Psychology: What is 'Personality'?

Carol Dweck turns nice kids into liars.

It's not quite as malevolent as it sounds. Indeed, the way the Stanford University psychologist brings out the worst in children is with kindness. She praises them lavishly, much like engaged and doting parents do with their own kids every day. She tells them how smart they are. And at the end of the day, she has them telling whoppers.

Here's the whole story. Dweck studies personality and achievement. She is one of a growing number of psychologists who believe that personality is forever malleable, which is a radical departure from the old thinking. The old thinking was that our personality—the sum total of our human qualities—was an inherited legacy, fixed at birth and unchanging through life. So we had adventurous people and timid people; competitive Type As and laid-back Type Bs; conscientious, truthful types and—well, scoundrels and liars.

The new thinking is that these traits are not fixed but in flux, and there are many ideas about why personality might change. Dweck's theory is that our beliefs about ourselves and the world—our "self theories," in the jargon—are a powerful influence on who we become in life. In other words, our own lay theories about personality and aptitude actually shape our character. Consider the lying experiment.

Dweck had hundreds of preteens take a test. The problems were from a standard IQ test, and most of the kids scored OK on the test. But when Dweck praised the kids' performance, she didn't praise them all the same way. She praised some for their natural talent (What a great score! You're so smart!), while others were praised for their effort (What a great score! You must have worked very hard!).

This may seem like a subtle difference, but to the developing mind the two messages are night and day. The former conveys the belief that people's abilities and traits are fixed, written in concrete, while the latter underscores the potential for growth and the value of old-fashioned effort. The results were immediate and unambiguous: the kids who were told they were smart immediately became cautious, shying away from any further testing that might expose weaknesses. The kids who were praised for their effort, by contrast, became hungry for new challenges. What's more, when the kids were subsequently required to solve very difficult problems, on which they all did poorly, the "smart kids" took the failure as a blow to their self-worth; where they had been smart, they were now dumb, irrevocably. The effortful kids just dug in more.

But here's the kicker. As a final part of the experiment, Dweck had all the kids write out their thoughts about the test, ostensibly for other kids who would be taking it in the future. There was also a space for them to write in their scores. Nearly 40 percent of the kids who had earlier been praised for their raw talent lied about how well they had done on the test. They inflated their scores. They were in effect using lying as a way to deny their imperfections, which had become shameful to them.

Dweck has also made ordinary kids vengeful, insecure and lazy—all by molding their core beliefs about themselves and their potential. She describes these experiments and others in her book "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success." But don't be alarmed. These undesirable personality traits aren't permanent or irreversible. Indeed, in more recent work Dweck has actually intervened to change kids' beliefs for the better. One such intervention, reported in the most recent issue of the journal Child Development, helped teenagers make the difficult transition to higher-level mathematics by altering their beliefs about effort and achievement.

In this five-year study, Dweck first examined how seventh-graders' beliefs were affecting their success in junior-high-school math, without any intervention. Adolescence is a tough transition for many kids for a lot of reasons, and gatekeeper courses like algebra and trig often sort out the high achievers from the also-rans. The kids had all arrived at adolescence with beliefs formed from years of parenting and formal education. Dweck found, as her theory would predict, that kids with a "growth" mindset improved their grades over two years, while the performance of kids with a "fixed" mindset stayed flat.

Then she gave some of the kids an added advantage. She had all the kids take an eight-week study-skills course, but half the kids were also introduced to the most recent neuroscience on the brain's malleability. They learned that the brain is a muscle, which like any muscle can be strengthened through hard work. They were in effect being taught to believe in the human potential for growth, though it was disguised in research papers on sprouting neurons and synapses.

What happened? First, the kids who were taught about human potential were much more highly motivated as math students than their classmates who did not get the neuroscience lessons. What's more, those with a newly acquired belief in effort and growth had better grades than those who were still stuck in the belief that temperament and ability are fixed. They believed that they could flex their intellectual muscles, so they did, and the effort showed up in their achievements.

Old beliefs die hard. And the belief in natural talent and destiny is deeply entrenched. But the clear message from psychological research is that even core beliefs can be changed, and changing belief, in turn, changes personality. Those kids in Dweck's earlier study aren't incorrigible liars and scoundrels, at least not yet. That will depend a lot on their parents and teachers.

Wray Herbert writes the "We're Only Human . . ." blog.