Carol S. Dweck and Ellen L. Leggett

The Big Idea

This paper is a continuation of the line of research by Carol Dweck and others on behaviours that are characterised as adaptive or maladaptive.  In other words, there are patterns or tendencies in children that are identifiable by way of the choices made with regard to achievement opportunities.  While sport is not mentioned in this paper, it is an easy pivot to see how it is that some players truly thrive on challenges and obstacles; and how it is that other players exhibit helplessness by way of avoiding challenges and obstacles.  In the one, the youngster is striving to improve competence; in the other, the child is courting or protecting favourable judgment of their skill.

The added information in this publication is that there are implicit but different assumptions held by these two kinds of players with respect to intelligence.  Those exhibiting maladaptive behaviours see intelligence as being fixed, immutable.  Those with adaptive behaviours see intelligence as malleable.  Even more, the model these researchers are suggesting even includes successful extensions from achievement behaviours into predictions of social and moral behaviours as well.  In all three behaviours, it is clearly more success by all accounts to be learning-oriented.  There is a simple thought (from Piet Hein) that depicts the big idea of this research paper:  “The road to wisdom is easy to express; it is to err and err and err again; but less, and less, and less.”


  • There are two identifiable patterns of behaviour found in children (and relatable to adults as well).
  • They are maladaptive (helpless) and adaptive (mastery-oriented).
  • In something likes sports, where achievement is at play, these two views do affect success.
  • If a child avoids challenges and plays it safe, their overall goal is to protect themselves from negative feedback. Their aim is to gain positive judgments of competence and avoid failure.
  • If a child seeks challenges and takes some risks, their learning goal is to increase competence, to improve skill in the face of failure.
  • It turns out that these goal orientations suggest differing theories of intelligence as well.
  • Children who are performance-oriented implicitly believe their intelligence is fixed (Entity).
  • Children who are learning-oriented implicitly believe their intelligence is malleable (Incremental).
  • A model is suggested where the sequence of patterns moves from theory (of intelligence) to goal (performance or learning) to behavior (helpless or mastery).
  • And this model seems to be generalisable beyond achievement behaviour to include both social behaviour and moral behaviour.

The Research

This research paper follows previously published studies on motivation and personality (two of these studies were previously summarised for the Player Development Project library).  This line of research has demonstrated that children appear to follow two different patterns of behaviour when confronted with obstacles.  There is a helpless pattern characterised by avoiding the challenge.  Avoidance typically creates a deterioration of performance.  The other pattern is the more adaptive mastery-oriented response.  This orientation involves the pursuit of challenging tasks with a consequence of trying harder following failure.

What is odd in this difference of response is that those who avoid a challenge are initially equal in ability to those who persist in the face of obstacles.  These researchers have found that some of the brightest of children exhibit the helpless pattern.  So it is not simply that those who have a history of failure or fold in the face of a challenge are less skilled.  The question in this research paper is:  Why is it that children of equal abilities show such marked differences in the face of obstacles?

Part of an answer to explain these differences have to do with goals.  With respect to intellectual skills, there are at least two goals as described in one of the previous studies: performance goals and learning goals.  Focusing on gaining favourable judgments or approvals of competence (performance goal) can result in vulnerability when confronting a challenge.  But if a child focuses on improving their competence (learning goals), facing similar challenges promoted persistence and mastery-orientation.  Different goals, in other words, creates different patterns of cognition, affect, and behaviour.

How goals create patterns

With regard to cognition, children using performance goals tend to see failure and high effort as messages of less ability.  A child using learning goals sees challenges as contributing to opportunities for more effective mastery.  With regard to affect, using performance goals where the judgment of others is the value, failure can create anxiety, pose a threat to self-esteem, or even cause depression.  When using learning goals, on the other hand, a failure in the face of a challenge simply means the child must work harder or require more ingenuity.  With regard to behaviour, with performance goals the choice of doing a task almost requires certainty that they can do the task before they act.  This is a way to minimise negative judgments.  But in using the learning goals, whatever the task, the orientation is one of striving to maximise the growth of ability and pleasure of mastery.

Interestingly, the authors of this study also point to more recent research tying goal choices to implicit theories of intelligence.  There are two competing theories: 1) some children believe in an incremental theory; that their smarts are increasable, malleable, and controllable; 2) other children believe in an entity theory; that intelligence is fixed or uncontrollable.  It just might be then that the more performance patterned children carry an implicit entity theory; while the more learning patterned children adhere to an incremental theory.

Generalising the model to other domains

Now the question is: Does this model of theory-goal-behaviour in the domain of achievement also explain behaviour patterns in social or moral situations (personality)?  According to these researchers and the literature they summarise, the answer is “yes.”  In studies using social rejection, children who have been judged to be helpless with regard to achievement goals are maladaptive socially as well.  These are children found to believe social/personality attributes are fixed traits (Entity); and whose goals are to gain positive judgments and avoid negative judgments of their social skills.  But children who believe somehow that social/personality attributes are malleable qualities (Incremental) set goals to increase social competence; and they are persistent in seeking challenges.

Interestingly, the same model predicts behaviour in the moral domain as well.  Some children will engage in moral actions to prove to themselves and to others that they are indeed moral individuals (performance goals).  Other children might choose actions that could actually develop their moral understanding, and to improve their ability to face moral choices (learning goals).  It also follows that performance goal children tend to be more conforming, less risk taking; whereas learning goal children are better able to handle criticism or disapproval from others.

Finally, there is some evidence connecting this model to the way we judge others’ actions.   In other words, people who believe human natures are fixed (entity) may be more susceptible to stereotyping or prejudices—even maintaining such views in the face of counter information.  Those holding incremental views, on the other hand, tend to be more open to situational circumstances when others demonstrate negative behaviours.  The upshot of this model is the way in which it depicts which underlying personality variables do indeed stretch into dynamic motivational processes producing major patterns of cognition, affect, and behaviour.

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