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Mass Media Funk

a commentary on mass media stories about the scientific, the paranormal, the supernatural, and anything else that yanks at my eyebrows.

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dumb beliefs about intelligence

December 11, 2007

The following is an excerpt from my book Becoming a Critical Thinker. The references are to Carol S. Dweck's “Beliefs That Make Smart People Dumb,” in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, Robert J. Sternberg, editor (Yale University Press, 2002) and S. Berglas, "Self-handicapping: Etiological and Diagnostic Considerations," in Self-handicapping: The Paradox That Isn’t, R. L. Higgins, editor (Plenum, 1990).

Some beliefs can hinder critical thinking. If you believe you will fail at trying to solve a problem, you probably won’t try. If you don’t try, you won’t avail yourself of the opportunity to learn and develop your talents, including your critical thinking talents. Surprisingly, much research has found that believing that intelligence is something you are born with and is fixed for life by your genes hinders people in several ways that might affect their ability to think critically. “One of the dumbest things people do with the fixed view of intelligence is to sacrifice important learning opportunities when those opportunities contain a risk of revealing ignorance or making errors” (Dweck 2002: 29). Why? Because people who believe intelligence is completely fixed tend to fear failure more than people who view intelligence as largely a potential that can be developed. They seem to fear failure because they tend to measure their self-worth by their intelligence. They interpret any failure as a sign that they lack intelligence. They thus tend to play it safe. People who believe intelligence is malleable tend to interpret any given failure as a sign that they lack a specific skill or bit of knowledge. Instead of being put off by failure, they are often inspired by it to take action and even take more risks. Without risks, learning is impossible. Dweck puts it this way: “Students who hold a fixed view of their intelligence care so much about looking smart that they act dumb” (2002: 31).

Another belief that can hinder critical thinking is the belief that only dumb people have to work hard or that intelligent people learn effortlessly (Dweck 2002: 31). This phenomenon is called self-handicapping (Berglas 1990) It is the tendency to do things that will prevent you from looking like you have low ability, even if these are things that will jeopardize your performance. When people self-handicap, it means that they care more about looking smart (or avoiding looking dumb) than about accomplishing something (Dweck 2002: 32). Unfortunately, self-handicapping is something intelligent people who believe in fixed intelligence tend to do because they tend to believe things should come easy to them. The moral of the story seems to be: even if there is some limit to intelligence imposed by biology, believing that intelligence is largely a potential to be developed will often be the main difference between two equally intelligent people who are unequal critical thinkers.


Teachers and anybody raising children might want to read Dweck's recent article in Scientific American: "The Secret to Raising Smart Kids."

She writes:

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The rest of the article lays out some of the results of that research, much of which many readers will find counter-intuitive but extremely valuable.

* AmeriCares *

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