The Fixed Mindset: The Danger of Stereotyping Individuals and Stymying Growth

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, author Carol Dweck informatively discusses the differences between the growth mindset and the fixed mindset, and she demonstrates how having the former will allow individuals to reach their full potential. Dweck asserts that someone with a growth mindset believes that their basic qualities are things that can be cultivated through effort, strategies, and support from others, while someone with a fixed mindset believes that their attributes are set in stone. Thus, having a fixed mindset leads individuals to need to prove themselves time and time again: “If you only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character–well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them.”

Having a growth mindset hardly comes easy when stereotypes perpetuate the notion that certain people are a certain way

But how do these mindsets play a role in society? Sure, people with a growth mindset are able to improve because they already have confidence that they can. Even so, having a growth mindset hardly comes easy when stereotypes perpetuate the notion that certain people are a certain way. In her book, Dweck clearly outlines the danger of this type of thinking, and the studies that she cites are startling. Dweck writes: “No one knows about negative ability labels like members of stereotyped groups… But I’m not sure even they know how creepy these stereotypes are.” 

According to research conducted by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, simply checking a box to specify your sex or race can prompt the stereotype in our minds and decrease test performance; the reminder of being black or female right before taking an exam on a subject that you’re stereotypically not supposed to be good at can hurt your test-taking abilities. In Steele and Aronson’s studies, they found that “blacks are equal to whites in their performance, and females are equal to males when no stereotype is evoked. But just put more males in the room with a female before a math test, and down goes the female’s score.”

Stereotypes push the idea that particular people have specific traits, and there doesn’t seem to be any wiggle room—they’re fixed, oversimplified notions. When individuals are reminded of these stereotypes, it’s damaging; stereotypes are exclusive, and they make people feel like they don’t belong: “Many minorities drop out of college and many women drop out of math and science because they just don’t feel they fit in.” 

Thus, stereotypes create gaps in certain fields. The gender gap in math and science is largely due to the prevailing sexism and unfounded belief that women are bad at STEM subjects. According to Catalyst, which drew on information from the National Science Foundation, “women in the United States made up only 29% of those employed in science and engineering occupations in 2017.” While Dweck acknowledges that society doesn’t make it easy for people to dismiss the fixed mindset, she illustrates how a growth mindset is a powerful tool for everyone, but especially for people, like women, who are placed in boxes by society, as people with a growth mindset are able to feel a stronger, more secure sense of belonging: “Math and science need to be made more hospitable places for women. And women need all the growth mindset they can get to take their rightful places in these fields.”