Home All “Brainset” – Neuroscience Examines Carol Dweck’s Theory

“Brainset” – Neuroscience Examines Carol Dweck’s Theory

written by Nicholas Hall 6 September 2007

Nicholas Hall, MAPP '06, is the manager of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business Behavioral Lab. He consults on worker satisfaction and engagement, and sits on the advisory board of Omnirisk Management Tools. His research work focuses on work satisfaction, character strengths, and positive psychology, and is published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Articles by Nicholas are here.

Brain scan Following Decision

Brain scan Following Decision

The more I read about brain imaging technology such as EEGs, MRIs, fMRIs, PET scans and the like, the more curious I become about what these technologies can tell us. What can these technologies tell us about how we think, how we feel, and how to change our thoughts and feelings?

Jennifer Mangels

Jennifer Mangels

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Jennifer Mangels, a neuropsychological researcher, about her research and how it ties in with social and behavioral positive psychology. Dr. Mangels is a professor of psychology at Baruch College in NYC specializing in cognitive neuroscience. She has been studying the brain as it relates to memory, learning, and emotion for over 12 years, with 9 of those years teaching at Columbia. She has studied such subjects as anxiety and executive brain function, age related differences in memory, and learning in people with mild cognitive impairment. She has published over 25 scientific articles and has contributed chapters to several books on neuroscience. (See below for a link to her lab site and other articles.)

Mangels Working with Dweck

Carol Dweck

Carol Dweck

Recently, Dr. Mangels and three colleagues teamed up with Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford to study the differences in the brains of people with growth mindsets and fixed mindsets. This is exciting work because it is hard empirical science studying the underlying brain functions dealing with learning and internal self-concepts. With a study like this, science begins to unravel how the brain functions in people with different mindsets. This particular study helps us understand the internal processes that can help us change our way of thinking and feeling to improve our memory and how we learn.

Most of us are familiar with Dweck’s work on self-theories of intelligence – “fixed mindsets” and “growth mindsets.” A fixed mindset is a self-belief that your intelligence is “fixed” and therefore effort spent in learning something is essentially time wasted, and getting something like a question wrong presents a threat to your self-concept. A growth mindset is a self-belief that intelligence is something that is malleable, and that your level intelligence can grow through effort and attention. (See Dweck’s book “Mind-Set: The New Psychology of Success” for more information on her theory and these articles about Carol Dweck by Gloria Park and by Sherri Fisher.)

The Study

The title of the study says it all: “Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model.” Here is a simple outline of the study. First, participants completed a questionnaire that showed if they had a fixed-mindset or a growth-mindset. Second, while hooked up to the brain imaging technology, they were given a “test” of common-knowledge questions. (e.g. What’s the capital of Australia?) Third, after each incorrect answer, the correct answer was then given. Fourth, after the “test” was over, they are asked to retake the test. Participants did not know beforehand that they would have the opportunity to retake the test. The third and fourth parts of the study get to the heart of growth/fixed mindsets and memory. Had they known beforehand that the test was going to be retaken, even those with a fixed-mindset would have paid closer attention to the correct answers, thus skewing the results of the study. Since they didn’t know, the fixed and growth mindset participantss simply behaved as they normally would.

The Results

Fascinating results came from this study that we can put to use! One interesting finding was that growth-mindset participants had more activity in their brains as it relates to processing the meanings of the words and relationships between them. This means that one reason growth-mindset people are better learners is that they pay more attention to corrective information and think about it more than fixed-mindset people. “To the extent that [fixed-mindset participants] may have viewed negative feedback as a threat to self-perceptions about ability, rather than as a challenge to improve, they may have engaged less effort in “deep,” semantic processing of the learning-relevant feedback, ultimately compromising their ability to correct as many errors on the subsequent retest” (Mangels, et. al., 2006).

Another interesting finding was that according to the brain imaging when the correct answers to the questions were given, growth-mindset participants had their attention focused externally to “regulate sensory and response selection.” This means that they were more interested in finding out what the correct answer was. Fixed-mindset participants had more activity in a part of their limbic system that deals more with regulating their internal emotional response. Interesting how one group was more externally attentive on the correct answer, and the other was more attentive on their emotional response to getting the question wrong!

These results give us a “view from the inside,” a view into how we are thinking and how we are using our emotions whether we have a fixed mindset or growth mindset. EEG’s, PET scans, and other brain imaging technologies are the fountainhead of serious brain/mind investigation. New and useful information is being discovered rapidly.

The Challenge

Given these results, I challenge you, the reader, to come up with exercises and activities that you can do either by yourself, with a friend, or in the classroom if you are a teacher. Let’s have a discussion of ways to change our brains from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets.



Mangels, J. A., Butterfield, B., Lamb, J., Good, C. D., & Dweck, C. S. (2006). Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN).

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Here are some recent articles by Dr. Mangels and more information:

  • Karantzoulis, S., Rich, J. B., & Mangels, J. A. (2006). Subject-Performed Tasks improve associative learning in Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, 12(4), 493-501
  • Summerfield, C. & Mangels, J. A. (2006). EEG correlates of anticipatory attention predict successful episodic encoding. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18(7), 1120-32.
  • Soldan, A., Mangels, J. A., & Cooper, L. A. (2006). Evaluating models of object-decision priming: Evidence from ERP repetition effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 32(2), 230-248.
  • Mangels, J. A., & Heinberg, A. (2006). Improved episodic integration through enactment: Implications for aging. Journal of General Psychology, 133(1), 37-65.

Figure 2. Cingulate cortex response following submission of own decision for age and IQ controls courtesy of Image Editor

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Sherri Fisher 6 September 2007 - 3:20 pm

Hi, Nick–

Yes, this is interesting stuff. And to add to it, not only do fMRI scans show increased brain activity, they also show neuronal growth when people are given a novel task to learn. Pair that growth mindset with the development of new neural pathways and a student can become smarter and with practice literally develop the brainpower to learn more.

So in answer to your question about real-life applications, habits of mind and behaviors to reinforce them would be key. There is lots of push-back when it comes to mindless drill and practice, but this research suggests that mindful practice can change both mindsets and brains. Thanks for sharing!

Senia 6 September 2007 - 3:58 pm

Hi Nick,

I really like the title! “Brainset!”

How can we change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? I’ve seen in business that suppose for an employee Joe… When Joe sets his own future targets and goals as opposed to being given them by management, then Joe is likely to feel more ownership of the project, and is more likely to push himself further, hence creating a growth mindset.

In many Japanese manufacturing companies, there is the belief that every employee can improve the production line. That implicitly gives employees a feeling of personal control – and more importantly to your question, Nick – a sense that effort can bring about great results.

Thanks for the very interesting article about Mangels’ work.


Senia 6 September 2007 - 4:41 pm

p.s. Looked it up on wikipedia… capital of Australia is Canberra.

Tiz 7 September 2007 - 4:27 pm

Hi Nick,

Fascinating article. Hmmm, as a response to your challenge, I suggest training in mindfulness – an activity considered to encourage growth in attention centres (Lazar), improve emotional balance (Davidson) and, in turn, foster a broaden-and-build approach (Fredrickson).

Thanks for updating us on this new study.

Alvaro 7 September 2007 - 6:16 pm

Nick, great post. Sherri, great comment that “Pair that growth mindset with the development of new neural pathways and a student can become smarter and with practice literally develop the brainpower to learn more.”

For us, “brain fitness” starts with that willingness to learn and grow. Then, there are some guidelines as to what “good” brain exercise is: that which involves novelty (to engage frontal lobes), variety (to practice several cognitive skills and brain areas) and increasing level of difficulty (so it doesn’t become routine).

I am happy to see how the message is starting to percolate…the next frontier is for mainstream media to understand and help us convey that this applies to adults as well, not just to kids!

Inbal 8 September 2007 - 3:46 am

Interesting article. Thank you for writing it.
Maybe the fixed-mindset and the growth-mindset are a result of some brain structure or mechanism? In other words, maybe we born with this quality as a physical one?
It’s like the egg and chicken question…How do you know if the self image cause the brain activity or the brain activity cause the self image?

Nicholas Hall 13 September 2007 - 2:50 pm

Hi Sherri,
If the “growing neurons” info is correct, that would make sense. The more we do something, in this case keep our attention external to incoming stimuli vs. internal on our emotional response to something, we probably will grow more brain cells. We become what we think…
Habits of mind, indeed.

Nicholas Hall 13 September 2007 - 2:59 pm

Hi Senia,
Goal setting, whether in business or otherwise, I would imagine would encourage the brain activity mentioned in my article. First, by having goals one is more apt to think about the relationships between what they’re doing wrong and how to do it right in order to achieve their goal. They may still have negative self-perceptions regarding failure, but the goal they have can help them always to be moving forward and THINKING about the relationships between the meanings of their actions and their desired outcomes.

It would also focus the attention externally by asking “what can I do next to achieve my goal?” This keeps people from thinking about how they’re feeling and reacting to things around them, and focusing on taking their next step.

Nicholas Hall 13 September 2007 - 3:03 pm

Hi Tiz,
Mindfulness would be an excellent exercise here. Specifically to address the two findings in the article that I mention, the one about thinking about connections between the meanings of words and the other outcome of keeping attention external vs. internal, what specific mindfulness exercises could you devise?
This is a great area to think about.

Nicholas Hall 13 September 2007 - 3:07 pm

Hi Alvaro,
You mention something specific that Dr. Mangels mentioned to me during our lunch that struck me. That was that we typically remember things that are novel (i.e. quite different from what we were expecting to find or what we are seeing in the environment). We remember the novel items even more than the things sought through goal-seeking. So, creating exercises with “novelty” – quite different and sticks out – are excellent.
Can you give us an example?
Great thought.

Nicholas Hall 13 September 2007 - 3:14 pm

Hi Inbal,
Good question: “is this characteristic and brain activity inborn and unchanging, or are they changeable and able to be learned?”
This is just why I asked the question at the end for exercises you think could encourage growth mind set. Dweck believes that it is changeable and able to be learned. I would also add that considering how much plasticity we see in our brains, how greatly they adapt to trauma and how easily they change to subtle emotional or mental stimuli, I believe that we can “take our brains into our own hands” and change how we think and react to stimuli to ultimately change how we think, feel, and behave.

Dave Shearon 19 September 2007 - 10:22 am

Nice, Nick! Real reporting!

My quick response is based on the suggestion that entity-theorists focus energy on emotional control when given information about an incorrect answer. I would suggest this argues persuasively in favor of low risk opportunities to learn. Some things that might increase engagement for some students — student vs. student competition, for instance — increase risk for others. As risk goes up, so does emotional response. Thus, those students most inclined to respond emotionally will be most hindered in their learning. So, while trying to teach a growth views of learning, I’d recommend schools also seek to minimize experiences that hinder the learning of those that have not yet adopted a growth self-theory.

rorie 1 November 2010 - 10:20 am

very interesting… thanks for writing it and leting everyone know about all the new information you have found out….

seejayjames 10 April 2012 - 6:31 pm

Great article and an interesting take on the research. I love the progress and insights coming from the new technologies available and the clever ways they can be used.

One thought I have, about older students (through college-level): the ways in which feedback is given by teachers and professors might make a big difference in their learning and enjoyment of a course. That is, a student with one mindset would probably react quite differently to the same kind of feedback as a student with the opposite mindset. The repercussions of this could be significant for everything from learning to course/professor evaluations, so it’s not an idle thought for anyone involved…!

Maybe just knowing that certain students will react negatively to certain forms of feedback (those forms that appear threatening to one’s ability or intelligence, for example) might make instructors more aware that they need to elaborate more in their feedback, give hints as to how to improve, etc., rather than just saying “it’s wrong”. It also might help instructors choose activities which don’t alienate certain students due to the pressure of “saving face”. Dweck has many examples of how to do this, though more could definitely be useful, especially for college-level students who may only get a brief written response rather than significant in-person feedback (as is more common for younger students).

Great stuff—thanks again for the article, and thanks again to Dweck for all her work. I’m a big fan!


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