In more than 25 years of research, psychologist Carol S. Dweck, PhD, has shown that we have more potential to succeed at our goals than we think—as long as we have the right frame of mind.

In particular, she's found that people who believe that their academic success is the result of effort and learning are much more likely to take on new tasks—and hence to grow academically and intellectually—than those who believe their accomplishments are based on something that's "fixed": innate ability.

Further, she's found, if people are guided to change their mindsets—from believing that intelligence is fixed to believing that it is malleable—they start to perform better and are more open to challenges.

In an invited address at APA's 2011 Annual Convention, Dweck talked about how she's applying those findings to two new social domains: bullying and prejudice.

In both areas, she and colleagues are finding that some people do hold fixed ideas—for example, the belief that some people are bullies by nature or are innately prejudiced—but that they can be primed to change those attitudes and their resulting behaviors in ways that benefit themselves and others. "If so much about who we are is about the mindsets we hold, that's good news, because beliefs can be changed," she said.

Her work suggests that current interventions for reducing stereotypes and prejudice may not be enough, she added.

"Reducing stereotyping and facilitating intergroup interaction is also about making people realize that prejudice is not a fixed trait, that it's something that can be changed."

Open to change

In the realm of bullying, Dweck, Stanford graduate student David S. Yeager and colleagues are looking at whether young people's mindsets about bullies and victims can be changed in ways that improve their emotional state and the larger school climate.

In preliminary work to test that concept published in the July issue of Developmental Psychology (Vol. 47, No. 4), the researchers found that some adolescents do have fixed mindsets toward bullies and victims, strongly endorsing such notions as "bullies will always be bullies" and "everyone is either a winner or a loser in life." When those same young people read scenarios in which bullies excluded others, they strongly agreed that bullies deserved to be punished and that they would never forgive the bully. The team then had the young people read an article about how people are capable of change. Students who read it were less likely to prescribe revenge for bullies and more likely to endorse confrontation or education, the team found.

Based on that research, Yeager created a workshop designed to help students understand that people can grow and change. The workshop tells participants that the brain can change, that people's personalities can change, and that people act based on thoughts and motivations, rather than because they are "bad" or "good"—again, features open to change.

In a not-yet-published study, the team found that after the workshop, ninth and 10th graders were less likely to want to exact revenge on "bullies" following a pre-programmed computerized lab game where a three-way game of catch turns into a two-way game that automatically excludes one child. They were also more likely to write friendly rather than vengeful notes to the youngsters who had "excluded" them in the game.

These positive effects held up at three months. The findings suggest a way out of a negative trajectory that plagues many high schools, Dweck said.

"Learning a growth mindset about yourself and your peers allows you to act constructively in the face of social challenges and to achieve a greater overall school experience," she said.

A new way to combat prejudice?

Dweck, Stanford graduate student Priyanka Carr and postdoctoral student Kristin Parker, PhD, are also tackling the complex area of prejudice. In a series of studies currently under review, the team again began by looking at whether people believe prejudice is a fixed or malleable trait. They also measured the conscious and unconscious prejudice of participants, all of whom were white.

They found that participants who believed mindsets couldn't be changed were more likely to act in prejudiced ways, by, for example, placing their chairs farther away from an African-American participant during a discussion.

Next, the team assigned participants to read one of two sets of articles, one endorsing the idea that prejudice is fixed, the other that it's a malleable trait.

According to independent raters, after reading the articles, both groups acted friendly with white partners, but those who had read the articles that said people's prejudices can change also acted friendly with a black partner—even those initially found to be high in prejudice. Participants who had read the fixed-mindset articles, however, did not act as friendly to the black participant.

Next, the team will examine an understudied area that could have a big impact on campus climate: the mindsets of college roommates of different ethnicities.

"We know from research that intergroup or interracial roommates often have a very anxious time with each other," Dweck said. "We're wondering what role these beliefs about prejudice may play in these situations, and how we can intervene to make these interactions more successful."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.