Believing that we can change a trait for the better tends to be self-fulfilling, and vice versa. People who contend that intelligence or creativity cannot be improved, for example, tend to develop less in these areas than those who think these facets are malleable. This finding holds in a variety of settings [see box below], which has led many to conclude that having a growth mind-set is an unconditionally good thing. Yet beliefs about beauty have now emerged as the first notable exception to this trend, according to two studies reported last October in Social Cognition.

Researchers at Oklahoma State University found that women with malleable beliefs about beauty—for instance, believing they could become more beautiful with effort—had a higher risk for appearance-related anxiety and were more likely to base their self-worth on their looks, as compared with those who have fixed beauty beliefs. They were also more likely to express interest in cosmetic surgery. The effects were not found among men.

Whether a malleable belief is beneficial or not may depend on how realistic the pursuit is. Beauty ideals typically presented in media images—young, thin and photoshopped to be flawless—are unattainable for most women. “Prior research has shown that malleable beliefs increase motivation, which is good if we are talking about being motivated to stay in school or improve one's math skills,” says study co-author Melissa Burkley, a professor of social psychology. “But when the domain is as unrealistic as the beauty standards we have for women today, increasing motivation may lead to harmful behaviors.”

I think I can, I think i can ...

A large body of research shows that when people believe traits are malleable, they can indeed improve their performance. Here are some domains in which these beliefs have proved to be beneficial:

  • People who believe intelligence is malleable have greater academic success. Such students tend to be more intellectually ambitious, exert greater effort and get better grades.
  • In romantic relationships, partners who think that personality is malleable work harder to resolve conflicts directly and to seek a mutually beneficial solution.
  • People who see their potential adversaries as adaptable view them more sympathetically. In one study, when Israeli Jews believed Palestinians had flexible natures, they exhibited more positive attitudes toward them and were more willing to compromise.
  • Minority students who believe people's perceptions or biases can change over time may be more motivated and resilient, even in the face of adversity.
  • People who treat negotiation tactics as flexible outperform their more closed-minded peers because they tend to be more persistent and willing to adapt to the shifting circumstances. —Victoria Stern