01 November 2010

On "self-theories", "mind-sets", popularisation and framing

I want to add to the website some stuff on mindsets, self-theories, and the like, so I have of course gone back to primary sources, and I have just finished (re-) reading Dweck (2000) (the whole thing, just to be sure. But the critics are right: it's a hologram. The whole is contained in each chapter--possibly in each page).

It's now ten years old, so I sought out something more recent, but nonetheless accessible (i.e. not paywalled academic articles). Dweck produced a popular version in 2006 called Mindset so today I did something for which there is still no real substitute. I went to a serious bookshop and found it on the shelf, with a view to spending my own money on buying it (although as Susi reminded me, I would claim it against tax).

Oh dear. I'd read the reviews on Amazon of course (increasingly it's due diligence for reading list recommendations) across the board. And the one-stars were right. Half an hour in the bookshop (Heffers is the kind of bookshop where you can spend half an hour with one book--as long as you don't crack the spine) re-framed my reading.

One regretful reviewer had suggested that the publishers would have pushed for a popular version without formal referencing and attribution and the usual academic apparatus. Perhaps so. Like one of the reviewers, I found the book in the "Self-Help" bay rather than the "Psychology A-Z" bay.

And generally, as an avid consumer of "popular science" books which enable me to develop an appreciation of areas which I lack the background to enagage with in their raw form, I would have no problem with this--indeed, I would welcome it.

But in this case... Stripped of its scholarly accretions, it amounted to nothing more than:
If you regard attributes--however positively rated--as fixed and given, you are stuck and tend to give up when faced with difficulties; see them as malleable, provisional, and any assessment as merely "where you are now", and you will face set-backs as challenges...
That is banal as a bit of folk-wisdom. But if it has research-based support it may be important...

  • I'm confused about how to deal with this stuff. I say that because it is rarely said, and readers of this blog--if any there be--need to know that it is OK to be confused. "Negative capability" rules, OK?

  • Dweck's book comes with an effusive endorsement on the cover from Robert Sternberg --premier league psychologist-- but who happened to be a colleague of Dweck.

  • I confess I have not done a detailed count, but I guess that at least 20% of the 15 pages of references include her as an author. (Not always lead author, and the convention is of course that the supervisor is included as an author when the work is done by grad. students...)

  • But I didn't find any dissenting voices or arguments, even when I went on line to look for them. That can mean at least (but not only) two things
    • First that the argument is unassailable--academe (particularly in the softer areas of scholarship) doesn't do that. Dispute is the fuel which keeps it going, for better or worse. Or of course

    • That no-one can be bothered to test it with a view to refuting it. It's either trivial or untestable (or no funding body will stump up the funds)

    • Or of course that the work has been done but no-one will publish it...
So I am interested in the uncritical acceptance which seems to have greeted this work. Such reviews as I have found have only commented on the lack of detail in the synoptic book, the unexamined assumptions about the extension of research from young children to pretty well everyone, and the less well-evidenced (and admittedly more tentative) claims about applicability to other areas of personality.

I suspect that it fits with the Zeitgeist, and particularly with a US tradition of self-help which has contributed to the "positive psychology" movement over the past ten years or so; Dweck does not appear in Barbara Ehrenreich's entertaining but devastating Smile or Die; how positive thinking fooled America and the world (2009) but she might very well have done so. After all, Dweck's analysis shares the individualism and neglect for external factors which characterises so much of what Ehrenreich castigates.

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