How Being Smart Makes You Dumb

First, a wall of text. If you don’t like it, skip ahead to the graphic.

“Thomas (a child who scored in the top 10,000th of the population on aptitude tests) didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.
How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The inverse power of praise.

Dweck found that children’s performance worsens if they always hear how smart they are. Kids who get too much praise are less likely to take risks, are highly sensitive to failure and are more likely to give up when faced with a challenge.

“Parents should take away the fact that they are not giving their children a gift when they tell them how brilliant and talented they are,” Dweck says. “They are making them believe they are valued only for being intelligent, and it makes them not want to learn.”

When parents, teachers and coaches label a child, they tell the child that he or she is the label and is judged for this label, not for his actual capabilities. The child becomes risk-averse and doesn’t want to chance messing up and being labeled “dumb.” In other words, a “smart” child often believes that expending effort is something only “dumb” kids have to do.
Why Praise Can Be Bad for Kids

Through more than three decades of systematic research, [Carol Dweck] has been figuring out answers to why some people achieve their potential while equally talented others don’t—why some become Muhammad Ali and others Mike Tyson. The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed.
The Effort Effect

Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, argues convincingly that having a growth mindset, or the opinion that intelligence can be developed, sets the stage for success. This is opposed to having a fixed growth mindset, in which intelligence is believed to be static and unchanging. Here’s a pretty graphic:

Growth Mindset

But I think Professor Dweck can go even further. I think it’s perfectly rational to take the fundamental lesson and apply it to more than just intelligence.

If “being” smart locks us into certain expectations, doesn’t “being” anything lock us, and others’ expectations of us, into certain roles? That’s why “S/he’s pretty business savvy for a woman/Latino/kid” is a diss. Are we not all people? Should we not all be encouraged to grow with the same guidelines, whether it’s athletics, academics, or art?

Furthermore, I have heard countless people use the excuse that they are not the “type” of person who could achieve the goals they secretly want. There is a whole field of psuedo-science behind types of personalities, whether it’s astrology or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In the case of MBTI, while there is some value to knowing what kind of person you were when you took the test, it’s much more important to know what kind of person you want to be going forward. This way, you can better understand who you were and what you want to change and improve on.

There’s a lot of needless anxiety about being or not being a type of person. “Being” a type of person does not preclude you from being someone different a year, a week, a minute from now. Personality is malleable. The person you were 10 years ago is not the same person you are now. It’s an opportunity to take control of your development. We can all change for the better.

Finally, if we are to benefit from formlessness, we should note that others have the same opportunities and motives to change. It’s an entirely human reaction to explain circumstantial behaviors to personality. If someone cuts you off, it’s because they’re a jerk, not because they really needed to get to that turn lane. If someone doesn’t answer a question correctly, it’s because they’re “a little slow,” and not because they don’t have a background in the subject.

It’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error, or the “tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors.” Once you believe in someone’s ability to change, they will often surprise you. Two highly cited studies reinforce the importance of expectations: one in which students who were reminded of academically negative racial stereotypes performed much worse, and another in which a group of teachers were told that they had been given the brightest students, who all went on to do much better than the average. In fact, they had been given the regular assortment of students.

So, give yourself a shot at being what and whoever you want to be. Then extend the same courtesy to others.


…if you got to the bottom of this tirade, then I’d be interested in hearing your opinion. What value do you see in typing people, or vice versa?

EDIT – There’s a great list of alternatives to the word “intelligence” at Tim Chevalier’s blog, Dreamwidth:

  • Corey

    I like how you hinted at the problems with incessant praise of children. But it goes beyond limiting their risk potential: it breeds a sense of entitlement. In our culture now, no parent would ever want to admit that their child is dumb. They’re always “special” and perhaps “skilled in some other way”.

    That’s not to say there aren’t people who are, say, artistically talented and thus their true abilities couldn’t be objectively measured. In such a case designating someone as “smart” would still be appropriate. The problem is that I know several people who honestly have very little to offer in terms of skills, who believe they are destined to do great things because mommy and the school system told them so, and are thus entitled to some form of appreciation. Encouragement is fine but people ought to be realistic. You and I both know people who feel like they deserve more attention/praise/money because of inflated self-worth.

    Now, that being said, it’s also a problem when smart people are praised too much. As you said, they find it hard to take risks – there’s a saying about how the straight A students would end up working for the straight C students, because the C’s were forced to take more risks, and could gain leadership roles through acquired street smarts or entrepreneurial happenstance. But I also believe that street smarts can be learned and refined over time just like book smarts.

    Good post.

    • Thanks, Corey. I’m with you on the last part. The key part of this argument, for me, is that no matter who you are, you can change yourself. For better or worse, really, but you have that choice.

  • I think this is the negative race stereotypes study:

    And student expectations (probably not the one I was thinking of):

  • I think the only real value in typecasting is the simplicity that’s it involves.

    When we identify ourselves or others, it helps us to quickly make decisions or assumptions. You know that whole schema business…

    Problem is, often those assumptions are wrong and/or misleading.

    But it also helps with uncertainty. Instinctively we avoid it and it makes us uncomfortable. But it’s really important that we become more comfortable with uncertainty and not let it stiffen our ability to grow.

    Great article. I know a few people I’m going to share this with already.

    • Glad you liked it. And yes, typecasting can be helpful in simplifying our world…but I think in reality, the world is not so simple. I think it helps all of us out when we acknowledge that fact.

  • Rene

    I think generalization has its purpose: it
    helps us cope with a much more complex reality that our senses can handle. When
    it comes to people, though, it is mutilating. Yes, it is much easier to typify,
    it requires less effort… But for who? But what saddens me is the little – if
    any – thought behind a “type” comment or remark. We put people in
    specific places and we will go great lengths for them to remain there, so our
    cosmovision won’t be challenged. It is a human life, though. Someone as
    complicated as we are, trying to make sense out of chaos. I have always thought
    that if you label someone, you make it easy for that person to fit in your
    label, mostly if he/she is not sure of their identity. Since I was in high
    school, I have always told myself : Just because someone thinks you are smart,
    it doesn’t mean you are going to go ahead and do amazing things; just because
    someone thinks you are stupid, you are no going to make a fool of
    yourself”. Attaching a name to someone, or accepting a name that has been
    attached to you, contradicts the perpetual movement and change that defines
    reality as we know it, and therefore can lead to identity crisis and/or frustration.

  • janet

    i am confused…. the whole idea is not to praise a child just for being intelligent, because it becomes internalized, & manifests as a fear of failure; ie ” if i fail at something, then i am a failure”. But doesn’t the study at the end of the article contradict the point ?

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  • Will

    This article makes too much sense to me it’s scary. I was praised so much as a kid and thought of myself as “too smart” for the world for so long, that I had to dumb myself down to stay happy. I got scared of failing at the things that didn’t come to me naturally that I became too much of a perfectionist for my own good. I learned next to nothing in school to the point where I am now uneducated in subjects of knowledge that did not come to me naturally. To prove my intelligence I have to purposefully trick people into arguing with me in subjects i excel in. By the end of the argument I’m laughing in their faces because I’ve known the whole time I was right. It should be no surprise why I am extremely unpopular. And now I feel I need to prove myself with success instead of with arrogance…

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  • Alex

    I do think you can completely change yourself – anyone can change if they want to. There is a quote that I really like: Thoughts lead on to purpose, purpose leads on to actions, actions form habits, habits decide character, and character fixes our destiny.” (Tryon Edwards). By changing our mindset/values and then changing our habits to fit with that mindset, we really can change our character.
    However, you mention the MBTI, which is what prompted me to comment. I took the test when I was about 12 years old. I took it again a few years ago and then again last year. It does not change. There are certain parts of us that are fundamentally ingrained in who we are. As I’ve gone to grad school, I have shifted a little bit more from the N to the P side, but when I answer the questions honestly, I am still fundamentally the same person I was at my core (and I mean that in a good way).
    That said, I am also a COMPLETELY different human than I was at 12 years old. I am much more outspoken, social, friendly, happy, motivated, excited, curious, driven, charismatic, you name it. In that sense, I have completely changed. I guess what I’m saying is that there are some traits of our personality which are “who we are,” and sometimes knowing that can help to explain why you act a certain way in a given situation that’s not working for you, and it can help you to change it to act in ways that are successful, leading you to who you want to be.

    You’ll seem like (and really be) and whole new person if you change your life and your habits, but at the end of the day you’re still exactly the same person as well, which I think is kind of liberating and cool – that we’re grounded in some aspects of who we are, but they are fluid and changeable if we choose to work hard to change them in ways that we want to.

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  • Jason

    ALl I read was the graphic

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  • John

    Any recommendations for someone who’s had this negative outcome, a “smart child” who received praise and all and fell into many of these psychological traps, a “fixed mindset” and plateauing and such? Even with awareness of it, I still find certain things very difficult, find it hard to get motivated sometimes, very easy to feel terrible about failure and to get discouraged from working at things.

    • Carol Dweck, whose research is the basis for this post, has a program for kids, at the very least:

      It might serve as a place to start, in any case.

      Otherwise, I think that being mindful of your tendencies is a _very_ good start.

  • Nick

    I always try to treat everybody the same, including children.
    It always bothers me when I meet friends/acquaintances with their children, and they’re like the kids aren’t there.
    Childism as Fundamental Attribution Error.