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Joyce Ehrlinger | Social Cognition Lab JOYCE EHRLINGER | SOCIAL COGNITION LAB

Theories of ability, accuracy of self-judgments, and learning strategies

People differ in their beliefs about whether abilities such as intelligence can be improved (Dweck, 1999). My work shows that beliefs about whether intelligence is malleable strongly predict accuracy in self-judgments (Ehrlinger & Mitchum*, 2010). Moreover, this difference provides insight into a previously unknown contributor to overconfidence—biased allocation of attention (Ehrlinger, Mitchum*, & Dweck, 2016). Difficulty and struggle during intellectual tasks pose particular threats to people who view intelligence as fixed and stable throughout life (i.e., fixed theorists) because this effort suggests that they might not be smart. Consequently, we find that those with fixed theories of intelligence allocate their attention primarily toward easy aspects of the task and, as a result, feel overly confident about their performance. In contrast, those who view intelligence as malleable through effort (i.e., growth theorists) attend to both easy and difficult aspects of intellectual tasks and, consequently, make more accurate judgments than their fixed theorist peers. Further, this work suggests two intervention strategies for improving self-insight. First, when we directed those with fixed mindsets to pay greater attention to difficult intellectual problems, we saw a marked reduction in overconfidence. In a separate study, by teaching individuals a growth mindset, we inspired more accurate self-judgments.

Past experimental research suggests that growth theories promote learning. However, little is known about the behavioral mechanisms that produce this benefit. Since joining the faculty at WSU, I have been directing a large-scale set of IES-funded lab and field studies which has found that growth mindsets benefit learning, in part, because they (1) promote greater persistence on academic tasks (Ehrlinger, Hartwig*, Harrold*, Vossen*, Mitchum*, Biermann*, & Trzesniewski, revision under review [pdf]), (2) lead to greater benefits from using learning strategies with proven effectiveness (Ehrlinger et al, in prep), and (3) inspire greater use of effortful but effective learning strategies (Ehrlinger & Shain*, 2014; Ehrlinger et al, in prep), relative to fixed theories of intelligence. We have also found that endorsement of a growth theory predicts increased felt belongingness that, in turn, predicts persistence on challenging practice problems and better sustained learning (Vossen*, Ehrlinger, & Trzesniewski, in prep). The remaining studies employ an intervention to teach students a growth theory with the goal of improving their felt belongingness, use of effective study strategies, and success in learning. I am also applying this work as part of a Department of Education grant in concert with the College of Education and Provost’s office to develop an intervention to promote the success of first generation students.

Motivated shifts in ability theories. People’s beliefs about the malleability of abilities are stable, individual differences and, yet, they also fluctuate in small amounts each day. My lab, in collaboration with Anne Wilson’s lab, has found that these fluctuations in theories happen in motivated ways to preserve self-esteem. Participants randomly assigned to receive false negative feedback shifted toward a stronger growth theory that enabled them to interpret negative feedback as a temporary setback. In contrast, those who received false success feedback shifted toward a more fixed theory. Across studies, we found that people shift their beliefs in malleability in motivated ways that protect the self as well as maintain preferred beliefs about people they dislike (Leith*, Ward*, Giacomin*, Landau*, Ehrlinger, & Wilson, 2014).

Lay theories in non-academic domains. My fascination with the self-threat that comes from fixed theories led me to develop a measure of people’s beliefs regarding the malleability of weight (Ehrlinger et al, In Press). I found that people who view weight as malleable report higher self-efficacy regarding nutritious eating than do those with more fixed views of weight. Both when theories of weight were measured and when they were experimentally manipulated, people with more malleable theories of weight ate less of a high-fat, high-calorie snack in taste-test task than did those with more fixed views. A third study demonstrated that this effect was driven by the benefit that a malleable view had on participants’ feelings of self-efficacy.

Related Papers

*denote current or former graduate student co-authors

Ehrlinger, J., Mitchum*, A. L., & Dweck, C. S. (2016). Understanding overconfidence: Theories of intelligence, preferential attention, and distorted self-assessment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 63, 94-100. [pdf] [Supp. Material] [OSF]

Ehrlinger, J., Hartwig*, M. K., Harrold*, M. L., Vossen*, J. J., Mitchum*, A., Biermann*, A. L., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2017). Incremental theories of intelligence predict persistence and, in turn, sustained learning. Manuscript under invited revision at Social Psychological and Personality Science. [request a copy]

Ehrlinger, J., Vossen*, J., Harrold*, M., Trzesniewski, K. (2017). Entity theorists avoid the “desirable” difficulties that promote learning. Manuscript in Preparation, Washington State University. [request a copy]

Ehrlinger, J., Burnette, J. L., Harrold*, M. L., Orvidas*, K., & Park*, J. (in press). Incremental theories of weight and healthy eating behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.  [pdf] [Supp. Material] [OSF]

Ehrlinger, J., Plant, A. E., Hartwig*, M., Vossen*, J. J., Columb*, C. J., & Brewer*, L. (in press) Do women hold more exaggerated perceptions of CS and engineering prototypes than men and, consequently, show less interest in these fields? Sex Roles. [request a copy]

Ehrlinger, J., & Shain*, E. A. (2014). How accuracy in students’ self-perceptions relates to success in learning. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. [pdf]

Leith*, S., Ward*, C., Giacomin*, M., Landau*, E., Ehrlinger, J., & Wilson, A. E. (2014). Changing theories of change: Strategic shifting in implicit theory endorsement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107 (4), 597-620. [pdf]

Ehrlinger, J. & Mitchum*, A. L. (2010). How beliefs in the ability to improve influence accuracy in and use of metacognitive judgments. Advances in Psychology Research, 69, 229-238. [pdf]

Ehrlinger, J. (2008) Skill level, Self-views and self-theories as sources of error in self-assessment. Compass: Social and Personality Psychology, 2(1), 382-398. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00047.x. [pdf]

Ehrlinger J. & Dunning, D. A. (2003). How chronic self-views influence (and mislead) estimates of performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 5-17. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.1.5. [pdf]