(Stolen from BB.) Stanford Magazine reports on the applications from psychological research Carol Dweck’s work, which uses careful experiments to determine why some people give up when confronted with failure, while others roll up their sleeves and dive in.
Through a series of exercises, the experimenters trained half the students to chalk up their errors to insufficient effort, and encouraged them to keep going. Those children learned to persist in the face of failureâ€”and to succeed. The control group showed no improvement at all, continuing to fall apart quickly and to recover slowly. These findings, says Dweck, â€œreally supported the idea that the attributions were a key ingredient driving the helpless and mastery-oriented patterns.â€ Her 1975 article on the topic has become one of the most widely cited in contemporary psychology.
Attribution theory, concerned with peopleâ€™s judgments about the causes of events and behavior, already was an active area of psychological research. But the focus at the time was on how we make attributions, explains Stanford psychology professor Lee Ross, who coined the term â€œfundamental attribution errorâ€ for our tendency to explain other peopleâ€™s actions by their character traits, overlooking the power of circumstances. Dweck, he says, helped â€œshift the emphasis from attributional errors and biases to the consequences of attributionsâ€”why it matters what attributions people make.â€ Dweck had put attribution theory to practical use…
…[S]ome of the children who put forth lots of effort didnâ€™t make attributions at all. These children didnâ€™t think they were failing. Diener puts it this way: â€œFailure is informationâ€”we label it failure, but itâ€™s more like, â€˜This didnâ€™t work, Iâ€™m a problem solver, and Iâ€™ll try something else.â€™â€ During one unforgettable moment, one boyâ€”something of a poster child for the mastery-oriented typeâ€”faced his first stumper by pulling up his chair, rubbing his hands together, smacking his lips and announcing, â€œI love a challenge.â€
Such zest for challenge helped explain why other capable students thought they lacked ability just because theyâ€™d hit a setback. Common sense suggests that ability inspires self-confidence. And it does for a whileâ€”so long as the going is easy. But setbacks change everything. Dweck realizedâ€”and, with colleague Elaine Elliott soon demonstratedâ€”that the difference lay in the kidsâ€™ goals. â€œThe mastery-oriented children are really hell-bent on learning something,â€ Dweck says, and â€œlearning goalsâ€ inspire a different chain of thoughts and behaviors than â€œperformance goals.â€