Yesterday's post on setbacks and mindset (as well as last month's post on mental models) resulted in some further thoughts on just what we mean by "mindset," and I've provisionally arrived at the four definitions below. By no means are they mutually exclusive, and the overlap is intentional; each definition simply provides another way of looking at and making effective use of the central concept.
1) As I mentioned yesterday, mindset refers to the overarching idea that what we think--and particularly what we think about ourselves--influences how we perceive the world around us and how we experience that world. Our thoughts, perceptions, and emotions shape our reality. A perfect example of this is the placebo effect; quoting again from yesterday's post, recent research has shown that "A particular mind-set or belief about one's body or health may lead to improvements in disease symptoms as well as changes in appetite, brain chemicals and even vision..."
2) A second definition of mindset is the process of understanding cognitive biases and principles of neuroscience in order to leverage them and turn them to our advantage, rather than be buffeted about by them. Yesterday I wrote about a cognitive bias called the "fundamental attribution error"--ascribing causality to personal characteristics when causality actually lies with the situation--and how awareness of this bias and its impact on our mindset can allow us to cope more effectively with setbacks. I've also written about other heuristics that can lead us astray, such as availability bias--"the tendency to judge the likelihood of an event by the ease with which relevant examples come to mind"--and affective errors--"the tendency to make decisions based on what we wish were true." Recent research on neuroscience and brain function provides additional insights into why we act the way we do, and one of the best examples is David Rock's SCARF model, which "captures the common factors that can activate a reward or threat response in social situations."
3) On a more personal level, a third definition of mindset is an awareness of our existing mental models, beliefs and assumptions, many of which are the result of past learning experiences and which may not have been re-examined or updated in the interim. Such awareness allows us to see how these concepts influence our actions and, if we choose, to update them to reflect our current circumstances and subsequent learning. In turn, this process allows us to make different choices based on more recent information and better suited to current circumstances. Last month I discussed the impact of my self-image as a public speaker: "I had trapped myself in my own mental model: believing I was a poor speaker led me to avoid speaking opportunities, which prevented me from ever improving. Today I still get nervous before a speech or presentation, but I view that response simply as a manifestation of my desire to do well, not as damning evidence of my ineffectiveness."
4) Finally, a very specific and highly useful definition of mindset is the idea at the heart of the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who sees a pivotal distinction between a "growth" mindset and a "fixed" mindset. As I noted yesterday in a citation from Dweck's website:
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They're wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
As I noted above, these definitions are intentionally overlapping; I'm not seeking to distinguish them as entirely separate concepts but rather trying to get sufficient clarity on the threads and themes woven into the concept of "mindset" in order to make use of all of them more effectively.
Photo by Alex Valli. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.