Mindset and the Power of Perceived Utility

Mindset and the Power of Perceived Utility

By Erik Parsons

On May 9, 2014, the Family Action Network hosted Carol Dweck, Lewis and Virginia Professor Psychology at Stanford University and one of the world's leading experts in the field of motivation, to speak on her research on risk-taking, challenge, and the growth mindset. Erik Parsons, an MSEd student in the gifted education program, wrote this review of the event. Stay tuned for upcoming events hosted by the Family Action Network and MSEd.


While at first glace, the concept of a "fixed versus growth mindset" learning dichotomy seems liable to be a subjective (anecdotally biased) evaluation of "learning styles," Carol Dweck’s work has the laudable quality of establishing a basis of research with empirical validity. Her investigations and resultant evidence-based conclusions provide intriguing insight into how an individual's emotional relationship with learning impacts his/her performance. In short, Dweck has gathered empirical evidence that subjective perception of learning influences achievement significantly more than inherent ability.  The implications of this are manifold, encompassing and clarifying issues of achievement gaps along socio-economic, race, gender and ethnic lines, worthy of numerous papers and blog posts … but something of particular interest, which became evident at the presentation, is that Dweck’s direction of inquiry sheds light on the dynamics of motivation, an often vexing and seemingly inexplicable essential factor in student performance.

Of all the challenges teachers face in the classroom, student motivation (and lack thereof) can often become an educator’s "white whale" obsession. Though some may try to deny it, almost all of us desperately want to be like Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society, inspiring our students to develop a deep and meaningful personal relationship with learning. However, jumping on desks, defacing textbooks and confronting students with their own mortality aren’t exactly "evidence based practices" upon which we can rely.

Dead Poets' Society Carpe Diem

or… as the kids say #YOLO 

At their roots, the dynamics of the growth vs. fixed mindset provide a significant clue as to what makes Mr. Keating’s approach to teaching work. It is not that he magically convinces his students of the value of literature and poetry (that is a by-product), it is that he alters their perception of their relationship with it. Dweck’s research provides a scientific foundation for something that advertisers have long understood: getting someone to "buy-in" to what you are selling (no matter how essential or useless to their success what you offer may be) is all about both perceived need and utility (Do I need this to succeed? Am I capable of using it?).  It is the perception which matters, not the actual need or utility. (I remember a time when I was a kid who perceived a desperate "need" for a Members’ Only jacket that I could "totally wear everywhere"… in Florida… in July... and I can also remember a time when I thought algebra was pointless because "I’d never get it.")  

Interestingly, the influence of the fundamental value (or need) of the product is relatively minor compared to one’s perception of one’s own ability to utilize that product effectively. As such, perceived utility serves as an integral gatekeeper to performance. Even when a student recognizes the fundamental value of an academic endeavor, if they conclude they are not capable of effectively engaging in that endeavor, they are substantially less likely to seek out performance opportunities in that area.  With a growth mindset, Dweck suggests that such an appraisal carries the qualifier of "yet" -- “I do not perceive I have adequate utility in this endeavor, yet” (e.g. believing that s/he does not have the necessary skills to succeed in the endeavor, a growth mindset student may decline performance opportunities until after s/he has studied and practiced enough). However, with a fixed mindset, a perception of a lack of ability is viewed as permanent: “I cannot obtain the necessary skills to succeed in the endeavor” (e.g., believing s/he cannot develop the required skills, a fixed mindset student may decline to engage in any aspect of the endeavor under the presumption that his/her efforts would be effectively meaningless). This begs the question as to whether and how much perceived utility effectively overrides perceived need ("My life would improve if I were more capable in this area") or if and how much it may actually modify the perception of need itself ("If I can’t do it well, it's not worth doing.")

Though applicable across most student populations, this is an incredibly influential dynamic, which bears increased significance for "twice-exceptional" (2e) students. Working within special education programs, it does not take long to gather evidence that much of the motivational issues experienced by 2e students are linked to a lack of perceived utility in areas of disadvantage. Too often, special education students’ fundamental self-concept and identity is tied to the sociological views of the developmental and psychological disorders with which they contend. Such students often develop a fixed mindset wherein they view themselves as fundamentally deficient and incapable of utilizing available resources to achieve high levels of performance and success (a view often reinforced by the low expectations placed on special education students in many school settings). As such, they may become averse to engaging in either skill development or performance opportunities in areas of difficulty (experiences they assume will only reaffirm their deficiencies rather than rewarding them for their efforts to overcome the unique challenges). This issue manifests across the 2e continuum, including among those students who have not been diagnosed with a disability. A gifted student with undiagnosed dyslexia, unaware that effective adaptive behaviors exist to address the causal factors of her difficulty, may develop a fixed mindset, concluding that she is simply incapable of higher achievement across a broad range of reading related subject matter.

Through this view of Dweck’s theory of mindset and the influence of perception, it becomes evident that the maladaptive behaviors tied to motivational issues may be less elusive than previously believed, with sincere hope for evidence-based approaches to generating those "Mr. Keating" moments we so often aspire to create.  

For additional information on Carol Dweck, here is a rather comprehensive piece about her work on Brainpickings.org. You can also go straight to the source and read her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and/or visit her website (all well worth your time). Although FAN tries to provide video of presentations, the organization was unable to provide a video from May 9. Fortunately, Dweck herself has posted a presentation she gave in October with much of the same content. 

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