Why Beliefs About Intelligence Can Impact Achievement

Why Believing Hard Work Trumps Genetics Can Boost Achievement and Performance

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At a Glance: Want to promote achievement and encourage people to work harder? One study found that simply telling people that intelligence is due to the environment rather than genetics leads to positive changes in the brain, making these individuals work harder and persevere in the face of challenges.

Are people born smart or does a challenging and enriching environment make up a bigger piece of the intelligence puzzle?

The debate over the relative contributions of nature and nurture has long been the source of debate in psychology. One recent study offers evidence that when it comes to intelligence, your beliefs about whether intelligence is due to nature or nurture might matter most of all.

What You Believe About Intelligence Influence Achievement

According to the study conducted by Hans Schroder of Michigan State University, telling volunteers that hard work matters more than genetics leads to immediate changes in the brain. These changes, he suggested, might make people work harder and persist when things become difficult.

“Giving people messages that encourage learning and motivation may promote more efficient performance,” suggested Schroder. “In contrast, telling people that intelligence is genetically fixed may inadvertently hamper learning.”

These results echo the findings of psychologist Carol Dweck, who has found that praising children for their intelligence ("You're so smart!") versus their efforts ("You worked so hard!") leads to a fixed mindset and makes children less interested in learning and more likely to give up if the face of academic challenges.

Looking at the Effects of Two Different Messages About Intelligence

In Schroder's study, participants began by reading one of two articles that contained differing messages about intelligence. One article suggested that intelligence is mostly genetic, while the other suggested that intelligence that mostly due to environment and that genetics played very little part.

The volunteers were asked to remember the main points of the article they read before completing a simple computer task. While they were performing the task, their brain activity was recorded. The results indicated that those who had learned that genetics is responsible for intelligence paid more attention to their responses and were more concerned with how they did, but the extra concern and attention had no impact on actual performance.

On the other hand, those who had learned that intelligence is mostly due to the environment showed a very different brain response. These participants paid greater attention to their mistakes and showed a higher brain response after making a mistake. Not only did brain activity increase after a mistake, they also performed better afterwards and responded more quickly on the next trial.

“If they paid attention to the errors, they were faster,” Schroder said. “Their brains worked effectively after mistakes and showed new results.”

The Bottom Line: Praise Efforts, Not Innate Abilities

The study offers additional evidence that the messages people receive about their abilities has a major impact on performance and achievement.

Teachers, parents, and coaches often deliver a variety of messages regarding intelligence as well as other abilities. These messages often emphasize either a nature ("You're so smart!," "You're so talented!") or nurture ("You worked really hard! You put a lot of effort into that!") approach. Schoder's work, along with Dweck's earlier findings, suggest that parents, educators, and others should carefully think about the messages they send and focus on giving praise that stresses efforts rather than innate abilities.

Whether nature or nurture has a bigger influence on intelligence may not matter as much as what people believe about whether their abilities are fixed or malleable. Delivering effort-based messages might be the key to developing a "growth mindset" and boosting achievement, performance, and motivation.


Michigan State University. (2014, Sept. 3.). Nature or nurture? It's all about the message. Retrieved from http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2014/nature-or-nurture-its-all-about-the-message/

Schroder, H. S., Moran, T. P., Donnellan, M. B., & Moser, J. S. (2014). Mindset induction effects on cognitive control: A neurobehavioral investigation. Biological Psychology, 103, 27-37. DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2014.08.004

Rojo, J. (2014, Sept. 8). Believing hard work trumps genetics might help you ace that test. The State News. Retrieved from http://statenews.com/article/2014/09/psychstudy

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