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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 1

Boost Intelligence by Focusing on Growth

Why some people learn more from their mistakes



Don Mason/Corbis

Is intelligence innate, or can you boost it with effort? The way you answer that question may determine how well you learn. Those who think smarts are malleable are more likely to bounce back from their mistakes and make fewer errors in the future, according to a study published last October in Psychological Science.

Researchers at Michigan State University asked 25 undergraduate students to participate in a simple, repetitive computer task: they had to press a button whenever the letters that appeared on the screen conformed to a particular pattern. When they made a mistake, which happened about 9 percent of the time, the subjects realized it almost immediately—at which point their brain produced two tiny electrical responses that the researchers recorded using electrodes. The first reaction indicates awareness that a mistake was made, whereas the second, called error positivity, is believed to represent the desire to fix that slipup. Later, the researchers asked the students whether they believed intelligence was fixed or could be learned.

Although everyone slowed down after erring, those who were “growth-minded”—that is, people who considered intelligence to be pliable—elicited stronger error-positivity responses than the other subjects. They subsequently made fewer mistakes, too. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, I did something wrong, I should slow down,’ but it was only the growth-minded individuals who actually did something with that information and made it better,” explains lead author Jason Moser, a clinical psychologist at Michigan State.

People who are not so inclined, however, can change their approach, Moser adds. “A growth mind-set is about focusing on the process—as in the experience—rather than only on the outcome,” he says. “Setbacks are opportunities to gain infor­mation and learn for the next time, so pay attention to what went wrong and get the information you need to improve.”

This article was published in print as "The Oops! Response."

This article was originally published with the title "The Oops! Response."

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