And that’s a fool’s game. For the more we believe in “smarts,” the less likely we are to persist in a task. If you’re “good at” a subject like math, to borrow another favorite American phrase, then you don’t really have to try; and if you’re not good at it, there’s no use in trying to get better.
Consider a 2001 experiment by Canadian researchers, who administered creativity tests to Japanese and Canadian college students. Regardless of how the students performed, the researchers told some of them that they had done well and others that they did poorly. The researchers then gave the students a similar test and told them to spend as much time on it as they wished.
The Canadians worked harder on the second test if they were told they had succeeded on the first one. They were “good at it,” and that gave them the confidence to continue. Failing students were not “good at it,” meanwhile, so they put in less work. But the Japanese worked longer on the second test if they had failed the first one! They interpreted their initial setback as a function of weak effort, not of ability, so they re-applied themselves to the task instead of blowing it off.
Or consider a now-famous 1998 experiment by psychologists Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck, who told American children they had done well on a test and then praised some for being smart, others for working hard. They then gave both sets of kids the chance to work on another test – either easy or hard.