Co-founder, Raikes Foundation
Chair, Stanford University Board of Trustees
Sara Miller McCune Director
Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University
Pioneered principally by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and collaborating scholars, research on “mindsets” – the beliefs that shape how people interpret challenge and setbacks – gained influence over decades within the fields of social, developmental, and educational psychology. The field has provided insights in achievement contexts, particularly in education, on why some people are more likely than others to seek out challenges and excel in the face of difficulty.
Dweck’s pathbreaking work established implicit theories of intelligence. When people hold “growth,” as opposed to “fixed,” mindsets, they believe that natural abilities and innate talents do not necessarily translate to predetermined success; rather, they are starting points for further development and learning through effort, help-seeking, and trying-out new strategies. A fixed mindset leads people to fear failure because they perceive it is an indictment of their basic abilities; in contrast, a growth mindset leads individuals to believe learning comes from struggling with new challenges, thus enabling improved performance over time.
Since Dweck’s work on implicit theories of intelligence, psychologists have identified other mindsets that shape motivation and outcomes in achievement contexts, including beliefs about whether one belongs in a certain environment and whether one’s work is relevant to one’s life and tied to a larger purpose. Similar to implicit theories of intelligence, these mindsets shape people’s interpretation of their experiences, and in turn, their responses.
Collectively, more than three decades of research have shown that these mindsets play an important role in multiple aspects of a person's life, operate on a continuum and, many studies show, can be shaped by specific interventions.
The mindset research program was built on a firm foundation, with a progression of small- and mid-scale intervention studies. But there remains ample opportunity and desire to replicate findings, collect more data and better understand them, refine theories, and design and implement better methods and interventions – both to enhance our cumulative knowledge as well as exert greater positive impact on real-world outcomes. Further elaboration of mindset research, however, requires that it seeks to exert impact on a progressively larger scale (samples and contexts) and become more interdisciplinary in scope to understand for whom, and under what conditions, mindset approaches are most effective.
In recent years, mindset science has proliferated at a number of universities, research institutes, and nonprofit organizations. But two significant strands of activity brought the advancement of mindset research to a pivotal juncture – at CASBS.
First, in 2011 several mindset-oriented faculty and graduate students at Stanford worked with Maya Shankar, an Oxford-educated cognitive scientist visiting Stanford as a post-doctoral fellow. Two years later, when she organized a White House meeting with a group that later became formalized as the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, Shankar asked her former Stanford colleagues – Dweck, Greg Walton, David Paunesku, and David Yeager – to prepare a white paper reviewing the field and putting forth an agenda for future scalable mindset interventions, practices, and assessments. The meeting and paper generated a lot of enthusiasm, including from the Raikes Foundation, which ultimately expressed support of a prospective grant aimed at launching a research network to advance the proposed agenda. By fall 2013 the Stanford group was writing a pilot grant proposal.
David Yeager, Mindset Scholars Network Co-chair
In parallel, Ellen Konar – a longtime Dweck associate, former Stanford research and teaching affiliate, and entrepreneurial advisor with an impressive track record of cultivating integrative behavioral science research – informally was consulting then-CASBS director Steven Kosslyn (and subsequently his successor as director, Iris Litt) on expanding the traditional CASBS model beyond its renowned single-year in-residence fellows program to include what Kosslyn conceived as “research impact networks.”
In an opportunistic moment, the two strands intertwined. A core Stanford group of Dweck, Walton, and Yeager, in concert with other collaborators including University of Virginia’s Chris Hulleman, linked with Konar. They enlisted her assistance in writing the pilot grant proposal, funded in early 2014, which helped pave the way for a full network grant and nationwide study that would operationalize key elements of the White House research agenda (the National Study of Learning Mindsets). In July 2013, Konar became the first executive director of what then was called the “Mindset Collaborative.” She also formally was designated a CASBS visiting scholar during the 2013-14 academic year, and a consulting scholar in 2014-15, by which time Margaret Levi had become CASBS director. Levi enthusiastically advocated an expanded CASBS model and sought to propel it forward. Dweck, Walton, and another collaborator, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, were brought on as CASBS consulting scholars in 2014-15 as well.
“We started having meetings at CASBS while launching the pilot study [for the National Study of Learning Mindsets], even before we had a network grant,” says Yeager. “We had meetings and workshops to plan the national study at CASBS. We had meetings at CASBS to plan what the network would be. It was a welcoming space that nurtured our initiative as it was budding.”
The core planning team, increasingly led by Yeager along with Konar, affiliated with CASBS for about a year-and-a-half before a network formalized. During that time, The Raikes Foundation put them in touch with an independent consultant, Lisa Quay, who helped co-write the network grant proposal. The proposal secured $2 million in initial funding from Raikes for three years of support. This led, in spring 2015, to the official launch of the Mindset Scholars Network – housed at CASBS – and its cornerstone National Study of Learning Mindsets. Quay, succeeding Konar, became managing director of the Network and, later, executive director. The Network since has attracted support from other funders as well.
“So the Mindset Scholars Network comes from a public, high-energy, field-launching meeting that Maya [Shankar] brought us into at the White House, and where funders got on-board for the core empirical project that would become the National Study,” says Yeager. “And Ellen Konar deserves all the credit for the CASBS connection.”
In terms of spearheading a conceptual direction and research agenda, Dweck herself was the inaugural chair of the emerging Network, about a year later succeeded by two co-chairs. David Yeager was one. Barbara Schneider, the John A. Hanna Chair and Distinguished Professor of sociology and education at Michigan State University, was an inspired choice as the other co-chair (also conferring research affiliate status at CASBS). A respected senior scholar in the sociology of education, Schneider was well-versed in the mindset literature, had run two research networks in the past, and brought geographic and disciplinary diversity to the budding enterprise. Previously she had invited Yeager to Michigan State to discuss his work (co-authored with Greg Walton) on “light touch” interventions that grabbed her attention. In fall 2014 the CASBS-based mindset contingent, with funding in the pipeline, invited Schneider to one of the National Study planning meetings. Soon thereafter she was asked to co-chair the network.
“I was really curious about and interested in the [National] Study as it was taking shape,” says Schneider. “I came for that, then stayed on for the Network. I had experience with this sort of undertaking.”
“And I could play in the sandbox without being too annoying,” she modestly quips.
Having germinated in meetings and workshops at CASBS beginning in 2013, then formally launched in 2015, the Mindset Scholars Network now is comprised of 28 researchers representing 15 universities, all dedicated to advancing scientific understanding of the conditions for developing the mindsets essential for effective learning, and then using those findings to improve real-world outcomes. The Network articulates a new interdisciplinary research agenda grounded in the needs of practice, builds capacity for quality scholarship, and disseminates the latest scientific knowledge on mindsets through outreach to educators, policy makers, funders, journalists, and other key stakeholders.
Barbara Schneider, Mindset Scholars Network Co-chair
Upon formation, the Network involved a few key initiatives. Primary among them is the flagship National Study of Learning Mindsets – a double-blind, randomized experiment in a nationally representative sample of 83 high schools and more than 18,000 ninth-grade students. Its aim is to develop theory about the contexts in which interventions are most effective at increasing academic performance. The Network also provided seed support to launch a multi-site field trial of a belonging intervention for incoming college students developed by Greg Walton and colleagues, which since has evolved into a partner organization, the College Transition Collaborative.
“With both the National Study and the belonging trial, we finally can test under what conditions and in what types of schools does an improvement in mindsets translate into an improvement in achievement,” says Yeager.
Addressing the scalability issue more broadly, Dweck wrote in early 2017 that the national study “is a prime example of a rigorous scientific process that tries to understand when to expect and when not to expect mindset intervention effects. We then will go on to study how one might foster these effects more widely.”
“It was time to move beyond narrow disciplinary work,” Yeager noted in 2016. “CASBS provided a home for us to plan and execute ambitious, field-transforming studies and convene leading scholars for crucial theoretical discussions.”
As CASBS director Margaret Levi’s opening quote asserts, the Center helped make the mindset research program more rigorous, interdisciplinary, and expansive. It did so in several key ways.
Mindset Fellows at CASBS
The Network, courtesy of Raikes funding, placed scholars at CASBS as fellows. The inaugural mindset fellows, during the 2014-15 academic year, were Yeager and social and educational psychologist Chris Hulleman, an early participant in network planning meetings. Mary Murphy, a Stanford PhD and social psychologist at Indiana University, was a mindset fellow at CASBS in 2015-16; and Barry Zuckerman, a pediatrician at the Boston University School of Medicine, was a mindset fellow at CASBS in 2016-17.
The four fellows, both through individual experience and involvement through the Network, have contributed in myriad ways to the vibrant intellectual life of CASBS. In turn, the Center has served as a hub of interaction that has allowed the mindset fellows to test ideas and bring new thinking and findings back to their home departments, schools, personal networks, and the Mindset Scholars Network. Some of the benefits have been immediate while others will manifest and reverberate over years.
Chris Hulleman’s experience is pretty indicative. As a direct result of his CASBS year, he and his research team have been awarded five grants and contracts worth nearly $3 million. One is a $1.5m National Science Foundation grant for a learning mindset intervention in Florida. Not only did CASBS afford him time for writing the grant proposal; in addition, he incorporated lessons learned from implementation of the National Study of Learning Mindsets into this (and other) work. A second stems from a session Hulleman and other Network members attended at Stanford’s design school with representatives from the U.S. Soccer Federation. As a result of that meeting, he later earned a five-year contract with the Federation to identify mindsets that are most predictive of player performance.
On top of that, Hulleman is lead author or co-author on eight peer-reviewed publications conceived, worked-on, or submitted during his CASBS year, with several more in the peer-review or writing pipeline as of summer 2017. He calls one publication on motivation, finalized at CASBS, “a huge win for our work within the Network because it shows that learning mindset interventions designed to change student perceptions can have effects on learning outcomes.”
“CASBS changed the trajectory of my entire career,” Hulleman says. “Being there presented me with so many opportunities. I owe a lot of where I am now to that experience.”
The Center helped formalize the National Study of Learning Mindsets by hosting a week-long “mindset data camp” in 2015. It combined mindset scholars, guest scholars, post-docs, and graduates students, immersed in pilot data and facilitating advanced statistical work in a collaborative format. By all accounts, the camp helped develop a much stronger methodological design for the National Study.
“It was the first time we had done anything like this,” says Hulleman, “but David [Yeager] and I thought it would be a great way to leverage social dynamics to kick-start the National Study.”
“It was really good; it was great, in fact,” says Barbara Schneider. “Without that data camp at CASBS, there’s no way in the world the National Study would have been as rich. It helped put the Network’s purpose in a larger framing. It facilitated interdisciplinary collaboration and analytic statistical training with the types of data the National Study was going to generate.”
Mindset Data Camp participants in 2015. Fourth from left is Chris Hulleman; fifth from left is David Yeager; sixth from left is Barbara Schneider
In addition to methods, some Network scholars were introduced to the “design thinking process,” both through the data camp and attending several design school workshops on the Stanford campus.
“That exposure derives purely from the one-of-a-kind opportunity of being at CASBS,” says Hulleman. “Those activities helped shift, if not reformulate, the intervention design process to be more context-sensitive. They’ve helped shape my and others’ study interventions ever since. This is a frontier that I really think is going to change how social psychologists do real-world research.”
A design sensibility shifts (in this case, psychologists’) thinking to how broader systems and processes are structured. This coincides with an expansion of mindset conceptualization as a function of not only personal beliefs in people’s heads, but also situational forces as well as environmental cues and (for example, classroom or organizational) cultures, thereby influencing the way students and workers think, feel, interact, and behave.
From here, it’s not difficult to see how mindset science can branch and manifest in other areas of life.
Concerns about environmental cues and organizational cultures fuel research placing mindset fellow Mary Murphy on the leading edge of the frontier Hulleman invoked and Dweck first pioneered. Much of this centers on the notion of belonging and applies to the missions of both the Network and the College Transition Collaborative. The work also directly engages literature on identity threat and “stereotype threat,” a major line of research underlying mindset science, notably launched by Claude Steele during his CASBS fellowship in 1994-95.
Though to date most mindset experiments have been best suited for and scalable within the education domain, some of Murphy’s work examines how fixed and growth organizational cultures shape workers’ motivation, behavior, organizational trust, and commitment. At CASBS, she completed one phase of a study of more than 160 Silicon Valley startup founders and how their mindsets shape the norms, practices, and policies they put in place.
“We’re going to follow these companies over time to see how founder mindsets influence fundraising, product creation, service, and other outcomes,” says Murphy. “Now I’m working on creating a curriculum and interactive modules to teach these startup founders how to create growth mindset companies, and ultimately will implement and evaluate curriculum effects with several partners in the Bay Area.”
“Mary represents a shift beyond initial ideas of large-scale interventions with students to creating growth mindset cultures and practices outside classrooms with workers and company executives – a tough proposition,” says Yeager. “How do CEOs and managers institute a growth mindset climate for workers to inhabit? Mary’s fellowship year was dedicated to this expansion, from interventions to [organizational] practices.”
Yeager thinks business and health are “probably two big areas where there’s a lot of potential growth.” Murphy’s work at CASBS represents the former. She, Dweck, and Yeager see promise for implementing mindset science in employee development and human capital programs. Microsoft already has instituted growth mindset as one of its core values, for example.
In terms of the latter, Yeager, Hulleman, and other Network psychologists are applying mindset ideas to many aspects of health, including stress and healthy eating among adolescents.
Pediatrician Barry Zuckerman, the 2016-17 CASBS mindset fellow, represents another frontier pushed at CASBS – the deployment of mindset insights by non-social scientists who care about the behavioral aspects of healthcare and medicine.
“The same dynamics work in medicine; mindset science is a good fit for the problems I’m facing every day as a physician,” says Zuckerman.
During his CASBS year, Zuckerman and collaborators published pieces in the Journal of the American Medical Association on the malleability of the health mindsets of parents and children, as well as on instilling a growth mindset in patients about treatment efficacy. Research papers on the association of a growth mindset for children with diabetes and better health outcomes are in the publication pipeline. He’s also exploring how low-income mothers’ beliefs about intelligence impacts their children’s brain development, as well as how low-income environments reinforce a fixed mindset that one cannot make a difference in the improvement of one’s own health.
“What appeals to me is mindset science is relatively new to medicine, and we should start exploring it now,” says Zuckerman. “It really is worth our intellectual investment because of the payoffs. The potential applications are enormous.
"My hope is that in five-to-ten years you’ll see a movement in healthcare that harnesses research and understanding of growth mindsets that’s similar to the movement that’s been ongoing in education for some time.”
Under the directorship of Margaret Levi, now in its fourth year, CASBS is fulfilling its ambition to serve as the convergence point for multi-year interdisciplinary, collaborative groups and networks focused on major, tractable social issues and challenges. The Mindset Scholars Network has been a big part of that success, providing a critical proof of concept.
The Mindset Scholar Network’s executive director, Lisa Quay, underscores CASBS’s role in propelling the Network forward.
“The Center’s legacy as one of the premier homes for interdisciplinary scholarship was invaluable, especially in recruiting top-notch scholars to be a part of what was a brand new initiative with little precedent,” she says. “It provided us a strong foundation from which to build our reputation and influence.”
Barbara Schneider agrees and elaborates.
“CASBS has been great for the Network,” she says. “It has a reputation for convening interdisciplinary people and giving them the freedom to experiment and establish research programs together – programs from which other studies can sprout. It’s a generative model – and this really is a Margaret Levi idea, by the way – that makes a kind of opportunity structure possible.
"In the case of the Mindset Scholars Network, the Center didn’t just facilitate the development of concepts and collaborative relationships. It embraced the central tenets of mindset science, helped the Network fully and systematically form, then put the Network in a position to seed other research studies,” says Schneider. This helped extend the Network outward in both its theoretical and applied work, and in a transformative way.”
Indeed, from the beginning, David Yeager envisioned a network with national data that “presumably would spawn or spin-off a bunch of other studies and projects.”
Now a thriving organization, the Network is positioned perfectly to untether, leverage the momentum generated in part at CASBS, and develop further still. This accords fully with Levi’s vision of networks, projects, and working groups that mature and convert “opportunity structure” into ongoing, durable concerns after a three-to-five year CASBS affiliation.
“I’m just thrilled that CASBS was in a position to make even a small contribution to the Network’s growing success and help nurture it for the next leg of its journey,” says Levi. "It exemplifies exactly what we’re trying to engineer and enable here: research with practical deliverables and impact."
"More broadly, we at CASBS are deeply committed to exploring the determinants of and correctives for social inequalities and inequities – including those involving achievement gaps – to improve human well-being,” says Levi. “Mindset science provides one promising avenue for forging connections and developing innovative approaches with real-world application and outcomes. The Mindset Scholars Network and Raikes Foundation have been outstanding partners in nourishing the best and most exciting research about the future of learning and working.”
So what might the future hold for the Mindset Scholars Network and CASBS?
“There’s all kinds of innovation and insights in the National Study data sets, just waiting to be unpacked,” says Yeager. “Another data retreat at the Center would be great.”
In the bigger picture, Yeager has his sights on the wider science of behavior change, and on the National Study of Learning Mindsets data as an aggregate case study that can help inform behavioral policies.
“The Mindset Scholars Network increasingly should be a part of broader conversations around behavioral science and policy. CASBS, of course, already is a major player in that arena. So from that angle, I’d love for the two organizations to stay involved with each other over the long term.”
CASBS thanks Lisa Quay for her insights and generous assistance.
View a video summary of the Mindset Scholars Network here.
View an overview of the Network’s National Study of Learning Mindsets here.
View a video of Mary Murphy discussing mindsets in context here.
Watch David Yeager and Angela Duckworth present at a CASBS symposium on “The Psychology of Effort” here.