How You Perceive Intelligence Could Affect Your Confidence

How You Perceive Intelligence Could Affect Your Confidence
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Why you should care

Because if you think you’re a genius, you’re probably not. 

What do you think about your own intelligence? Can you make yourself smarter over time, or are you stuck with the smarts you were born with? Your answer could reflect a key personality trait — namely, self-confidence — and whether you might want to help yourself to a big slice of humble pie

It turns out, if you view your brainpower as a fixed, innate capacity, you’re also more likely to be … overconfident. This was suggested in a recent three-part study led by Joyce Ehrlinger of Washington State University. It found that students with a so-called “fixed mind-set” were more likely to overestimate their performance on a test than those with a “growth mind-set” (a belief that intelligence can change over time). The “fixed mind-set” students spent more time on the easy questions, which gave them a false sense of achievement. But, when tasked with focusing specifically on the hard questions, they rated their performance more accurately. Why? Because their self-confidence had taken a hit. In other words,

How we view intelligence affects our confidence.

Geoffrey Leonardelli, a social psychologist with the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and Department of Psychology, finds the study “absolutely” novel and fascinating. It’s the first study to suggest a mechanism of how our views of intelligence impact our overconfidence: by influencing how we divide our attention between easy and hard tasks. While we might owe overconfidence to a lack of challenges in life, Ehrlinger’s experiments reveal that people with a fixed mind-set “are in part actively avoiding the challenge … the opportunity to learn and make mistakes.”

Here’s how the experiments worked. First, 53 university students completed a test comprised of easy, moderately difficult and hard questions. Students with a stronger fixed mind-set tended to be more cocksure about their performance, estimating to fall in the 76th percentile. Those with a stronger growth mind-set were more accurate — within the 55th percentile.

But how did students’ theories of intelligence affect their confidence? Researchers randomly assigned 94 students to read an article supporting either a fixed or growth theory of intelligence. Next, the students took a test similar to the one in the first experiment; this time the amount of time spent on each question was tracked. The finding: Those who read the article supporting a fixed theory of intelligence spent less time on hard questions and more time on easy questions — and were more likely to overestimate their score.

The next batch of students were divided into two groups: One was directed more toward easy tasks, and another assigned to focus more on tough tasks. Folks who had to spend more time on easy questions — and who were identified as having a fixed mind-set — were more confident in their performance. Meanwhile, students who focused more on hard questions — or those so-called fixed mind-set students — were less confident about their performance.

Leonardelli flags that the study included only undergraduates, who might not exactly reflect confidence in the general population. Plus, a little overconfidence is not always a bad thing. It might prove helpful when deciding between two courses of action when neither is ideal. “Sometimes, [leaders] need to just choose a course … and believe it’s going to work out,” he says.

Research shows that caregivers and teachers can play a big role in shaping our theory of intelligence — for instance, whether they respond to a high test score with “‘Wow, you must be really smart’ … or ‘You really must have worked hard,’” Ehrlinger explains. Luckily, if you suspect that you should dial your confidence down a notch, you can take steps to foster more of a growth mind-set, which could also lead to better interpersonal relationships and conflict resolution. Seek opportunities to challenge yourself. And remember: “No. 1: We can learn quite a bit over time. There are few fields that remain static,” Ehrlinger says. “No. 2: You might not know as much as you think you do.”

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