Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fascination with Carol Dweck and her entity versus incremental theory of intelligence/ability that I have blogged about extensively in the past. To recap, people (children usually in her studies) can have a fixed entity view of intelligence that it is a stable trait whihc can/does not change with time; or they can have an incremental view of intelligence that focuses more on motivational states, goals, desires as determinant of success/intelligence exhibited and view it as a malleable and not a fixed trait.
A major paradigm she uses is documenting the behavior of those with chronic or induced entity vs incremental view of intelligence after receiving negative feedback/actual setbacks. She has found that while entity theorists relate their failures to global traits like lack of intelligence and display subsequent helpless behavior; the incremental self theorists display mastery oriented behavior, use new strategies and in general persist. The big question then becomes why do they persists? and the surprising answer may be what Neo answered – ‘because I choose to’.
I recently came across this book ‘Are we free’ about free will debate and in it was surprised to find a chapter by Carol Dweck and Daniel Molden titled “self-theories in the construction of free-will’ that builds on works of Carol et al to argue that those iwth fixed views of intelligence/morality basically are determinisms believing in a kind of genetic determinism, while the incremental theorists are sort of libertarians who believe that one can exercise choice over one’s behavior. They also show that belief in free-will/incremental theories has a better life outcome.
I will now quote extensively form that lovely artcile:
Modern psychological research suggests that, at least within Western societies, belief in the power of the individual over the constraints of the environment predicts better psychological adjustment and greater personal success. As a rule, people appear to fare better with an internal versus external locus of control (Rotter, 1966), feelings of self-determination versus external constraints (Ryan & Deci, 2000), and use of primary control (direct, agentic action) over secondary control (adjusting to the environment or event without trying to affect it; Heckhausen & Shultz, 1995; Lazarus, 1991).
They then mention how even after having an inetrnal attribution, one may still differ in whether one attributes to fixed traits or malleable states.
We have investigated this issue by focusing on people’s beliefs about whether basic personal attributes (such as intelligence or personality) are fixed and static traits or, instead, more dynamic qualities that can be cultivated (Dweck, 1999; Dweck & Leggett, 1988). The former belief is termed an entity theory, because here the assumption is that human attributes are fixed entities that are not subject to personal development. The latter belief is termed an incremental theory, because here the assumption is that human attributes can be developed or changed incrementally through one’s efforts.
Research comparing entity and incremental theorists has uncovered marked differences, ones that have important implications for perceptions of free will (for reviews see Levy, Plaks, & Dweck, 1999; Molden & Dweck, 2006). Not only do entity theorists by definition believe in fixed traits, but they also believe that these traits directly cause behavior in a highly predictable way (Chiu, Hong, & Dweck, 1997; Hong, 1994). In contrast, not only do incremental theorists by definition believe in more dynamic, malleable traits, but they also believe that people’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations—which they view as controllable— play the major role in causing their actions (Hong, 1994).4 Thus, both theories give the major causal role to factors inside the person, but those internal factors for entity theorists are not amenable to personal control, whereas those internal factors for incremental theorists are far more susceptible to it.
Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that different beliefs about the nature of people’s traits and abilities may profoundly alter people’s potential for perceptions of free will in choices and actions. Entity theorists’ greater emphasis on the deterministic influence of fixed internal traits could serve to give them a sense of a stable and predictable world, but at the same time, constrain perceived opportunities for choice and agency. In contrast, incremental theorists’ greater focus on people’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations as causes of action—factors they believe can be controlled—could serve to enhance perceived opportunities for self-determination.
Thus, entity theorists tend to respond to difficulty by relinquishing agency, whereas incremental theorists tend to react by reasserting their agency. Do these different reactions make a difference for important life outcomes? In a longitudinal study by Blackwell et al. (2007), students’ math achievement was monitored during their transition from relatively simple elementary school mathematics to more challenging junior high school mathematics. Although entity and incremental theorists did not differ in their math achievement when they entered junior high, incremental theorists soon began to earn higher grades than entity theorists and this disparity continued to increase over the next 2 years. The discrepancy in performance was found to result in large part from incremental theorists’ belief in the efficacy of renewed effort and their choice to persist in the face of setbacks (see also Hong et al., 1999). Furthermore, several studies have now taught students an incremental theory and shown substantial increases in their motivation and grades or achievement test scores in the face of challenging curricula both in junior high school and in college (Aronson, Fried, & Good, 2002; Blackwell et al, 2007; Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003).
Further support for these findings comes from recent research by Baer, Grant, and Dweck (2005).5 They showed, first, that entity theorists experience greater symptoms of distress and depression in their daily lives and that this is tied to their greater tendency to engage in self-critical rumination about their fixed traits and abilities following negative events. Baer et al. also showed that the more distress entity theorists felt, the less they engaged in active problem solving. The opposite was true for incremental theorists. Overall, then, entity theorists’ belief in deterministic traits leads them to perceive fewer choices for action following failure, and they do indeed appear to suffer from this lack of choice and reduced agency.
They then go on to discuss the self-theories in relation to moral responsibility and social judgement building on their previous work that showed that people having entity views tend to be more retributive, while those with incremental views moire rehabilitative when judging others.
In short, even though entity theorists believe that traits constrain the extent to which people could have acted otherwise, they still believe that people should be held accountable for these constrained actions. Moreover, even though incremental theorists believe that people are more free to alter and develop their basic character (i.e., they have ultimate responsibility for their actions; see Kane, 1996), they are less severe in their moral judgments and punishment. Perhaps it is their understanding of the complex psychology that lies behind decisions to act that makes them more understanding of errant behavior. Further, because in their eyes wrongdoers can change, they tend to advocate rehabilitation instead of retribution. To our knowledge, discussion of the link between conceptions of free will and the type of punishment people should receive has been less prominent in philosophical discussions and may be a fruitful direction for further analysis (see, for example, Smart, 1961).
To summarize thus far, research on self-theories has yielded a picture of two psychological worlds. In one, traits are fixed and deterministic and there is little room for agency when those traits prove deficient. It is also a world of retributive justice. In the other world, traits are malleable, and so are the causes of behavior, leaving more room for choice and agency even after setbacks. In this world of enhanced self-determination, education and rehabilitation are emphasized so that wrongdoers might be guided to make better choices in the future.
They finally conclude with implications of their research for the free-will debate, which I think need to be mulled over.
The first point from our research is that personality is, in many ways, a highly dynamic system in which (changeable) beliefs can create a network of motivation and action (Cervone, 2004; Dweck & Legget, 1988; Molden & Dweck, 2006; cf.; Mischel & Shoda, 1995). For example, personal theories of intelligence create different goals, beliefs about effort, task choices, and reactions to setbacks. Although these beliefs can be instilled or activated without people’s awareness, they can also be self-chosen.
We do not deny the important effects of inborn temperament and early experience and we do not view the child as a blank slate on which anything can be written. Yet our view of personality is very different from a view of personality as just a set of deep-seated personal qualities that inevitably incline people toward particular choices and actions. Indeed, even some of the most ardent students of temperament’s role in personality grant that as children develop they cognitively construct their worlds, and that these cognitive constructions (such as self-theories) become an important part of their personality (Block, 1993; Rothbart & Ahadi, 1994).9 Thus our first point is that people’s belief systems are part of their personality, and we see in this more dynamic view of personality greater possibility for self-formation.
Our second point is that beliefs, such as self-theories, can alter what are often taken to be deep-seated traits. Such traits might include resilience, extroversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, risk taking, and nurturance (Block, 1993; McCrae & Costa, 1999).
To me, it is important to persist. Persist in convincing skeptics of the utility of free will. And I choose to!
Dweck, C., Chiu, C., & Hong, Y. (1995). Implicit Theories and Their Role in Judgments and Reactions: A Word From Two Perspectives Psychological Inquiry, 6 (4), 267-285 DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli0604_1
Carol, Dweck S; Daniel, Molden C (2008). Self-Theories: The Construction of Free Will Are We free, 44-65
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