Sunday, October 6, 2013

Carol Dweck vs. The American Dream

Americans believe in hard work. You can see this in the poll above. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that American's belief in the power of hard work is relatively unchanged since 25 years ago:

Our culture stands in contrast to that belonging to other nations. Michele Lamont, in her study of French and American upper-middle-class workers (which I haven't read, just to be clear) argues that crucial to French conceptions of moral character is intelligence, while crucial to American moral characterizations is ambition and hard work:

So: Americans believe in the power of hard work to grant economic achievement, even in the face of widespread evidence that this is not the case.

Enter Dweck:

She explains that people with fixed mindsets about X won't work hard if the task is seen to demand X.

Take another quote from her writing:
We often hear these days that we've produced a generation of young people who can't get through the day without an award. They expect success because they're special, not because they've worked hard.
Is there a tension here? Dweck shows that having a fixed mindset about intelligence is extremely prevalent. [citation needed] She also argues that having a fixed mindset causes you to discard hard work, since "risk and effort are two things that might reveal your inadequacies and show that you were not up to the task." Despite this, there's a robust observation that Americans (incorrectly!) believe that hard work is a key to economic achievement.

How do we square Dweck's research about intelligence with the American obsession with hard work? I see only a few possibilities:
  • Americans don't see intelligence as a path toward economic success.
  • "Intelligence" doesn't mean one thing to Americans. Dweck's research is mainly limited to school learning. Do Americans have a fixed mindset about school intelligence, but not about "practical" intelligence?
What do you guys think about this? Do you see the tension that I'm pointing to? Or am I totally off?

I think that there's a certain irony in Carol Dweck's work. She has pointed to a fixed mindset of intelligence as important in determining how much hard work you're willing to put in to your work. She consistently laments the lack of hard work that results from seeing intelligence as a trait, and that this is the difference maker in academic achievement.

So you might've believed that Americans are, on the whole, an entirely lazy bunch. But, to the contrary, Americans are relatively hard working, and extra-ordinarily obsessed with the notion of hard work in determining economic success. 

If that hard work is an indicator of an incremental mindset, then intelligence must be one of the few areas relevant to professional life that Americans actually do have a fixed mindset about.


  1. Dweck's work suggests that many American school children believe ability/intelligence is "fixed." Therefore, it's not worth their effort to try harder and master material. She has found that this belief can be reversed - especially by/in seventh grade.

    I don't think there's an irony here.

  2. "one of the few areas"

    In the America I live in, it is common for young people to say
    - I'm just clumsy / not coordinated
    - I'm not artistic
    - I'm not a math person
    - I can't sing
    - I don't have a good sense of direction
    - I'm a "visual learner"*
    - etc etc etc all of which indicate fixed mindsets about various abilities

    * if you are interested in the lack of evidence for learning styles

  3. Maybe Americans don't see the fixed and growth mindsets in opposition the way Dweck does. Maybe Americans believe in the value of hard work for improving at things they perceive themselves as having a chance at (a "fixed" idea) and simultaneously they discount effort applied to things they think they don't have a chance at (another "fixed" idea).

    Anyway, I think my point is that you only see this as ironic because you take the "American work ethic" stuff at face value and as though it is framed in the same terms as Dweck's work.

  4. I have to admit, I'm kinda lost on the logic that gets you to the irony. I'm not saying it's not there, just that I'm not following.

    Incidentally, I'm listening to the audio book right now that your Dweck quote comes from. It was strange because as I was reading it it was eerily familiar!

    1. You're right. This is, at best, a confused post. Thanks for pointing that out!

  5. I'll concede: this is not my best moment as a blogger. The argument is muddled. I need to give it a second shot.

    1. For what it's worth, I think your argument comes through. Maybe it's not an irony "in" Dweck's work, so much as a possible contradiction between Dweck's findings and another fact about America:

      1. According to evidence like the poll above, most Americans have an unusually strong (and partly mistaken) belief in the power of hard work to overcome socioeconomic disadvantages.

      2. According to Dweck's research, many Americans have a strong (and largely mistaken) belief in the inability of hard work to overcome (alleged) cognitive disadvantages.

      As for reconciling them, I think both of your suggestions make sense. First, Americans may believe that hard work makes you richer, but not necessarily smarter. Your distinction between "practical intelligence" (which helps lead to wealth) and "school intelligence" (which helps lead to academic success) may capture part of what's going on.

      Another possible explanation: Fact #1 deals with our civic beliefs about society in general; fact #2 deals with our personal psychology and our beliefs about our own abilities. Those won't necessarily be in harmony.

      -Ben Orlin

  6. I think it's an apples and oranges thing. Is the "hard work" information from the same kind of population that Dweck's pulling from? The correlating entities are different, too: the "liking hard work" is correlated with Being American, and the thinking hard work doesn't matter because if you're smart or talented you *won't* have to work hard is correlated to that mindset thing, regardless of national origin.
    Now, could be that she's working with the younger generation and civilization is doomed :)