A fixed mindset is a mentality that you’re incapable of personal development and skill improvement, no matter how hard you try.
People with fixed mindsets engage in deterministic thinking where they assume people have innate abilities and talents rather than abilities that are developed over time.
The fixed mindset concept is contrasted to the concept of growth mindsets which are characterized by a belief in the possibility of self-development through effort and experience.
An example of a fixed mindset can be seen in a student who says:
“I’m not going to study for the exams because I’ll fail regardless.”
18 Fixed Mindset Examples
- Students avoiding challenges: Believing they’re not smart enough to tackle difficult subjects, so they choose easier classes or tasks.
- Teachers with low expectations: Assuming that certain students can’t improve or succeed, and therefore providing them with less support or attention (contrast this with high expectations here).
- Parents attributing success to innate talent: Praising their children’s natural abilities rather than their hard work and dedication, reinforcing the belief that talent is fixed.
- Students avoiding extracurricular activities: Refusing to join clubs or sports because they believe they won’t be good at them or fear they will fail, rather than seeing them as opportunities to develop new skills.
- Not applying for promotions: Holding back from pursuing new job opportunities due to past rejections or failures, believing they lack the required skills or abilities, rather than recognizing the potential for growth and learning.
- Artists giving up on their passion: Abandoning a creative pursuit after experiencing failure or criticism, believing they lack the talent to succeed, instead of understanding the importance of practice and perseverance.
- Avoiding social situations: Avoiding meeting new people or attending social events because they believe they’re not good at socializing or had a negative experience in the past, rather than viewing it as a chance to improve their social skills.
- Teachers not attempting new teaching methods: Refusing to try innovative instructional strategies due to previous unsuccessful attempts, rather than considering how they might adapt and refine their approach for better results.
- Parents not retrying discipline strategies: Giving up on implementing effective discipline methods after a setback or challenge, believing they lack the ability to guide their children, instead of reevaluating and adjusting their approach.
- Students not asking for help: Avoiding seeking assistance from teachers or peers after a previous failed attempt at understanding a concept, believing they lack the intelligence to grasp it, rather than recognizing the value of collaborative learning.
- Athletes giving up after a loss: Assuming they’re not talented enough to succeed in their sport, rather than recognizing the importance of practice, perseverance, and learning from mistakes.
- Managers disregarding employee potential: Believing that some employees will never be able to improve or take on more responsibilities, without considering the potential for growth and development.
- Students dismissing feedback: Ignoring a teacher’s constructive criticism as a personal attack, rather than considering it as an opportunity to learn and improve.
- Teachers attributing failure to lack of ability: When a student doesn’t understand a concept, assuming it’s due to their lack of intelligence rather than considering alternative teaching methods.
- Students focusing on comparison: Constantly comparing themselves to their peers, feeling either superior or inferior, rather than focusing on their own growth and improvement.
- Parents labeling their children: Calling a child “lazy” or “untalented” after a single failure, reinforcing the belief that their abilities are unchangeable.
- Refusing to try new things: Someone who doesn’t have a go at a new sport because they believe they’re never any good at physical activities.
- Insisting on one learning style: A student who refuses to learn through reading because they believe they will never be good at reading. They say they can only learn through listening.
Origins of the Fixed Mindsets Concept
Fixed and growth mindsets were concepts developed by psychologist Carol Dweck who, in her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success published research about students’ attitudes to learning in the classroom.
Dweck’s work within the achievement theory of goal setting identified two categories of students:
- Students with fixed mindsets: These students were of the opinion that talents and abilities and skills were innate. You either had them or you didn’t. It was their genuinely-held belief that they were unintelligent, would always find learning impossible, and were destined not to succeed. As a result of this mindset, they put in less effort and demonstrated less resilient than their counterparts. When things got hard, they gave up.
- Students with growth mindsets: These students believed that skills, abilities, and talents could be developed through their own hard work and effort. These students also faced challenges and difficulties, but they saw them as conquerable obstacles rather than permanent barriers. As a result, they demonstrated greater perseverence and determination to learn.
The concept of fixed vs growth mindsets has several implications.
Firstly, it reminds teachers to reinforce a growth mentality. Instead of labelling students as people with innate features (“you’re so smart”, “he isn’t good at math”), teachers should see students as learners in progress (“you are doing well”, “you aren’t there yet, but let’s implement some strategies for growth”).
Secondly, it’s a useful tool for self-reflection. It gives us a vocabulary for reflecting on our own attitudes toward learning and development. When we fall into a fixed mindset, we can name it as such, and work on strategies to reframe “can’t” to “not yet”.
Fixed Mindset Characteristics
Dweck identified several characteristics of fixed mindsets, including:
- Belief in innate talent or intelligence: The core belief for people with a fixed minset is that talents and intelligence are ‘fixed’, meaning they cannot be changed. Someone is either ‘smart’ or ‘unintelligent’, ‘good at’, or ‘not good at’, and that can’t change with effort or training.
- Fear of failure: Because people with fixed mindsets hold that talents and abilities are fixed and unchangeable, failure is seen as permanent inability rather than a conquerable obstacle. If you fail at something, you believe you’re ‘just no good at that.’ This is framed as a statement about your innate character. Failure is seen as a a catastrophic reflection on yourself as a person. As a result, failure is feared and avoided at all costs.
- Resistance to change: People with a fixed mindset may struggle to cope with change because they lack the self-belief that they can adapt. Therefore, they will resist change.
- Lack of resilience: People with a fixed mindset may have a tendency to give up easily when faced with obstacles or setbacks. They tend to view setbacks and failures as a reflection of their own limitations and a sign that they can’t do things. By contrast, a person with a fixed mindset would see the same setback as an opportunity for growth and learning.
- Limited sense of self-belief: If you have a fixed mindset, you may fall into the trap of having low self-belief in areas where you might have weaknesses or struggle. Instead of entering a situation believing you can conquer it, you may enter it with a defeatist attitude.
Fixed vs Growth Mindsets
|Attribute||Fixed Mindset||Growth Mindset|
|Intelligence and Skill||Belief that intelligence and skill are fixed and innate. For example, a person may believe they will never get better at a task or more successful at school.||Belief that intelligence and skill are changeable and can be developed with effort. For example, a person may believe if they study regularly, they will get better grates.|
|Approach to Challenges||People with fixed mindsets avoid challenges due to fear of failure and belief they will likely fail.||People with growth mindesets embrace challenges and see them as opportunities for growth regardless of success or failure.|
|Effort||They view effort as futile or unnecessary because it won’t lead to better results.||They believe effort is the path to mastery, but they also embrace feedback and support to help them on that parth.|
|Low persistence. Tendency to give up easily when faced with difficulties.||Low persistence. Tendency to give up easily when faced with difficulties.||High persistence. Tendency to persist through setbacks and learn from them.|
|Reaction to Criticism||Tendency to become defensive against constructive criticism, disregard it, and avoid feedback.||Tendency to seek out feedback and use constructive feedback as a valuable tool for self-improvement.|
|Locus of Control||External locus of control. Tendency to believe success or failure is out of their hands.||Internal locus of control. Tendency to believe success or failure can be influenced by their effort and actions.|
|Goal Orientation||Focus on performance goals. They care more about the outcome than the process.||Focus on learning goals. They care about the process of the work, knowing that the process will affect the outcome.|
|Response to Failure||Tendency to view failure as a reflection of self-worth and identity. Has fear of failure.||Tendency to embrace failure as a learning opportunity and not fear failure.|
|Approach to Collaboration||Tendency to see the world as zero-sum. Peers are competitors. Reluctance to provide support to others or accept support form others.||Tendency to see collaboration as a mutual opportunity. Seeks out opportunities to work with others and support one another.|
|Resilience||Finds it difficult to recover from setbacks and failure.||Recovers more quickly from setbacks knowing that setbacks contain lessons.|
|Motivation||Extrinsic motivation. Tendency to rely on short-term rewards as a way to get motivated and do the work.||Intrinsic motivation. Tendency to find value in the task itself, with interest in an intrinsic reward at the end.|
Criticisms and Limitations
The fixed vs growth mindset concept runs into criticism when it comes to .
1. Context-Dependent Mindsets
An individual doesn’t just have a fixed or growth mindset. Their mindset will likely change depending on the task and context.
For example, if you feel confident and capable at math, you may look at it with a growth mindset. But at the same time, you may struggle with literacy and claim you cannot improve – whatsoever!
By thinking about just how hard it seems when you’re stuck on a challenge or area of study that you find difficult or unenjoyable, you can begin to empathize with the idea that everyone’s mindset will shift depending on the situation.
2. Innate Talents are Real
While Dweck’s theory sounds great in an ideal world, most of us would hold that people do, in fact, have innate ability to tackle some tasks better than others.
For example, if you put two bodybuilders on the same eating, sleep, and exercise regimen, they likely won’t both gain muscle at the same pace. Some people naturally have more muscular builds, and the less muscular person may need a tailored regimen. The same goes for task-specific skillsets (e.g. compare people with street smarts to people with book smarts).
Of course, this doesn’t negate the fact that people can improve (even at tasks they struggle at) with differentiated support. However, it does highlight that there is some degree of fixedness in our starting points and ease with which we can develop and improve.
The theory also fails to acknowledge that some people just don’t like some activities, and maybe it’s okay to give up if you feel you just don’t enjoy it.
Carol Dweck’s mindset theory is a useful tool for personal reflection on whether we are approaching tasks with a reasonable degree of self-belief or whether we are being closed-minded about or ability to improve.
Generally, by reflecting on times in our past when we have achieved self-improvement, we all can identify times when we have achieved improvements in our skills and talents. However, the theory isn’t without its limitations: perhaps, we do have some in-built strengths and weaknesses that we need to deal with and manage.
Overall, this theory is great for getting people into the right mindset, but does have its own blindspots that need to be considered before we evangelize about it everywhere we go!
Bates, T. (2017) Schools are desperate to teach growth mindset. The Spectator. Retrieved from: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/01/schools-are-desperate-to-teach-growth-mindset-but-its-based-on-a-lie/
Canning, E. A., Ozier, E., Williams, H. E., AlRasheed, R., & Murphy, M. C. (2022). Professors who signal a fixed mindset about ability undermine women’s performance in STEM. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 13(5), 927-937.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Haager, J. S., Kuhbandner, C., & Pekrun, R. (2014). Overcoming fixed mindsets: The role of affect. Cognition & emotion, 28(4), 756-767. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2013.851645
Haimovitz, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2017). The origins of children’s growth and fixed mindsets: New research and a new proposal. Child development, 88(6), 1849-1859. doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12955
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]