Against expectations, people with more egalitarian political views were more open to the idea that intelligence is fixed

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People lower on “social dominance orientation” were more influenced by the argument that intelligence is a fixed trait (from Hoyt et al 2018)

By Alex Fradera

A growth mindset – believing your capabilities can grow over time – can help us set self-improvement goals, consider mistakes as a step towards mastery, and remain upbeat when facing tribulation. Psychologists are excited by the ways we can help develop such mindsets, particularly towards creativity and intelligence, but some studies have found the impact less impressive than earlier research had suggested. Now researchers are hungry to understand the individual characteristics that might prevent these interventions making an impact on some people.

New research in the British Journal of Social Psychology has investigated one possible candidate – political ideology, specifically a perspective known as “social dominance orientation”. If you are invested in preserving the status quo, perhaps that encourages you to see social relations as inevitable, as “just the way things are” – an essentialist, fixed view of the world that seems to carry over to how you view human capability.

Crystal Hoyt at the University of Richmond and her colleagues asked 300 online participants to rate their agreement with statements about social dominance like “some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups.” Participants then read either an article about intelligence that promoted a growth mindset, or an article arguing for the opposite (both articles used text and graphs to suggest that intelligence was either highly influenced or entirely uninfluenced by the circumstances of our lives, respectively). Finally participants rated their agreement with fixed mindset items like “you can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence”.

Overall, participants higher in social dominance orientation had a somewhat more fixed intelligence mindset. Their views also barely budged after reading either the growth or fixed-mindset article. In contrast, and against the researchers’ expectations, the low-dominance participants were particularly influenced by the article that argued for intelligence as a fixed quality (after reading it, they expressed a fixed mindset, as high as the high-dominance participants).

Perhaps people who are low in social dominance beliefs are more open to scientific argument, and the fixed article was the one that presented them with a new take. In any case, the evidence suggests they are not the ones with most to gain from growth interventions, as was expected, but instead they are at greater risk of sliding towards a fixed argument.

On a positive note, rather than suggesting that high-dominance people might be an especially hard nut for these mindset interventions to crack, the findings create a case for giving it a go – these people are no more resistant than anyone else, and may have further to go, and hence more to gain. All in all, this new research shows that individual differences are worth considering if we want to change mindset, but we’re still in early days of understanding how.

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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