Photo: Seth Wilson / Flickr
Photo: Seth Wilson / Flickr

Say you’re facing a problem at school or at work. You try it once, and you don’t succeed. You try again, and you still don’t get it. Do you think you would keep trying until you got it, or give up eventually?

For Dr. Carol Dweck, psychologist at Stanford University, there’s one critical characteristic that determines this answer: attitude.

After spending almost all of career studying attitude and success, Dr. Dweck concluded that attitude is way more important than IQ when it comes to predicting success.

Boys are valued for their “attitude”, girls are valued for their “intellect”

In the 1980s, Dr. Dweck conducted a series of studies on “gifted” fifth grade boys and girls to see how they responded to challenging situations.

She specifically chose students who were already glorified as “intelligent” by their teachers and parents.

Overwhelmingly, Dweck found that when girls were faced with difficult material, they were much quicker to give up than boys, who, comparatively, were significantly more likely to try twice as hard when faced with the same challenged.

Further, the most gifted girls, i.e. straight-A students with the highest IQs, were the quickest to give up.

What accounts for these differences?

Photo: lucaporfido / Flickr
Photo: lucaporfido / Flickr

Her study isn’t suggesting that girls don’t handle challenging situations as well as boys. Rather, it reveals that much of the discrepancy arises from the different ways teachers and parents give feedbacks.

Girls, in general, mature faster than boys. This development is determined by nature. When gifted girls are praised for their accomplishments, they are applauded for their “goodness” through compliments like, “You are so smart,” or “You are such a good student.”

Boys, on the other hand, mature slower and are more difficult to handle. As a result, the feedback their receive from teachers and parents is based on what they can improve, compliments that emphasize a change in behavior rather than any inherent goodness.

So how does this play into development?

As they get older, girls start to value themselves on their goodness. Boys, however, see their success as an effort-based activity; that is, one that they can change.

Just as fifth-grade girls believe their intellect is static, so do professional women. Similarly, just as fifth-grade boys believe their effort determines their success, so do adult men.

In reality, however, the notion of intellectual malleability as is the accurate one. Intelligence is not static; by no means does our inability to overcome a challenge on the first or second or third try imply that we will never achieve.

In other words, attitude is way more important than your inherent IQ.

We face a basic but ingrained misunderstanding of how our nature and our nurture coincide. Whereas girls’ maturity may indeed be natural, nurture leads them to believe that their level of intelligence or goodness is natural as well. This misconception, though, is just another example of the way girls are raised.

Intelligence isn’t fixed

In practice, the lines between nature and nurture are clearly blurred.

On one end, our psyches and IQ are determined by our biology, or our nature. On the other, our behavior also depend heavily on our environments, or nurture.

Though the effects that surface from predisposed ways of addressing boys and girls may seem fixed, they are under the control of the environment, not of biology. Nurture can be changed.

What we can do now is understand how these misconceptions affect us in the present.

Intellect isn’t fixed; effort is what determines our success. Just because nurture might convince us that we are inadequate doesn’t mean that our esteem can’t tell us that we are more than enough.