The Power of Mindsets: How Beliefs About Intelligence Influence Achievement

(Last Updated On: March 5, 2019)

What strategies can you use to encourage people to work harder and increase achievement? Could your beliefs about intelligence influence how hard you work? According to the results of one study, simply telling people that intelligence is due to the environment rather than genetics help increase motivation and achievement. Fostering a belief that intelligence is environmental can lead to positive changes in the brain, making these individuals work harder and persevere in the face of challenges.

When it comes to intelligence, people have long debated whether some people are simply born smart or if an enriched environment might make up a bigger piece of the intelligence puzzle? This question boils down to the age-old debate over the relative contributions of nature and nurture. 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 Can Influence What You Achieve

In a study conducted by Hans Schroder of Michigan State University, volunteers were told that hard work mattered more than genetics. The results of this led to immediate changes in the brain. These changes, the researchers 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.”

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These results support the previous findings of psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck’s work suggests that praising children for their intelligence (“You’re so smart!”) versus their efforts (“You worked so hard!”) leads what she refers to as a fixed mindset. This mindset makes children less interested in learning new things and more likely to give up when they are faced with academic challenges.

Fixed Vs. Growth Messages About Intelligence

So how did the researchers look at how beliefs about intelligence impact achievement? 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 largely due to the environment revealed 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.

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“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: Focus on Praising Efforts

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, suggests 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.

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.

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