Thinking intelligence is innate makes you stupid

There is a growing body of work pointing out to the fact that one of the key difference between top performers and the rest of us, is their belief that they can improve themselves, that somehow, they are the result of their hard work more than the result of their genes.

This has fascinating consequences. Reid points us us to recent research suggesting that you should not tell your kids they are smart, as this will encourage them to believe that intelligence is an innate characteristic. You have to convince them that “being smart” is the result of hard work. (Telling them they are stupid would not help either!)

It is no secret that I sucked at most sports. In retrospect, I think that I hold the belief, deep down, that I am just not suited for athletics. It might be this belief, more than anything else, that made me bad at sports.

As a professional, if you decide you have reached your full potential and you focus on producing more of the same, well, this is exactly what is going to happen. If, on the other hand, you strive to make your next piece of work more ambitious than any other work you have done before, your chances to raise your level are much better. In some sense, well grounded ambition makes you smarter.

This has fascinating consequences for teaching. If you teach in the sciences, you have heard the phrase “not everyone is good at math” from a student, especially if, like me, you like to challenge your students with more theoretical matters. This type of remark always annoys me deeply. Some students hold the belief that advanced mathematics is innate. I have yet to met anyone who learned to diagonalize matrices on his own. I almost always end up telling the students, in polite terms, “you have not worked enough, go back and try again”, and this is a sure way to get a bad teaching evaluation from this particular student.

But it has also less trivial consequences for teaching, I believe. We need to get students to revisit what they have learned times and times again. We sure never assume that the students “got it” once and for all. After all, if you are a researcher, you must admit that you have revisited the same topics dozens of times. Often you are amazed at how shallow your understanding was when you first learned something. And the trick that makes smarter is that you realize that you can just keep learning and learning forever. It is a powerful idea. So powerful, I could probably run late night informercials with it.

Source: This line of thoughts started months ago out of a discussion with Peter Turney.

See also my post How to become smarter.

2 thoughts on “Thinking intelligence is innate makes you stupid”

  1. Of course, anyone who studies learning knows that the Bayesian prior with which a student approaches new experiences (his “prejudices”) is partially innate and partially learned. What you are really asserting is that there is no significant variation in the innate portion between students. This is false.

    Now, this is not to say your title isn’t true. It may indeed be the case that students who believe their Bayesian prior is innate are less motivated to learn new ways of learning. And, indeed, it may be good pedagogy to temporarily mislead children to believe that they are all innately equal — just as one might use any fairy tale for a good purpose. But if the teachers — or more importantly — _researchers_ in learning tell _themselves_ such fairly tales they damage children by not finding the best ways to help various children, despite the fact that those children possess innate structures not conforming to the preferred fairy tale du jour.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I do not think I wrote or thought that there is no significant variation in the innate abilities. Some people have deficient brains, there is no question about it.

    What I am saying is that if I assume that boxing is an innate skill, that you have it or you don’t, I am less likely to improve my boxing skills.

    This being said, where is the evidence that there is significant variation in the innate mental abilities of most students attending a given undergraduate program, variations significant enough that they cannot be overshadowed by motivation and hard work?

    You see, provably, all computer are equivalent computationally. From a Computer Science perspective, there are only two factors that can differentiate two computers: speed and memory. If brains are different, I’d like to know about it!

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