5/5/10

This Can't Be Right



Why self-improvement can be a little scary.

We are all impressed by demonstrations of ability.  Pro athletes, computer whizzes, math geniuses, bold entrepreneurs, accomplished musicians, gifted writers… these people are widely-held in admiration, because we appreciate their extraordinary aptitudes.  And we envy them a little, too.  You’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t wish that they were just a little smarter, a little more athletic, a bit more artistic or more socially skilled.

So, you might think that being told that, with practice and learning, you have gotten smarter (or more athletic, creative, or charming) would be welcome news.  Don’t we all want to improve?  And aren’t we all happy when we do?  Yes…. and no.

For some of us, improvement, while objectively good, is puzzling – because we believe it shouldn’t be possible.   Dozens of studies by Carol Dweck and her colleagues have shown that roughly half of us subscribe to the belief that our abilities are fixed.  These entity theorists expect their performance to be relatively stable – you have just so much intelligence (or creativity, or charm), and there isn’t anything you can do about it.  Incremental theorists, on the other hand, believe that ability is malleable – that it can and does change with effort and experience.

So what happens when an entity theorist finds that they have, in fact, gotten smarter?  A recent set of studies by Jason Plaks and Kristin Stecher provides the answer:  It freaks them out.

In their studies, college students were given difficult reasoning problems, and after the first round, everyone received feedback that they had performed at the 61st percentile.  Next, all of the students were given a lesson on how to approach solving the problems, including tips and strategies.  After a second round of problems, some students were told that their performance had not changed, while others were told that it had improved to the 91st percentile.

Not surprisingly, everyone who improved was happy to have done so – but entity theorists, believing that their intelligence was fixed so they really shouldn’t have improved,  also reported significant increases in anxiety.  The more anxiety they felt, the worse they performed on the third set of problems that followed.  In fact, entity theorists who were told that they didn’t improve did better on the third set then those who were told that they did!

So when we don’t expect to improve, do we actually prefer to not improve?  I wouldn’t go that far.  Everyone welcomes improvement, but only for entity theorists does that improvement come with anxiety -  anxiety can disrupt future performance, eroding our confidence that the improvement was real.

Looking back, these studies have given me some insight into some episodes in my own life.  For instance, take my experience with billiards.  I freely admit that I am a terrible pool player.  I played a few times in college and it was a sorry sight.  I wrote the game off quickly, believing that I just didn’t have the hand-eye coordination to ever be any good at it. (I should mention that I had a long track record of lacking hand-eye coordination.  When my brother tried to teach me to catch a ball in our backyard when I was 10, I caught it with my face and broke my nose. )

Years ago I dated an avid pool player, who convinced me one night at our neighborhood bar to give the game another chance.  Before beginning, he gave me a brief lesson – how to hold the cue, how to line up a shot, etc.  We played, and something totally unexpected happened – I played well. In fact, I came awfully close to beating him.  And I remember feeling both elated that I had improved, and completely freaked out.  Did I really improve?  How was that possible?  I’m not good at this sort of thing.  Maybe it was a fluke.

A few days later we played again, and I approached the table with a nervousness I hadn’t felt before, even when I thought I’d play terribly.  What would happen?  I had no idea.  And that nervousness wreaked havoc on my ability to play – I couldn’t sink a ball to save my life.  I knew it was a fluke, I thought.  I’m definitely not good at this sort of thing.

Granted, we’re talking about playing pool here, and I realize that it’s not a skill that usually has life-altering consequences.  But what if it was?  What if instead of writing off my pool-playing ability, I had written off my ability to do math, learn to use a computer, write well, learn a foreign language, get physically fit, or become more socially skilled?  What if I believed that I couldn’t improve when it came to something that really mattered?

The bottom line is, no matter what kind of learning opportunities you are given, you probably aren’t going to see lasting improvement if you don’t believe improvement is possible.  Believing that your ability is fixed is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the self-doubt it creates will sabotage you in the end.   So it’s important to examine your beliefs, and when necessary, challenge them.   Change really is always possible – there is no ability that can’t be developed with experience.  Don’t ever let your beliefs stand in the way of your own improvement.

J. Plaks & K. Stecher (2007) Unexpected improvement, decline, and stasis: A prediction confidence perspective on achievement success and failure.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 667-684.