From Middle School to the Middle East

Can growth mindset promote peace?

Growth mindset pioneer Professor Carol Dweck. [Photo provided.] 

Growth mindset pioneer Professor Carol Dweck. [Photo provided.] 

Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck has devoted her career to learning how different mindsets impact almost every aspect of life: from success and achievement in sports, school and career to social interactions. Now she and her colleagues are showing how growth mindset can reduce propensity toward aggression and increase willingness to engage in compromise.

 When kids believe personality traits are fixed, they are much more likely to respond to hurtful behavior such as bullying with aggression or retaliation, their research has found.

In one study, high school students were split into two intervention groups and a control group. Over a three week period, one group attended six workshops on coping skills and social emotional learning that focused on conflict resolution. The other group learned the science behind people’s potential for change, or ‘growth mindset.’

A month later aggression was measured with an experiment where students were excluded in an online game by two of their peers,  but then  had the opportunity to assign hot sauce to the excluders, who they knew didn’t like spicy food. The ‘growth mindset group’ doled out 40% less hot sauce than the control and social skills group—and accompanied the hot sauce with much more pro-social notes.


Three months later, school records showed fewer suspensions and absences among the students who learned growth mindset.

When adolescents think victimization is permanent—resulting from the belief that bullies are ‘bad’ people who won’t stop, and that victims will always be ‘losers’—then they seek more drastic, vengeful solutions to their conflicts, lead researcher David Yeager, now an Assistant Professor  at the University of Texas at Austin, explained at the time.

“But when they believe that people have the potential for change—both they themselves and the people who treat them badly—then victimization seems less like a diagnosis of their future, and more like something that will pass.  Hence, it becomes less stressful and less threatening.”

So where else could growth mindset be applied?

“We decided to visit the mother of all conflicts, perhaps the only place that has more conflict than Amercian highschools, and that’s the middle east,” Dweck says.

 Researchers conducted four studies designed to see whether growth mindset might  create greater accord between Israelis and Palestinians.

The first study included a nationally representative sample of 500 Israeli Jews. It measured their ideas about groups in general, for example did they agree or disagree that groups can change characteristics? They also measured their attitudes toward Palestinians and their willingness to engage in major compromises for the sake of peace. Things like dialing back to Israel’s pre-1967 borders, which would mean evacuating the settlement. Or entertaining the idea that Jerusalem could be the capital of a two state solution.

“The more the Israelis endorsed a growth mindset, the more positive their attitudes toward Palestinians and the greater their willingness to entertain these really major compromises,” Dweck says.

In the other three studies, researchers introduced a growth mindset intervention to  Israeli Jews (N = 76), Palestinian citizens of Israel (N = 59), and Palestinians in the West Bank (N = 53), many of whom were members of Hamas or Fatah.

Participants read about research showing that violent or aggressive groups could change their ways and learned that patterns of violence in groups could change over time because of changes in the characteristics of the dominant leader or the situation itself.

“We never mentioned their adversary—just groups in general—and yet we found in every case that learning a growth mindset changed their opinions toward their adversary—Jews toward Palestinians, and Palestinians toward Jews—and created significantly greater willingness to make these compromises for the sake of peace."

The researchers have received funding to develop a more in-depth growth mindset workshop to see if it can persist over time.

Maybe they’ll go to Egypt next?

Note: Carol Dweck was a keynote speaker at the Happiness Conference.

Her book Mindset is available here.  

This paper further details her research on mindset in the middle east.

Read more about Dweck's other research on the blog next week. Also if you missed the two previous posts from Happiness and its Causes, they're worth checking out.