from other programs with potentially
greater effects and stronger theoretical underpinnings (e.g., curricula, teacher training, self-
efficacy programs). Therefore, practitioners might reconsider the value of mindset in their work.
Conclusion
We tested several key premises of mindset theory. The premises were not well-supported.
Only two of six associations were statistically significant in the predicted direction. All effects of
mindset were significantly weaker than the average effect size found in social psychology, and
diminutive relative to other constructs in the achievement motivation literature. Furthermore, the
largest effect (r = -.12) was in the opposite direction predicted by mindset theory. This research
suggests that the foundations of mindset theory are not firm, and in turn calls into question many
assumptions made about the importance of mindset. Given the public spotlight on mindset, it
may be prudent for mindset researchers to temper strongly-worded claims.
Author Contributions
A. P. Burgoyne and B. N. Macnamara developed the study concept. A. P. Burgoyne and B. N.
Macnamara designed the study with input from D. Z. Hambrick. A. P. Burgoyne developed the
study materials with input from B. N. Macnamara. Testing and data collection were performed in
the laboratories of D. Z. Hambrick and B. N. Macnamara. A. P. Burgoyne and B. N. Macnamara
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 22
performed the data analysis and interpretation. A. P. Burgoyne drafted the manuscript, and B. N.
Macnamara and D. Z. Hambrick provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final
version of the manuscript for submission.
Open Practices Statement
All hypotheses, planned sample sizes, sample plan, data collection stopping rule, and
confirmatory analyses were formally pre-registered at
https://osf.io/gkwrv/?view_only=4b7cfdd7d6b9459ca9714f204678daa5 and
https://osf.io/32bxf/?view_only=add1e240ab57496096680e66be1f2aae. Materials that are not
copyrighted are openly available at
https://osf.io/buazk/?view_only=36f87228fc0a4773a859f0681219e66f. Data are openly available
at https://osf.io/buazk/?view_only=36f87228fc0a4773a859f0681219e66f.
TESTING THE FOUNDATIONS OF MINDSET THEORY 23
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... For example, Shively and Ryan (2013) found that undergraduates' mindsets were moderately correlated with their estimates of the role effort in determining math intelligence (rs = 0.45-0.46). Another study of undergraduate students found no association between mindsets and the belief that talent alone (not effort) causes success (Burgoyne et al., 2020). Furthermore, American students report similar theories about the malleability of traits when compared to Japanese students, but American students still estimate effort as a smaller contributor to intelligence compared to their Japanese counterparts (Heine et al., 2001). ...
... A moderate mindset that endorsed average levels of each mindset measure seemed to be associated with the best outcomes when compared to profiles with more extreme profiles, particularly when compared to individuals with a false growth mindset. The discrepancy between the nonsignificant correlations and the cluster analyses results offers a novel explanation for why relations between the traditional mindset measure and behavioral outcomes are small (Burgoyne et al., 2020;Sisk et al., 2018), despite the strong theoretical foundations for growth mindset. Some people who seem to have a growth mindset do not respond to alternative measures in ways that suggest they hold a genuine belief that ability can change. ...
... There may be other components of an authentic growth mindset that are worth including when identifying patterns of beliefs, such as the belief that failure can be an opportunity to learn (Haimovitz & Dweck, 2016) or the tendency to make unstable and controllable attributions for failure (Goudeau & Cimpian, 2021). Second, we suggest that the small correlation between mindsets and behavior (Burgoyne et al., 2020;Sisk et al., 2018) may be reduced, in part, due to individuals who hold a false growth mindset, suppressing the explanatory power of the belief that ability can change on outcomes like achievement. Third, those who conduct intervention work may want to consider whether interventions foster a growth mindset or a false growth mindset. ...
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... Both meta-analyses found wide heterogeneity in the effects and weak overall effects of growth mindset. Other systematic reviews on the effects of growth mindsets on students' motivations, attributions, and other assumptions of its theory also found weak effect sizes (Burgoyne et al., 2020). These meta-analyses clarify the factors or contexts wherein growth mindset's positive effects are observed more strongly. ...
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... In contrast, we expected a positive relationship between growth belief and career preparation behavior and no relationship or a negative relationship to employment anxiety. The detailed context in the implicit theory of work scale items, which boldly address one's perception of the role of obstacles and effort in a career path, was particularly expected to give the scale the edge to reveal their distinct role, regardless of some critical viewpoints with the positive role of incremental theory of intelligence in academic achievement and overcoming challenges (Burgoyne et al., 2020;Sisk et al., 2018). ...
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