"People are driven to feel that they can predict and control their outcomes. So when their performance turns out to violate their predictions, this can be unnerving -- even if the outcome is, objectively speaking, good news," says Plaks. He points out that the notion that people often sacrifice their success in the name of greater certainty has some intuitive appeal but it has never been put to a rigorous test.
In one representative study, Plaks and Stecher used a questionnaire to classify participants into those who endorsed a fixed view of intelligence and those who endorsed a malleable view. Then participants took three versions of what was purported to be an intelligence test. After the first test, all participants were given a lesson on how to improve their score. After the second test, participants were randomly assigned to be told that their performance had improved, stayed constant, or declined.
Among those who believed they had improved, those with the fixed view became more anxious and performed worse on the third test than those with the malleable view. However, among participants who believed that their performance had failed to improve, it was the malleable view participants who grew anxious and underperformed compared to their fixed view counterparts.
Plaks notes that if people gain an understanding of how they view their abilities, as fixed or changeable, then they can be aware of the advantages and pitfalls of both perspectives. This in turn may better equip them to adopt alternative theories to explain life's ups and downs. "Both approaches are highly intuitive and that makes them relatively easy to teach," says Plaks. "If we can get people to change their underlying assumptions about their abilities then they may improve their performance and that is positive news for those charged with the task of getting people to reach their full potential."
The study findings were published in the October issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Adapted from materials provided by University of Toronto.