Carol Dweck Biography

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Practical Psychology

Carol Dweck is an American psychologist, professor, and award-winning author. She is best known for her theories on the mindset psychological trait, motivation, and success. Dweck’s work incorporates principles from social psychology, personality psychology, and developmental psychology. Her research has impacted a number of fields including education, business, healthcare, and parenting.

Carol Dweck

Carol Dweck's Childhood

Carol S. Dweck was born on October 17, 1946 in New York City. She is the middle child of her parents’ three children. She has an older and a younger brother.

Dweck’s father worked in the import-export business. Her mother had a job in the advertising industry. Dweck was close to her parents and believes her mother was a woman who was “way ahead of her time.” Her parents encouraged her and her two brothers to work hard and do well in school.

Dweck attended P.S. 153 in Brooklyn, New York. She and her older brother were excellent students. Her younger brother was also brilliant, but much less subordinate. While Dweck would disagree and rebel in her mind, her younger brother had the tendency to speak out and rebel in his actions.

A landmark period in Dweck’s life was the year she spent in Mrs. Wilson’s sixth-grade classroom. Mrs. Wilson seated all the students based on their IQ. According to Dweck, Mrs. Wilson believed IQ was “the ultimate measure of your intelligence and character.” Students who had low IQ scores were not allowed to clean the blackboard, wash the erasers, carry the flag during assembly, or bring a note to the principal.

Dweck did not believe a person’s IQ score was that important. However, she enjoyed being at the top of her class and wanted to succeed under these new rules. In Mrs. Wilson’s class, students in the best seats were usually afraid of taking the next test as their scores may drop and their positions may change. Dweck’s seat in Mrs. Wilson’s class was row one, seat one.

Besides the stress of maintaining a top seat in Mrs. Wilson’s class, Dweck also experienced pressure when she had to take state exams. Her friends and teachers told her that the school was counting on her to score top marks in the state-wide chemistry test. Dweck accepted the responsibility and prepared as well as she could. She scored 99 out of 100 possible points.

Dweck’s experiences in high school sparked her fascination with intelligence. She also became interested in coping with setbacks. Outside of school, Dweck enjoyed riding her bicycle and going roller skating. These activities were especially fun for her because she always wanted to feel like she was going somewhere.

Carol Dweck’s Educational Background

After leaving highschool, Dweck enrolled at Barnard College in New York City. In 1967, she graduated from Barnard College and Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Dweck then moved to Connecticut to study at Yale.

During the 1960s, many psychologists were interested in the theory of “learned helplessness” proposed by Martin E. P. Seligman. The theory suggests that subjects give up and become passive when they are given a series of random punishments that they have no control over. Dweck wanted to know if “learned helplessness” could also contribute to poor academic performance by students and made it the subject of her doctoral thesis. She earned her PhD in psychology from Yale in 1972.

A few months after receiving her doctoral degree, Dweck accepted an offer to become an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. She continued in this role until 1977, when she was promoted to associate professor. In 1981, Dweck moved to Harvard University after she accepted a teaching position as a professor. She returned to the University of Illinois as a professor of psychology in 1985.

However, Dweck’s travels did not end there. She relocated to Columbia University in 1989 and served as the William B. Ransford Professor of Psychology until 2004. After teaching at Columbia for fifteen years, Dweck left for a new challenge. In 2004, she accepted a position at Stanford University where she currently serves as the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology.

What Is Carol Dweck's Mindset Theory?

Dweck’s primary research focus has been on explaining the self-beliefs or theories people have regarding intelligence. She refers to these underlying theories as ‘mindsets’ and claims that people can be regarded as having either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

People with a fixed mindset believe their intelligence and abilities are innate and cannot be changed or improved. They conclude that their potential is fixed and that success is dependent on natural ability or talent. In contrast, those with a growth mindset believe their intelligence can change. They place no limits on their potential and are convinced that with enough time and effort they can keep learning and developing their skills and abilities. Nurture, rather than nature, is seen as the critical factor in determining intelligence.

According to Dweck, most individuals can be classified as having one mindset or the other. However, there are a few individuals whose beliefs span both categories. They believe some of their abilities are fixed but that others can be changed.

Fixed vs Growth Mindset and Learning

According to Dweck, people’s mindset greatly affects their approach to learning, challenges and failure. Individuals with a fixed mindset have a strong desire to prove that they are smart and want to show off their strengths. Since they believe that each person is born with a fixed level of ability or intelligence, they are eager to prove that they were dealt a generous share and that they are superior to others. As a result, they eagerly undertake learning tasks when the chance of success is high. Success affirms their view of themselves as inherently smart or skilled.

At the same time, individuals with a fixed mindset often shy away from situations that present significant challenges, especially when they perceive a high potential for failure. Any failure on their part would be seen as proof that they have low ability, are incapable, or are simply not as smart as they thought. In any case, failure would present a significant blow to their ego, causing them to feel inferior

When faced with unavoidable obstacles, people with a fixed mindset tend to give up easily since effort is generally considered worthless or a sign of inadequacy. They reason that if they have to try too hard, it must mean that they are dumb; if they were smart or talented enough they wouldn’t need to exert much effort.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset are not only keen to engage in tasks for which success is likely. They also embrace challenging situations, relishing the opportunity to learn and enhance their skills. Rather than trying to prove themselves to others, their priority is to constantly improve their skills and talents. They do not view failure as evidence of low ability, but as a sign that they simply need to adjust their strategies.

People with a growth mindset persist in the face of obstacles and rebound from failure much faster than those with a fixed mindset. Having to exert greater effort is not seen as a sign of weakness but as a necessary strategy for improving their skills and mastering the task at hand.

Dweck also found that people’s mindset influences their response to feedback. In one of her studies, participants with a fixed mindset appeared to tune out negative feedback and were not even interested in hearing the correct answers to questions they had gotten wrong.  It was as if they had closed their minds to any information they associated with failure, even when such information could help them improve.

By contract, participants with a growth mindset showed keen interest in feedback following an incorrect answer. They recognized this as valuable information that could help them expand their knowledge and skills.

Not surprisingly, a fixed mindset tends to hinder progress because those with this mindset simply don’t believe progress is possible. Just as they believe they will always excel in some things, they are equally convinced that they will always do poorly in others.

fixed and growth mindset

Fixed vs Growth Mindset and Relationships

The two mindsets identified by Dweck extend to other areas besides learning and intelligence. For example, Dweck found evidence to suggest that these underlying dispositions also influence

people’s view of love and relationships. People with a fixed mindset believe the ideal relationship should be perfect from the outset, require little work or effort, and remain conflict-free. These are the people who believe in “love at first sight” and “happily ever after.” When conflicts arise, they tend to blame these on fixed character flaws, usually in the other partner. Since the traits that are blamed for the conflict are believed to be fixed, they see little incentive in trying to remedy the situation. They are therefore quick to give up on their relationships.

Those with a growth mindset recognize that relationships can change and grow, that they often require hard work, and that conflicts will inevitably arise. When they do, they acknowledge the imperfections that led to the conflict (whether in themselves or the other partner) but remain hopeful that they can overcome the challenges and maintain a satisfying relationship.

Carol Dweck's Theory of Motivation

Mindsets develop early in life and are influenced primarily by children’s interactions with parents and significant others in the home, as well as their experiences at school. Mindsets are not fixed, however, and just as they are learned, they can be unlearned.

One of Dweck’s studies provides insight into how mindsets develop, as well as how students can potentially be motivated to change. In that study, hundreds of fifth grade students were given ten problems to solve and were then praised either for their ability (“You must be smart at this”) or for their effort (“You must have worked really hard”).

Students who were praised for their ability later showed signs of a fixed mindset, for example, rejecting challenging tasks when they had the option to do so. On the other hand, the vast majority (90%) of those who had been praised for their effort showed a preference for the challenging task. Additionally, when presented with more difficult questions, they still enjoyed the task, increased in their confidence and improved in their performance. Conversely, those who had received ability praise became more easily discouraged, began doubting their abilities, and declined in their performance.

These results suggest that parents and teachers can influence the development of mindsets in children by the way they offer praise. Praising children for their hard work and effort is more likely to lay the groundwork for a growth mindset, whereas praising them for their intelligence is more likely to set the stage for a fixed mindset.

Dweck believes that assigning labels to children also promotes the development of a fixed mindset. Very often, children receive labels from an early age, such as “smart,” “stupid,” “slow,” “gifted,” and “talented” .Even when these labels are positive, they lead children to believe that their traits and abilities are innate and permanent, thereby promoting a fixed mindset.

Dweck offers several suggestions on how a fixed mindset can be changed to a growth mindset. Aside from avoiding labels and ability praise, she also suggests that parents and teachers provide children with feedback on the process rather than the product of learning, gradually increase the amount of challenge offered to children and support them where necessary, help children find joy in overcoming challenges rather than stressing the importance of immediate success, and model behaviors associated with a growth mindset themselves.

Applications of Dweck’s Theory

Mindset theory has been applied to several areas, including:

Education - This is perhaps the area in which mindset theory has been most influential, with many schools promoting a growth mindset culture and millions of dollars being spent on growth mindset interventions. This widespread adoption stems from Dweck’s suggestion that teachers can improve learning outcomes by encouraging the development of a growth mindset among students.

Sports - Coaches may be able to improve team performance by encouraging a growth mindset among players. Since groups, like individuals, are said to have mindsets, they may seek to address not just individual dispositions, but the collective mindset of the entire team as well.

soccer coach encouraging growth mindset

Business - Managers have also attempted to enhance the performance of employees by fostering a shared growth mindset. They do this in several ways, for example, by providing feedback regarding effort rather than natural abilities so employees understand that dedication and hard work are valued. They may also promote the acquisition of new skills and the continuous development of existing ones, as well as encourage open dialogue regarding obstacles and the strategies used to overcome them.

Behavior change - Preliminary research suggests that a growth mindset can enhance the effectiveness of behavior change programs. Interventions aimed at promoting such a mindset have been applied successfully to the reduction of stress, weight gain and aggressive behavior. Growth mindset interventions have also shown promise in improving coping behaviors and mental health.

Relationships - Individuals have also applied Dweck’s mindset theory in an effort to improve their relationships. These include intimate relationships as well as parent-child relationships. Some of Dweck’s suggestions for successful relationships include forgiving one another and letting go of bitterness, avoiding the blame game, trying to understand each other’s differences, recognizing that conflict is natural and can lead to greater understanding, and praising the effort of the other person instead of focusing only on results.

Criticisms of Dweck’s Theory

Despite the large body of anecdotal evidence suggesting that a growth mindset can improve academic achievement, very little empirical evidence exists in support of this relationship. Efforts to replicate Dweck’s findings have so far proven inconclusive, with several studies finding little to no relationship between mindset and educational attainment.

Given that mindset effects appear to be modest at best, many critics argue that Dweck’s claims regarding the benefits of a growth mindset have been greatly overstated.  Mindset interventions appear to be most beneficial when applied to low-performing students and those from poorer backgrounds; the effects appear to be quite minimal among other groups.

Another criticism of Dweck’s work is that it is overly simplistic. Intelligence, learning and success are all complex variables, influenced by a number of factors. Mindset theory appears to downplay this complexity by suggesting that the difference between people who are successful and people who are not is simply their mindset.

Replications of Dweck's study, as shared in this Reddit post, show that the response to growth mindset may be different based on a student's environment. But that doesn't exactly "debunk" her theory.

Critics also caution that Dweck’s emphasis on hard work and effort can actually do more harm than good, especially in educational settings. The blame for failure ends up being placed squarely on the student, who is made to believe that he or she did not “try hard enough.” Factors such as the quality of the curriculum and teaching methods are not factored into the equation. Ironically, trying harder and harder can actually erode students’ beliefs in their ability to improve, especially when their repeated efforts fail to achieve the desired results.

Dweck’s claims regarding the benefits of emphasizing the process rather than the product of learning have also been challenged. According to some critics, Dweck’s view is overly optimistic and may not be ideal given the emphasis on grades and standardized test scores, as well as the culture of competition prevalent in many schools.

Carol Dweck's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments

Dweck wrote several books over the course of her long and distinguished career. Some of her works include:

  • Motivation and self-regulation across the life span (1998)
  • Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development (1999)
  • Handbook of competence and motivation (2005)
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2006)

Dweck has also received a number of awards which include but are not limited to:

  • Elected Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2002)
  • Book of the Year Award for Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development from the World Education Federation (2004)
  • Donald Campbell Career Achievement Award in Social Psychology, from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (2008)
  • Award for Innovative Program of the Year, from “Brainology” (2008)
  • Ann L. Brown Award for Research in Developmental Psychology, from the University of Illinois (2009)
  • Elected Member of the Herbert Simon Fellow of the Academy of Political and Social Science (2010)
  • Klingenstein Award for Leadership in Education, from the Klingenstein Center at Columbia University (2010)
  • Thorndike Career Achievement Award in Educational Psychology, from the American Psychological Association (2010)
  • Beckman Mentoring Award, from Columbia University (2011)
  • Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, from the American Psychological Association (2011)
  • Gallery of Scientists, Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences (2011)
  • Elected Member of the National Academy of Sciences (2012)
  • James McKeen Cattell Lifetime Achievement Award, from the Association for Psychological Science (2013)
  • Distinguished Scholar Award, from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (2013)
  • Awarded the Yidan Prize for Education Research (2017)

Personal Life

Carol Dweck is married to David Goldman. David is a former director and critic of the National Theatre. He is also the founder and director of Stanford’s National Center for New Plays. Dweck has no biological children. However, her husband has two children from a previous marriage as well as grandchildren. David’s grandchildren refer to Dweck as “grandma.”

In her spare time, Dweck enjoys traveling around the country with her husband. She also claims to have few hobbies but hopes she can empower people to find greater freedom, equality, and success. When asked about her work in psychology and education she replied, “It’s . . . you know, aside from family, it’s the focus of my life. It’s a privilege to have found something that’s so fulfilling.”


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