Believing You Can Get Smarter Makes You Smarter

Thinking about intelligence as changeable and malleable, rather than stable and fixed, results in greater academic achievement, especially for people whose groups bear the burden of negative stereotypes about their intelligence.


Can people get smarter? Are some racial or social groups smarter than others? Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, many people believe that intelligence is fixed, and, moreover, that some racial and social groups are inherently smarter than others. Merely evoking these stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of these groups (such as women and Blacks) is enough to harm the academic perfomance of members of these groups. Social psychologist Claude Steele and his collaborators (2002) have called this phenomenon "stereotype threat."

Yet social psychologists Aronson, Fried, and Good (2001) have developed a possible antidote to stereotype threat. They taught African American and European American college students to think of intelligence as changeable, rather than fixed - a lesson that many psychological studies suggests is true. Students in a control group did not receive this message. Those students who learned about IQ's malleability improved their grades more than did students who did not receive this message, and also saw academics as more important than did students in the control group. Even more exciting was the finding that Black students benefited more from learning about the malleable nature of intelligence than did White students, showing that this intervention may successfully counteract stereotype threat.


This research showed a relatively easy way to narrow the Black-White academic achievement gap. Realizing that one's intelligence may be improved may actually improve one's intelligence, especially for those whose groups are targets of stereotypes alleging limited intelligence (e.g., Blacks, Latinos, and women in math domains.)

Practical Application

Blackwell, Dweck, and Trzesniewski (2002) recently replicated and applied this research with seventh-grade students in New York City. During the first eight weeks of the spring term, these students learned about the malleability of intelligence by reading and discussing a science-based article that described how intelligence develops. A control group of seventh-grade students did not learn about intelligence's changeability, and instead learned about memory and mnemonic strategies. As compared to the control group, students who learned about intelligence's malleability had higher academic motivation, better academic behavior, and better grades in mathematics. Indeed, students who were members of vulnerable groups (e.g., those who previously thought that intelligence cannot change, those who had low prior mathematics achievement, and female students) had higher mathematics grades following the intelligence-is-malleable intervention, while the grades of similar students in the control group declined. In fact, girls who received the intervention matched and even slightly exceeded the boys in math grades, whereas girls in the control group performed well below the boys.

These findings are especially important because the actual instruction time for the intervention totaled just three hours. Therefore, this is a very cost-effective method for improving students' academic motivation and achievement.

Cited Research

Aronson, J., Fried, C. B., & Good, C. (2001). Reducing the effects of stereotype threat on African American college students by shaping theories of intelligence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1-13.

Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. (2002), Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat. In Mark P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 34, pp. 379-440. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc.

Additional Sources

Blackwell, L., Dweck, C., & Trzesniewski, K. (2002). Achievement across the adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Manuscript in preparation.

Dweck, C., & Leggett, E. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256-273.

American Psychological Association, May 28, 2003