Just as objects exist in gravitational fields, our minds exist in emotional fields. We are all part of strongly connected emotional groups, and the emotional field surrounding you has a profound effect on your creativity, intelligence and even your general humanity.
Here are two studies that show how powerfully even trivial influences can affect your mind.
The first study comes from the extraordinary book Mindset, by Carol Dweck.
She was interested in the question, “is it a good idea to praise people for their ability?” At first it seems obvious that the answer is “yes, of course!” However, there is a problem. If you praise people for their ability, it puts them into what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” as opposed to what she calls a “growth mindset”. On the other hand, if you praise people for their effort and their willingness to try new strategies, that puts them into a “growth mindset”.
“We conducted studies with hundreds of students, mostly early adolescents. We first gave each student a set of ten fairly difficult problems from a non-verbal IQ test. They mostly did pretty well on these, and when they finished we praised them.
We praised some of the students for their ability. They were told: ‘Wow, you got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.”
Before I go on, notice the way the praise is constructed. Smart is presented as a fixed character trait, and the test is therefore being presented as an opportunity to display that fixed trait. Now let’s return to Dweck’s writing:
“We praised other students for their effort: ‘Wow, you got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.’ They were not made to feel that they had some special gift; they were praised for doing what it takes to succeed.
Both groups were exactly equal to begin with. But right after the praise, they began to differ…”
When presented with a choice to do more challenging questions, the group praised for ability chose instead to stick with the easier questions. The group praised for effort chose to take on the harder questions. This is the first and most serious problem with a “fixed mindset”. In that mindset, things should “come naturally”. You shouldn’t have to try. Effort is seen as a lack of ability! This mindset does not lead to fulfilling one’s potential, whatever that potential is.
But what happened next is what really bothers me. Later on, the students were required to take the more challenging questions. The students who had been praised for ability did worse than those praised for effort. Then, the students went back and took easier questions again. Now, those students who had been praised for ability actually did worse than they did the first time around! Their confidence had been shaken, because in the “fixed mindset” the test had shown that they weren’t as smart as they thought.
As Dweck points out, since this was an IQ test, we can literally say that praising students for their ability instead of their effort made them less intelligent.
For me the final part of the study was also disturbing. They asked the students to write about the test and tell other students about it. Part of the writing was to tell the other students how well they did. 40% of the students in the group that had been praised for ability lied about their scores.
I kept thinking of Enron.
The second study shows again how easy it is to put someone in a fixed mindset. This study was discussed in an article for Mother Jones. I am going to quote the article at length:
“…Research subjects read essays that described race either as a fundamental difference between people (an essentialist position) or as a construct, not reflecting anything more than skin-deep differences (a nonessentialist position). After reading the essays, the subjects moved on to a difficult creativity test that requires you to identify the one key word that unites three seemingly unrelated words. Thus, for instance, if you are given the words “call,” “pay,” and “line,” the correct answer is “phone.”
Remarkably, subjects who’d read the nonessentialist essay about race fared considerably better on the creativity test. Their mean score was a full point—or 32 percent—higher than it was for those who read the essentialist essay.
It’s not like the people in this study were selected because of their preexisting racial prejudices. They weren’t. Instead, merely a temporary exposure to essentialist thinking seemed to hamper their cognitive flexibility. “Essentialism appears to exert its negative effects on creativity not through what people think but how they think,” conclude Tadmor and her colleagues. That’s because, they add, “stereotyping and creative stagnation are rooted in a similar tendency to over-rely on existing category attributes.
Those quick-judgment skills that allowed us to survive on the savanna? Not always helpful in modern life.”
When you think about these two studies, what I hope you consider is how small the emotional influences were in each case. Yet they had large effects. Also consider that the influences directly changed people’s creativity and intelligence, not just their beliefs.
Now think about how the constant influence of your emotional surroundings affects you. Think about how much influence your blood family has had, and how much influence the various emotional families you are part of now have. You really are the average of the small group of people you expend the most emotional energy on.
This is why self-help can only take you so far. Yes, you can read. (And you should!) You can also use the internet to help escape a confining family, instead of just using it as a distraction.
But in the end, if you want your life to truly change, you will need new emotional groups. Just leaving your old ones might be necessary, but it won’t be enough because merely becoming isolated won’t help you either.
Anyway, my job here is simply to plant the seed. Once you see how much your emotional environment affects you, you can’t unsee it.