Do Growth Mindset Interventions Work?
Google "growth mindset" and you get nearly 300 million hits. Walk into an American school and you are bombarded with growth mindset messaging. Naturally, scientists, policymakers, and educators want to know if fostering a growth mindset can help people reach their goals. Do growth mindset interventions work? Before answering this question, let's first discuss what growth mindsets are.
The What, When, and Why of Growth Mindsets
Growth mindsets are intuitively held beliefs about the potential for attributes, abilities, and human characteristics to change. Someone with a growth mindset believes that traits such as intelligence can be developed, whereas someone with a fixed mindset believes that such attributes are set in stone early in life.
These mindsets apply to a multitude of qualities ranging from beliefs about the fundamental nature of people, to beliefs about the capacity to change one's weight or basic artistic abilities. Mindsets, regardless of context, matter because they set the stage for interpreting life's experiences, especially during challenging times. For example, when students with a growth mindset struggle at school, they tend to persist, remain optimistic, and reach out for help. In contrast, students with a fixed mindset tend to shy away from working harder, become anxious, anticipate future failures, and avoid the situation. In summary, mindsets set up a pattern of motivation, with implications for achievement, and they matter most when stressors and struggles arise.
Can These Mindsets be Changed?
Considering the potential benefits of growth mindsets, it is natural to ask whether a person's mindset can be changed (for the better). And if so, will this help people achieve positive outcomes in their lives? My colleagues and I asked these very questions in a review of all the studies that have rigorously tested these ideas. We limited our review to 53 studies that randomly assigned people either to a treatment condition in which they received a growth mindset message, or to a control condition. We focused on whether growth mindset interventions could improve academic, interpersonal, and mental health-related outcomes.
We asked a number of distinct questions when summarizing the research. For example, do these interventions foster stronger growth beliefs that abilities and attributes can change? Do they also improve confidence and increase persistence? Do these, in turn, improve academic performance, interpersonal functioning, and mental health? Based on the evidence, the short answer is yes, growth mindset interventions foster strong growth mindsets, more persistence, improved mental health, better interpersonal functioning, and perhaps greater confidence as well. However, the direct link to improved academic performance is small, which brings us to our next point.
The answer about intervention effectiveness is not a simple yes or no. Rather, like most things in life, the answer is "it depends." Just as people who are more at risk for a heart attack benefit the most from blood pressure-lowering drugs, interventions with individuals with some indication of risk should demonstrate larger effects. Indeed, this is what we find for academic performance and mental health. Growth mindset interventions worked the best when they were delivered to people who needed them—those with some indication of risk or vulnerability.
We also considered how these interventions are delivered. The effectiveness of the intervention can only be as good as its delivery. Like taking medicine, you must take the right dose, sometimes at a particular time of day, and in the right context (such as on an empty stomach). Similarly, growth mindset interventions need to be delivered accurately, need to include key ingredients, and are more effective in contexts that support the growth mindset messaging. In our work, we could not test all these elements, yet past research makes it clear that these practices are vital.
In summary, the answer to the question "Do growth mindset interventions work?" is yes. But, there are important qualifications. They most effectively impact mental health, relative to academic achievement, and are more likely to improve outcomes when implemented well and delivered to the right people.
For Further Reading
Burnette, J. L., Billingsley, J., Banks, G. C., Knouse, L., Hoyt, C. L., Pollack, J. M., & Simon, S. (2022). A systematic and meta-analytic review of growth mindset interventions: For whom, how, and why might such interventions work? Psychological Bulletin.
Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Taylor & Francis.
Dweck, C. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2019). Mindsets: A view from two eras. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(3), 481–496. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691618804166
Jeni L. Burnette is a Professor of Psychology at North Carolina State University. Dr. Burnette's scholarly work is currently focused on understanding how to best implement growth mindset interventions and foster growth mindset cultures.
Crystal L. Hoyt is a Professor of Leadership Studies and Psychology and the Colonel Leo K. & Gaylee Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership at the University of Richmond. Dr. Hoyt's scholarship resides at the intersection of human belief systems, such as mindsets, stereotypes, ideologies, and social issues that have implications for social justice and wellbeing.
Joseph Billingsley is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Tulane University. Dr. Billingsley is particularly interested in applying evolutionary and cognitive approaches to understanding prosocial behavior, in such areas as forgiveness, kinship, and the psychology of religion.