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Implicit theories of malleability

Dr. Simon Moss


Some individuals assume the fundamental character, morality, and competence of humans tends to be fixed, not malleable, called an entity theory. Other individuals, in contrast, assume the core character, morality, or competence of humans is not fixed, but can evolve over time, called an incremental theory. Several practices can be applied to cultivate the belief that humans are malleable--an assumption that affords many benefits, such as the capacity to withstand change and criticism (Werth, Markel, & Forster, 2006).

Consequences of implicit malleability

Overview of benefits and limitations

Individuals who assume the character or competence of humans is malleable cope more effectively with change, embracing rather than rejecting initiatives and developments (Werth, Markel, & Forster, 2006). They also consider and adopt, rather than disregard or deride, the advice and feedback they receive (Maurer, Mitchell, & Barbeite, 2002). Likewise, they are less inclined to disregard information that contradicts their beliefs or stereotypes (Plaks, Stroessner, Dweck, & Sherman, 2001). Indeed, they are more receptive to diversity, tending to respect individuals from other ethnicities, occupations, or departments (Hong et al, 2004).

They also are less inclined to feel like a phony, feeling they deserve the praise and recognition they receive (Kumar & Jagacinski, 2006). Finally, they also set challenging goals as well as perform more effectively than peers on complex, difficult tasks.

Nevertheless, individuals who assume the character or competence of humans is malleable are occasionally perceived as erratic rather than clear (Werth, Markel, & Forster, 2006).

Reactions to feedback

Many researchers assume that, in general, individuals who espouse an incremental theory--and thus feel they can change fundamentally--are more receptive to feedback (Maurer, Mitchell, & Barbeite, 2002). They are, for example, less defensive.

For example, as shown by Nussbaum and Dweck (2008), if individuals feel that intelligence or ability is fixed--and cannot be developed over time--they are more likely to act defensively if they receive criticisms or adverse feedback. Rather than strive to improve their performance, they will deny the criticism, compare themselves to someone who is even less proficient, or display symbols, such as certificates, which demonstrate their competence. That is, because they do not feel they can improve, they must act defensively to maintain their self esteem. In contrast, if individuals feel that intelligence or ability can be cultivated through effort and training, they are less inclined to act defensively. Instead, they engage in practice and other strategies to improve their performance. They will, for example, become more likely to seek advice from experts.

Nevertheless, in some instances, individuals who adopt an incremental theory feel more anxious in response to feedback (Plaks & Stecher, 2007). Specifically, individuals who espouse this incremental theory assume they can change fundamentally. If these individuals had received assistance on some task, they would expect to improve. If informed their performance has not changed, this expectation is violated, and anxiety ensues (Plaks & Stecher, 2007).

In contrast, individuals who espouse an entity theory presuppose they cannot change fundamentally. If these individuals had received assistance on some task, they would not necessarily expect to improve. If informed their performance has not changed, this expectation is fulfilled, and anxiety dissipates (Plaks & Stecher, 2007). Indeed, if informed they had improved considerably, the positive feelings this information evokes coincides with a sense of anxiety as well--an anxiety that emanates from the violation of their expectations.

Responses to the failures of other people

In general, if people adopt an incremental mindset, they are more forgiving of people who commit errors or exhibit deficiencies. That is, they recognize these shortfalls could be overcome (Hong, Chiu, Dweck, & Sacks, 1997). These individuals, however, are especially intolerant of anyone who does not fulfill the changes they promised. In particular, they are optimistic that other people can change. If this change is not forthcoming, individuals who adopt an incremental mindset are particular disappointed.

In one study, people identified four behaviors they planned to change in the future. Their partner was then asked to indicate the likelihood these behaviors would be fulfilled--a measure of optimism. Then, two weeks later, the partner answered questions that assess the degree to which the planned behaviors were enacted as well as the degree to which they trust the other person.

Relative to partners who adopted an entity mindset, partners who adopted an incremental mindset were more optimistic about the change. They felt the other person would enact the behaviors they planned. However, if the other person did not enact this behavior, these partners became especially distrusting. Their disappointment, thus, seemed to be more pronounced.


Relative to employees who feel that competence and character can vary, employees feel the competence and character of individuals is fixed sometimes demonstrate more effort and dedication after failures, at least if when they undertake tasks they feel assess their ability (El-Alayli, 2006). Specifically, individuals who adopt an entity theory strive to establish, rather than enhance, their level of competence. Accordingly, they tend to direct their attention towards opportunities that assess their competence or ability& they will thus devote more effort to tasks that assess their capacities.

In contrast, individuals who adopt an incremental theory strive to enhance, rather than establish, their level of competence. Hence, they tend to direct their attention towards opportunities that could improve their capacities. They do not devote effort to tasks that merely assess their skills. Instead, they demonstrate effort only when the activities could enhance their competence. This congruency model was indeed verified empirically by El-Alayli (2006).


Individuals who feel that competence is fixed, and cannot be developed through effort and training, are more likely to worry before they engage in a task that might reflect their intelligence or ability. They are also less likely to practice and, hence, their performance tends to be relatively inferior (Cury, Da Fonseca, Zahn, & Elliot, 2008).

Specifically, these individuals feel that inferior performance is a fundamental reflection of their competence--and their character. They begin to worry and indeed refrain from practice, to ensure they can ascribe failures to limited familiarity with the task rather than limited ability. In contrast, individuals who feel that competence is malleable, and can be developed through practice, do not feel that inferior performance is a fundamental reflection of their competence. They are less concerned about the prospect of failure, which curbs worrying, ultimately increasing the likelihood they will practice the task and improve their ability.


The relationship between implicit theories of malleability and learning may depend on the regulatory focus of individuals (Higgins, 1997& see regulatory focus theory). In one study, conducted by Sue-Chan and Wood (2009), participants completed training in a technique that facilitates problem solving. If participants adopted an entity theory, their subsequent performance was more proficient if they had espoused a promotion rather than prevention focus--that is, if they had oriented their attention towards expediting progress rather than fulfilling duties. In particular, these participants were inclined to apply the technique they learned one month later. In contrast, if participants adopted an incremental theory, regulatory focus did not appreciably affect performance.

When individuals demonstrate a prevention focus, their principal motivation is to circumvent more immediate shortfalls or deficiencies. If they also adopt an entity theory, they might doubt whether the training could improve their performance. Any errors, thus, are both salient as well as distressing, which can damage learning.

Upward counterfactuals

If individuals perceive their capabilities, such as their ability to negotiate, as malleable, they are more likely to contemplate how events could have unfolded more effectively, called upward counterfactuals (see counterfactual thinking). That is, because of their beliefs, these people feel they can improve their behavior in the future. They direct their attention to thoughts that could facilitate their development. After they attempt to fulfill a goal, they consider how their behaviors could have unfolded more effectively--a key determinant of learning and development.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Wong, Haselhuhn, and Kray (2012), participants imagined they had offered to work at a company for $100,000 and the recruiter agreed immediately. Next, they completed a measure that assesses whether they perceive the capacity to negotiate as malleable or fixed. Finally, participants were instructed to record any thoughts they entertained after the recruiter agreed to their offer. If participants perceived the capacity to negotiate as malleable, they were more likely to entertain upward counterfactuals. That is, their thoughts primarily revolved around how they could have sought a higher wage.

The second study was similar except implicit beliefs were manipulated. That is, some participants were informed that negotiation ability can be developed over time. Other participants were informed that negotiation ability, like plaster, is stable, and this belief diminished the likelihood of upward counterfactuals. The final study showed these upward counterfactuals did indeed subsequently enhance negotiation performance


If individuals adopt an entity theory, and thus believe that people cannot change fundamentally, they value punishment and retribution in response to unsuitable behavior. If individuals adopt an incremental theory, and thus believe that people can change fundamentally, they favor rehabilitation instead.

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Chiu, Dweck, Tong, and Fu (1997), undergraduate students, participating in a study, were told about a professor who unjustly modified a system of grading, without justifying this amendment to students. Relative to other participants, students who espoused an entity theory believed this person should be punished.

Similarly, in another study conducted by Gervey, Chiu, Hong, and Dweck (1999), participants read about a person who was imprisoned after committing a murder. The participants were asked to discuss the functions of imprisonment. Individuals who adopted an entity theory referred to punishment and retribution& individuals who adopted an incremental theory referred to rehabilitation or education.


As Doron, Szepsenwol, Elad-Strenger, Hargil, and Bogoslavsky (2013) showed, people who feel that morality and character tend to be fixed, rather than malleable, are more likely to exhibit the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. That is, if individuals do not feel their morality or character can change, they become more sensitive to intrusive thoughts, like "I am selfish". In particular, these thoughts evoke a sense of threat and anxiety rather than motivate people to change. Consequently, individuals strive to prevent these intrusive thoughts. These attempts amplify the thoughts. The thoughts, therefore, become exaggerated, culminating in obsessions like "If I do not act nicely, I could die" and ultimately compulsive behaviors.

Doron, Szepsenwol, Elad-Strenger, Hargil, and Bogoslavsky (2013) conducted two studies that show how implicit theories of malleability relate to obsessive compulsive disorder. In the second study, participants completed a measure that assesses the degree to which they feel morality and character tends to be fixed rather than malleable, such as "A person's moral character is something basic about them and they can't change it much?. In addition, they completed a measure that gauges symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, such as the degree to which they engage in washing, checking or doubting themselves, obsessing about problems, ordering, hoarding, or similar activities. Furthermore, an inventory that assesses obsessive beliefs was administered, such as inflated responsibility and threat overestimation& perfectionism and intolerance of uncertainty& and importance of controlling negative thoughts.

The findings confirmed the hypotheses. The belief that morality and character are fixed was associated with obsessive compulsive symptoms. Obsessive beliefs mediated this association.

Cooperation and support

Implicit theories are likely to affect the extent to which individuals engage in community or cooperative behavior. Individuals who adopt an entity theory often believe the life conditions of people are fixed& these individuals thus might feel less inclined to engage in community behavior, intended to redress any deprivation (Karafantis & Levy, 2004). In contrast, individuals who adopt an incremental theory believe the life conditions of people can change. They will, thus, feel more inspired to support some cause or community (Karafantis & Levy, 2004).

Karafantis and Levy (2004) generated some results that support this proposition. In one study, children between the age of 9 and 12 were asked to report their attitudes towards homeless children. In addition, they specified the extent to which they have already volunteered to help deprived communities in the past. Relative to children who espoused an entity theory, children who espoused an incremental theory were more likely to express positive attitudes to homeless children: They perceived social contact with these children as a positive opportunity, for example. They also had volunteered more frequently in the past.

Individuals who adopt an entity, rather than incremental, theory are also not as willing to coach other people. In one study, conducted by Heslin, Vandewalle, and Latham (2006), managers completed a measure of their implicit theories. Six weeks later, they received feedback about their coaching behavior from their employees. If managers exhibited an entity rather than incremental theory, they did not offer significant coaching, as rated by their employees.

In a subsequent study, Heslin, Vandewalle, and Latham (2006) manipulated the extent to which individuals are likely to adopt an entity theory. All the participants initially espoused an entity theory. Some of these participants, however, were exposed to a workshop that highlighted how people can change. Finally, all participants watched videotapes of employees, attempting to negotiate some outcome. They were then granted an opportunity to offer advice and coaching to these employees. If participants had been exposed to the workshop that emphasizes how people can change, purportedly inciting an incremental theory, they were more willing to provide coaching.

Trust and forgiveness

Often, individuals feel that a friend or relative has violated their trust and acted inappropriately. They become disinclined to trust this person in the future. Nevertheless, if this person apologizes and maintains they will behave appropriately in the future, individuals might be able to reinstate this trust.

As Haselhuhn, Schweitzer, and Wood (2010) showed, the assumption that morality is malleable rather than immutable facilitates this capacity to restore trust. Specifically, in this study, participants read one of two essays: One of the essays implied that morality is malleable and the other essay implied that morality is immutable (see Kray & Haselhuhn, 2007, for a similar manipulation).

Next, they engaged in a game with another person, intended to assess their capacity to restore a sense of trust after an apology. In particular, in this game, they were granted 6$ and could either retain this money or distribute this money to the other person. The money, if distributed to the other person, was tripled. The other person could either retain the ensuing $18 or return half. For each of these trials, the two individuals reached this decision simultaneously and communicated over computer. During the first three trials, the other person, actually a confederate, did not return the money. Then, the other person apologized. Whether participants later chose to distribute the money reflected a measure of trust recovery.

As hypothesized, when participants were prompted to assume that morality is malleable, they were more likely to trust the other person in response to the recovery. Presumably, if morality is assumed to be malleable, individuals feel the apology might be sincere and the person might have changed.


Relative to people who adopt an incremental theory, people who adopt an entity theory are more likely to perceive groups as tight, called entitavity. As Smith, Faro, and Burson (2013) showed, they perceive a group of 200 gazelles as typifying a tight collective. Consequently, they tend to perceive the gazelles as all exhibiting the same essential feature or characteristics. Their perceptions of groups--which in this instance is positive---tend to be more extreme.

Relationship satisfaction

Some individuals perceive a relationship as a dynamic that grows and develops, as a consequence of challenges, effort, and conflict, called growth beliefs. Because these individuals perceive conflict as an opportunity to grow, change, and develop, they are not as likely to experience anger or aggression during relationships. In contrast, other individuals feel that successful relationships depend on perfect compatibility rather than growth and effort, called destiny beliefs. These individuals may be more susceptible to anger.

Cobb, Dewall, Lambert, and Fincham (2013) explored these possibilities. In one study, for example, participants answered questions that gauge the degree to which they feel that relationships grow as a consequence of challenges and conflict or depend on compatibility. In addition, they were asked to indicate the degree to which they engage in aggressive acts, such as throw something at their partner. If individuals feel that relationships can grow and develop, they were less inclined to behave aggressively. This relationship persisted after controlling destiny beliefs.

The second study replicated these findings in a longitudinal study. That is, growth beliefs at one time predicted violence subsequently, even after controlling relationship satisfaction. The third study showed that willingness to sacrifice, epitomized by items such as "It can be personally fulfilling to give up something for my close friend", mediated this relationship between growth beliefs and limited aggression.

Factors that moderate the benefits of implicit malleability

Usually, relative to individuals who feel their competence is fixed, individuals who feel their competence is flexible are more inclined to invest effort into tasks after they fail. They are not as inclined to self handicap (Ommundsen, 2001). That is, they are not as inclined to sabotage their own performance, perhaps by abstaining from practice or performing in distracting environments. Specifically, because they feel they can improve, they do not feel the need to ascribe their failures to excuses, such as limited practice. They do not feel the need to protect their self esteem.

Niiya, Brook, and Crocker (2010), however, challenged this assumption. They showed that, in particular circumstances, these incremental theorists who assume that intelligence is malleable might feel the need to protect their self esteem. Specifically, if these individuals fail on a task in which they devoted considerable effort, they might feel especially threatened. These individuals like to ascribe failures to limited effort or inadequate strategies. When these explanations are invalidated, they might feel especially threatened, engaging in self handicapping to preserve their self esteem.

Niiya, Brook, and Crocker (2010) substantiated this possibility. Participants completed a series of measures to assess the extent to which they feel that intelligence is fixed or malleable, the degree to which their self worth depends on academic prowess, and their self esteem. Next, they were told they will complete either an easy or difficult academic task. That is, they completed either simple or difficult sample items. Finally, before they completed the task, they were granted the opportunity to listen to distracting music while undertaking this activity--a measure of sabotaging.

If they had been exposed to simple items, entity theorists were more likely than incremental theorists to sabotage their performance, by listening to distracting music. However, if the sample items were difficult, incremental theorists were more likely to sabotage their performance--although this pattern emerged only in participants who derived their self esteem from academic prowess.

The second study was similar, except level of practice was the index of self sabotaging. When the sample items were easy, incremental theorists demonstrated less self sabotaging: They were more willing to practice (Niiya, Brook, & Crocker, 2010). When the sample items were difficult, however, this difference between incremental theorists and entity theorists vanished, provided these individuals derived their self esteem from academic prowess.

A practical application is that an incremental theory must be combined with other initiatives. Specifically, an incremental theory is constructive only if the goal is achievable, if the individuals can ascribe failures to inadequate strategies rather than effort, or if individuals do not derive their self esteem from one domain, such as academic prowess.

Antecedents of implicit malleability


Self-compassion--in which people accept their shortcomings and talk to themselves from a compassionate and caring perspective--has also been shown to induce an incremental theory (Breines & Chen, 2012& see self-compassion). That is, self-compassion enables people to accept, rather than deny, their faults. They become willing to attempt activities in which they may do not succeed, because they are not afraid of failure. Because they are willing to address their shortcomings, they develop the belief they can change, increasing their receptivity to feedback and advice, epitomizing an incremental theory.

For example, in one study, conducted by Breines and Chen (2012), participants were asked to reflect upon one of their weaknesses. Next, to induce self-compassion, some participants imagined they were talking to themselves about this weakness from a compassionate and understanding perspective. In one of the control conditions, to inflate self-esteem instead, participants imagined they were talking to themselves about this weakness by emphasizing their qualities and strengths. In another control condition, participants did not engage in either of these exercises. Finally, all participants were asked to write about this weakness, emphasizing the source of this shortfall as well as activities they have undertaken to redress this deficiency.

Relative to the other conditions, if self-compassion had been induced, participants were more likely to write about the prospect they can change. They included statements like "With hard work I know I can change it" rather than "It's just inborn, there's nothing I can do". Their comments epitomized an incremental theory.


Individuals cannot, at least immediately, convince themselves that human character and competence is malleable if they actually perceive these qualities as fixed. They can, however, engage in a few exercises that foster this assumption. First, they should reflect upon which of their friends or colleagues have changed the most over time, perhaps improving their social skills or escalating their discipline. They should transcribe the name of this person, perhaps in a diary, revisting this name whenever they feel anxious or frustrated. This exercise has been shown to instil the belief that humans are malleable (Poon & Koehler, 2006).

Skill development

In addition, individuals should attempt to cultivate their knowledge on some topic or develop a specific skill--perhaps enrolling in a program or reading a book on bookkeeping, for example. Knowledge and skill development implies that competence is not fixed (Hong et al, 2004).

To illustrate, Heslin, Latham, and VandeWalle (2005) developed a procedure that primes an entity or incremental theory. Specifically, some participants were asked to recall a past event that evoked change in their character. This instruction, coupled with an essay that reinforces the possibility of such change, fostered an incremental theory.

References to social categories

Often, people will maintain that the social categories in which people are born, such as women, Asians, or extraverts, affect performance on some task. They might claim that ?women are good at developing rapport? or ?Asians are good at engineering?. As Cimpian, Mu, and Erickson (2012) showed, these comments can actually evoke an entity theory, at least in children. That is, in response to these comments, people believe the social categories in which they are born determine their performance. They feel that effort does not affect performance as dramatically, instilling an entity theory instead of an incremental theory.

In a pair of studies, conducted by Cimpian, Mu, and Erickson (2012), young children completed a cognitive activity. In the second study, for example, the children needed to mentally rotate shapes to match a picture. Midway through, some children were informed that ?girls are really good at this game? or ?boys are really good at this game?. In one of the control conditions, children were informed that ?there is a girl who is really good at this game? or ?there is a boy who is really good at this game?. Finally, in the second study, neither of these messages was presented. Performance was not as likely to improve over time in children who were informed that either girls or boys in general are good at this game, regardless of their own sex. Presumably, these comments implied that performance is primarily dependent on biological characteristics rather than effort, diminishing improvement.


Supervisors or managers should, at least occasionally, recount proverbs that highlight the capacity of individuals to change. Conveying phrases such as "It-'s never too late to learn" and "Experience is the best teacher" have been shown to promote the assumption that humans are quintessentially malleable.

Furthermore, supervisors or managers should communicate the recent discovery that even the personality of individuals, such as the extent to which they are extraverted, sociable, and composed, can change significantly over time. In particular, individuals become increasingly sociable, talkative, energetic, adventurous, and assertive if they enjoy their job (Scollon & Diener, 2006).

To illustrate, in a study by Aronson et al. (2002) , some participants were informed that intelligence can be cultivated or developed "like a muscle". This information, which is assumed to prime existing implicit theories, improved academic performance.

Any activities that underscore the traits of individuals, such as workshops in which employees are assigned labels, putatively reflecting their personality or style, often inculcate the belief that humans are fixed. Coordinators of these activities, therefore, must emphasize that such labels are transient, not permanent.


Characteristics of individuals that are labelled as diseases may be perceived as less malleable. Hoyt, Burnette, and Auster-Gussman (2014) uncovered corroborated this possibility, but did not assess the effect of labels on theories of malleability explicitly. In their study, some participants read an article about a recent decision by the American Medical Association to label obesity as a disease. The article discussed the benefits and drawbacks of this decision, such as possible compensation to receive relevant drugs and surgery. Other participants read information on how to reduce weight. Next, participants indicated the extent to which they were concerned about their weight as well as which of several options from a menu they would choose. Finally, the BMI of participants was measured. If overweight or obese participants read the article that labelled obesity as a disease, they expressed less concern about weight and were more inclined to choose an item from the menu that is high in calories.

In another study, the control condition was modified: Participants read that obesity is not a disease. Again, if obesity was labelled a disease, overweight or obese participants seem less concerned about their weight and less inclined to choose items that are low in calories. Presumably, if obesity was labelled as a disease, participants did not perceive their weight as amenable to change& this entity theory diminished their motivation to change.

Correlates of implicit malleability

Goal orientation

According to Dweck and Elliott (1983), individuals who adopt an entity theory of malleability tend to pursue performance goals (see goal orientation): That is, they prefer to demonstrate, rather than develop, their expertise. These individuals conceptualize achievement contexts, such as exams, as tests of some inherent competence rather than progress. Therefore, they want to outperform other people or exceed some benchmark. In contrast, individuals who adopt an incremental theory tend to pursue learning goals: They strive to enhance and refine their skills and competence. These individuals conceptualize achievement contexts as opportunities to develop.

Robins and Pals (2002) conducted research that verifies these arguments. In their study, implicit theories, goal orientation, and attribution style were assessed. Path analyses revealed that entity theorists were more likely to adopt performance goals, whereas incremental theorists were more likely to adopt learning goals. When performance goals were adopted, participants attributed outcomes to uncontrollable causes, like the ability of colleagues or the difficulty and complexity of the tasks. When learning goals were adopted, participants attributed outcomes to controllable causes, such as effort and strategies.

Neural underpinnings of incremental theories

Moser, Schroder, Heeter, Moran, and Lee (2011) uncovered some neurological differences between individuals who adopt an incremental theory, sometimes called a growth mindset, and individuals who adopt an entity theory, sometimes called a fixed mindset. Specifically, they showed a pronounced error positivity component in incremental theorists, indicating these individuals are especially inclined to orient their attention to errors and mistakes. This error positivity component also enhanced the accuracy of participants after mistakes.

In particular, participants completed the Erikson flanker task. Sets of 5 letters, such as NNMNN, were presented. Participants needed to press one of two buttons depending on whether the centre letter was an M or N. Individuals often commit errors when the surroundings letters differ from the centre letter. While they completed this task, EEGs were recorded to characterize event related potentials--changes in brain potentials during the trial. Finally, participants completed a measure that gauges whether they adopt a growth or fixed mindset.

If participants reported a growth mindset, the error positivity component was more pronounced after errors. This component, which is evoked within half a second of the error, is assumed to originate primarily from the anterior cingulate cortex. Unlike the error negative component, which signals a conflict between the correct and erroneous response, this positive component orients attention to these errors and facilitates adjustments.

Thus, an incremental or growth mindset directs attention to feedback about errors and, thus, facilitates improvement. Indeed, this positivity component was evoked only 200 ms after the error--and before an error message was presented. These individuals, therefore, recognize their own errors rapidly and direct their attention to these mistakes.

Essentialism: Beliefs about the role of genetics and social environment

Some people believe that genetics and biology significantly affect the personality, capabilities, interests, and behaviors of individuals, called belief in genetic determinism. Other people believe the social environment in which individuals were reared, such as their family or neighborhood, greatly affect these characteristics, called a belief in social determinism. In contrast, some people do not espouse either of these beliefs. They may feel the behavior of people mainly depends on the immediate context rather than enduring traits. Alternatively, they may feel that genetics and social environment interact with each other, implying that neither of these forces alone appreciably determines behavior (see Rangel & Keller, 2011).

These beliefs impinge upon assumptions of implicit malleability. That is, if people assume that genetics and biology significantly affect personality and behavior, they may adopt an entity theory: That is, they presume that people cannot override the impact of genetics and thus are unlikely to change appreciably.

If people assume that social environment significantly affects personality and behavior, they do not necessarily adopt an entity theory. These people, of course, appreciate the context can, at least gradually, shape the personality and behavior of individuals. They hence realize that character is not immutable. However, they may feel the social environment now cannot override the effects of the social environment in the past. They might, therefore, still assume that character is not especially malleable later in life. The relationship between belief in social determinism and implicit theories of malleability, therefore, should not be pronounced.

Rangel and Keller (2011) collected evidence that support these premises. Participants completed measures of belief in genetic determinism, with questions including "I believe that many talents in humans can be traced back to genetic causes", and belief in social determinism, with questions including "What a person thinks and does is the product of his or her social origin". Furthermore, a measure of implicit theories of malleability was administered. Belief in genetic determinism was positively associated with an entity theory. Belief in social determinism was not positively associated with an entity theory: Indeed, one of the studies uncovered a significant but small negative relationship.

Essentialism: Positive stereotypes and prejudice

After people read about the positive attributes of a minority race or ethnicity, they actually become more likely to demonstrate prejudiced attitudes. For example, in one study, conducted by Kay, Day, Zanna, and Nussbaum (2013), European American participants read a fictitious article that depicted African American as either athletic or violent. Next, they received considerable information about 10 people, two of whom were assigned stereotypically African American names. Finally, participants were instructed to rate these people on a series of attributes. If participants had read about the athleticism of African American, they were subsequently more likely to rate the two people with African Americans names as violent and aggressive.

In general, people accept, rather than reject, favorable information about groups, such as "African Americans are athletic". Consequently, they become more likely to assume that such groups are, in essence, different to one another. That is, they espouse the concept of essentialism. They feel that some underlying, enduring attribute differs between groups. They perceive negative stereotypes of groups, such as the notion that African Americans may commit more crimes, as integral to that group--manifesting as prejudice.

Essentialism: Creativity

People who believe that differences between races or ethnicities can be ascribed to some biological or genetic essence are not only more likely to be prejudiced but also less likely to think creatively. In particular, according to Tadmor, Chao, Hong, and Polzer (2013), if individuals espouse this perspective, called essentialism, they tend to perceive categories as discrete. They dismiss complex, contradictory, and nuanced attributes. For example, they might perceive one race as successful and another race as ethical and, therefore, may overlook the possibility that individuals can be successful and ethical. Their ideas and solutions, therefore, are not as flexible. Their creativity is compromised.

Tadmor, Chao, Hong, and Polzer (2013) conducted some telling studies that verify this possibility. In one study, participants read a fictitious article that supported or opposed the notion of essentialism. That is, the article either ascribed or did not ascribe differences across races to biological and genetic causes. Next, to gauge creativity, participants completed the Remotes Associates Test in which they needed to identify a word that is related to three other words. Essentialism impaired performance on the Remote Associates Test. Subsequent studies showed that close mindedness, in which individuals do not like to consider other alternatives, mediated this relationship.

Essentialism: Manipulations

Very subtle questions can prime the assumption that differences between various races or ethnicities are immutable and reflect the essence of each community, called essentialist beliefs. After individuals are asked to indicate one of several ethnicities to which they belong, they are more likely to espouse this belief. In contrast, after individuals are asked to indicate which of several ethnicities to which they belong--but are permitted to choose more than one--they are not as likely to espouse this belief. The instruction to tick all that apply implies that individuals can belong to more than one ethnicity, and hence these ethnicities are not essentially distinct (Lee, Wilton, & Kwan, 2014).

To illustrate, in one study, participants were asked to indicate whether they are Caucasian, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, or Other. They were asked to check one or check all that apply. If asked to check one option only, participants exhibited the manifestations of essentialism: They expressed less interest in interacting with diverse ethnicities, for example.

Categories of implicit theories

Rather than explore perceived malleability of global character or competence, some studies examine the perceived malleability of specific characteristics. Indeed, researchers have explored the perceived malleability of intelligence (Dweck, 1999& Dweck & Leggett, 1988& Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999), stereotyping (e.g., Levy, Stroessner, & Dweck, 1998), and romantic relationships (e.g., Knee, 1998 & Knee, Patrick, & Lonsbary, 2003), for example.

Negotiation ability

Kray and Haselhuhn (2007), for example, examined the implicit theories towards the malleability of negotiation ability. Individuals who feel the capacity to negotiate effectively can be developed, and is not fixed, tend to perform more effectively in negotiations--especially when impediments arise or when they recognize their abilities in this endeavour are limited.


Individuals can also form entity or incremental beliefs about their weight. That is, some people feel the body weight of individuals, in essence, is fixed, representing an entity theory. They assume that changes in body weight are usually transient. Other people feel the body weight of individuals is malleable, representing an increment theory. After setbacks or obstacles, individuals who espouse an entity theory of weight are more tempted to engage in avoidant coping. That is , they are less persistent in their attempts to diet (Burnette, 2010).

Specifically, in one study conducted by Burnette (2010), participants completed a questionnaire that assessed implicit theories about body weight to differentiate an entity and malleable perspective. A typical question, representing an entity theory, is "You have a certain body weight and you can't really do much to change it". In addition, they read a scenario in which they imagined that an attempt to lose weight, by attending a program, was unsuccessful. They next answered questions that assess avoidant coping, such as "(In this scenario) I would have given up on dieting altogether". Finally, other measures, such as expectations of failure, self control and dieting self confidence, were included as well.

As hypothesized, an entity theory about weight was positively associated with avoidant coping. That is, an entity theory curbed persistence. Expectations of failure mediated this relationship.

The second study was similar except revolved around actual dieting attempts rather than imagined scenarios . Furthermore, the actual weight of participants was measured before and after a dieting attempt. An entity theory not only encouraged avoidant coping but also prevented weight loss. In the third study, putative evidence was presented to induce either an entity theory or an incremental theory about body weight. An entity theory curbed the inclination of individuals to devote effort to weight loss (Burnette, 2010).

In short, these findings indicate that entity theories curb the expectation of success. As these expectations diminish, individuals devote less effort to their attempts to regulate their weight.

Malleability of political circumstances

If individuals feel the world is changing, they are more hopeful that intractable conflicts could be resolved in the future and, consequently, are more likely to support concessions or initiatives that are intended to promote peace (Cohen-Chen, Crisp, & Halperin, 2015). For example, people who believe the past will endure into the future, and the future cannot be shaped, are more hopeful the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories will be resolved. These individuals were also more receptive to land concessions as an attempt to promote this peace. Likewise, after people read a fictitious study that shows how political situations often change over time, they were more hopeful of peace and receptive to concessions.

Measures of implicit theories

Scales with three items

Dweck, Chui, and Hong (1995a) developed a series of short scales or measures that are often utilized or adapted to gauge whether or not individuals adopt an entity theory. The scales can represent perceived malleability either in specific domains or across broad spheres of life.

To illustrate, one of the measures assesses implicit theories of malleability in the domain of intelligence. One of the three items, for example, is "Your intelligence is something about you that you can't change very much". Similarly, another measure assessed the perceived malleability of moral character, epitomized by items like "Whether a person is responsible and sincere or not is deeply ingrained in their personality. It cannot be changed very much". In contrast, another measure assessed perceived malleability of people in general. One of the three items is "People can do things differently, but the important parts of who they are can't really be changed". Likewise, one measure assessed perceived malleability of the world: An example is "Our world has its basic or ingrained dispositions, and you really can?t do much to change them" (see Dweck, Chui, & Hong, 1995a).

In each of these subscales, agreement with the items reflect an entity theory and disagreement with the items reflect an incremental theory. Dweck, Chui, and Hong (1995a) argued that an entity and incremental theory represent two poles of one dimension and, thus, do not need to be measured separately. Furthermore, an incremental theory is often regarded as more socially desirable& thus, excluding questions that refer to this theory might diminish a bias towards socially desirable responses.

Dweck, Chui, and Hong (1995a) also showed that implicit theories towards people were highly related to implicit theories towards intelligence and morality. In contrast, implicit theories towards people were not as highly related to implicit theories towards the world. These findings attest to the validity of these measures. These findings, together with other patterns of correlations, indicate that an acquiescence bias is unlikely to underpin agreement towards items that reflect an entity theory (Heyman & Dweck, 1998).

Other measures

Levy, Stroessner, and Dweck (1998) developed a measure that comprises eight items. For some of the items, agreement reflects an entity theory& for other items, agreement reflects an incremental theory. Items include "People can change even their most basic qualities" and "Everyone, no matter who they are, can significantly change their basic characteristic". Alpha reliability tends to exceed .90 (Heslin, Latham, & VandeWalle, 2005).


In some studies, individuals receive information that violates their extant theory. They might be informed they had not improved after practice, which violates an incremental theory, ultimately evoking anxiety in individuasl who would otherwise espouse this implicit belief (Plaks et al., 2001).

Superficially, this manipulation seems to resemble procedures that are intended to manipulate these implicit theories. In these studies, for example, individuals receive explicit information that vindicates either an incremental or entity theory. To prime an incremental theory, for example, they might be informed that intelligence can be cultivated (e.g., Aronson et al., 2002).

Plaks et al. (2001) distinguish between these two manipulations. When theories are violated, no alternative belief is offered. In contrast, when theories are primed, an alternative is offered.

Other lay or implicit theories

Apart from the multitude of studies that have explored the effects of lay or implicit theories about malleability, research has also examined the impact of other lay or implicit theories on behavior and wellbeing. For example, McFerran and Mukhopadhyay (2013) showed that lay or implicit beliefs about the causes of obesity actually affect the weight of people. In short, people who ascribe obesity to limited exercise or genetics rather than unhealthy eating are more likely to be overweight.

For example, in one study, participants needed to indicate the degree to which they feel that obesity can be ascribed to limited exercise, unhealthy eating, or genetics. Specifically, they were asked to distribute 100 points across these three reasons, to indicate the relative plausibility of each cause. After controlling gender, education, and medication to treat obesity, the belief that unhealthy eating promotes obesity more so than does genetics or limited exercise, called diet theorists, was negatively related to BMI. That is, people who ascribe obesity to unhealthy eating tended to be lighter. A subsequent study uncovered the same pattern of results even after other variables, like socioeconomic status, pregnancy status, interest in nutrition, tobacco use, and self-esteem, were controlled.

Another study was conducted to ascertain why this belief that diet is the main cause of obesity diminishes weight. Some participants read a scientific article that demonstrates that obesity can mainly be ascribed to overeating. Other participants read a scientific article that demonstrates that obesity can mainly be ascribed to limited exercise and a sedentary lifestyle. Finally, in the control condition, participants read a scientific article that was not related to obesity. Subsequently, they were granted an opportunity to eat chocolate while completing other tasks. If they had read the diet is the main cause of obesity, the participants were more inclined to resist the chocolate.

Obviously, if people believe that overeating is a key cause of obesity, they may refrain from consuming too many calories. Importantly, according to past research, this improvement in diet is usually more likely to curb obesity than comparable increases in exercise. Therefore, this lay belief may be especially consequential.

Silver lining theory

Some people assume their negative traits tend to coincide with positive traits, called a silver lining theory (Wesnousky, Oettingen, & Gollwitzer, 2015). For example, they might feel their tendency to be impulsive, often considered a negative characteristic, may enhance their creativity, often considered a positive characteristic. If people tend to espouse these silver lining theories, they often amplify their positive qualities to offset their negative qualities.

Wesnousky, Oettingen, and Gollwitzer (2015) conducted a series of studies to explore the implications of silver lining theory. In the first study, participants first identified one of their negative attributes--and rated the extent to which this trait is central to their personality and undesirable. Next, they were asked to indicate the degree to which they feel a positive attribute is related to this negative attribute. They also rated how closely they felt the negative characteristics and positive characteristics are related to each other.

About 90% of the participants identified a positive trait that was associated with one of their negative traits. For example, they felt that stubborn is associated with persistent, shy is associated with empathy, unassertive is associated with kind, and introversion is associated with independence.

A second study examined whether silver lining theory affects effort. In particular, participants first completed a measure of impulsivity and were informed they were either impulsive or not impulsive. Next, to manipulate whether this silver lining theory was primed, the individuals read an article, purportedly written by a scientist, that specifies that impulsivity is either related or not related to creativity. Finally, they completed the Alternate Uses task, in which they were instructed to identify possible uses of everyday objects, like a brick. Individuals who were informed they are impulsive tended to devote more effort to this creative task, but only if informed that impulsivity is related to creativity.

Arguably, many individuals assume that a strength in one domain offsets their limitations. When their limitations, such as impulsivity, are highlighted, they devote more effort to this strength to compensate.

Evidence about the malleability of characteristics

Visual acuity and sensitivity

DeLoss, Watanabe, and Andersen (2015) showed that even basic visual capabilities, such as visual acuity and the capacity to discriminate similar colors or shades, called contrast sensitivity, can improve in the aftermath of suitable training. Training, for example, improved the acuity of distant objects in younger people and the acuity of closer objects in older adults.

For example, in one study, participants completed a discrimination task for 1.5 hours, each day, over a week. The participants were aged in their twenties or seventies. On each trial, a set of four faint lines or ridges appeared on a grey background. The lines were oriented at an angle, such as 25 degrees. Next, this set of four faint lines or ridges were replaced by another set of four faint lines or ridges. Participants needed to decide whether the second set had been rotated about 15 degrees counter clockwise or about 15 degrees clockwise from the first set.

After the training, the performance of older individuals matched the performance of younger individuals before the training. Additional tests showed the older individuals demonstrated better acuity of closer objects after the training, whereas the younger individuals demonstrated better acuity of distant objects. Presumably, close acuity tends to be impaired in older, but not younger, individuals perhaps because of limitations in their capacity to shift their lens rapidly enough.


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