How being called smart can actually make you stupid

How being called smart can actually make you stupid

A few months ago I posted a piece which has become my most popular blog post by quite a landslide. The post covered various techniques for learning and looked at the empirical evidence for and against their efficacy based on recent research. This post is my follow up, in which I look at the case for one tip for learning that it seems really could have a big impact.

A growing body of evidence from the last two decades suggests that our attitude towards our own potential for intelligence has a considerable impact on our lives, furthermore we are incredibly vulnerable to having this attitude or "mindset" moulded for better or worse, by how people praise us in a way that is both shocking and problematic. Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck has presented a range of startlingly fascinating findings on the topic which have been broadly supported by further research. The conclusions that can be drawn from Dweck's research have major implications for how we should think about learning, teaching, bringing up our children and how we choose the words we use when talking to those around us.

Counterintuitively, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that praising people for their intelligence rather than their effort can actually make people perform drastically worse over time, avoid future challenges and form negative attitudes to learning and towards themselves. In one of Dweck's experiments students were either told following a test "you must be smart at these problems" or "you must have worked hard at these problems". Following this, the scores of the students who were praised for their intelligence dropped in further tests, while the scores of the children who were praised for their effort increased. The students who were praised for their intelligence avoided further challenging tasks while the students who were praised for their effort proceeded to more challenging tasks ($ - Mueller and Dweck, 1998). One explanation for why this might happen is apparent in the finding from another study, that children who were praised for their intelligence rather than their effort reported feeling more helpless when they experienced a setback, due to attributing their failure to their intrinsic ability rather than their effort (Kamins & Dweck, 1999).

In another of Dweck's experiments, failing students were given classes on study skills using techniques such as mnemonics, but (unsurprisingly, considering the research I described in my last blog post on the topic) the students continued to fail - this was the control group. In the experimental group, similarly failing students were taught a "growth mindset" - the simple idea that intelligence is not fixed, that "learning changes the brain by forming new connections, and that students are in charge of this process". The classes involved the students reading through the following piece:

Unlike the students who were only taught study skills, whose maths scores continued to fall, the students who were taught that intelligence is malleable found their grades improved in the months following the workshop (Blackwell, Trzesniewski & Dweck, 2007).

New research (Gunderson et al, 2013) demonstrates that parents who gave their 14 to 38 month old babies praise focused on effort rather than ability, found their children's attitudes to intelligence five years later were more likely to be positive rather than fixed. A likely explanation is that parents continue influencing their children's mindset as they grow up through the first five years. This is the first research that has looked at the impact of parent's praise on their children over the long term and in the real world (outside the laboratory). Thankfully, as the children got older, most parents begun the switch from statements such as "good girl" or "you're so smart" to statements such as "good throw" or "you're doing a good job":

Worryingly though, parents are more likely to give the kind of praise that leads to a fixed mindset to girls than boys and a great deal more likely to give boys the kind of constructive praise of effort that will lead them to have a "growth mindset" and believe their intelligence is malleable (see below), a finding that feminist groups might be interested in. As expected, boys were found to end up with less fixed beliefs about intelligence than girls.

Another recent study has demonstrated that a mother's praise to their ten year old child affects the child's motivation and ideas about intelligence six months later (Pomerantz and Kempner, 2013, behind paywall but click here for automated PDF email delivery from the author). In this study however, mothers reported that they praised their ten year old children for their intelligence more often than for their hard work, a worrying finding.  

The effect is not limited to children, the same findings have been found in adults (Wood and Bandura, 1989) where once again, not only does mindset predict success but an individual's mindset and rate of success can be manipulated with only a few simple misguided words. In this experiment graduate students were given a simulated business management task which they were told involved decision making which "reflects the basic cognitive capabilities that people possess. The higher their underlying cognitive-processing capacities, the better is their decision making". Another group was given the same task but was told that "decision-making skills are developed through practice. In acquiring a new skill, people do not begin with faultless performance. However, the more they practice making decisions the more capable they become". The researchers found the same finding that has been demonstrated in children, people who were led to believe that their ability is fixed got poorer at the task over time, while those that were told they had the ability to improve were found to do so.  

Adding yet more weight to the evidence, are brain studies (Moser et al, 2011Mangels et al; 2006) which show that individuals with a fixed mindset (who agree with statements such as "You have a certain amount of intelligence and you really cannot do much to change it"), fail to pay attention to mistakes and learn from their errors. This is demonstrated by the findings that brain activity is reduced when these individuals are shown their errors and that these same individuals fail to correct their errors when given a follow up test.

Dweck's book titled Mindset provides a guided tour of her research and a range of strategies and real life examples of how our mindset may influence our lives and the lives of those around us. One recurring theme is how individuals who believe intelligence is fixed will tend to resort to strategies such as deceit and blaming others, while those who believe in a "growth mindset" will tend to focus on learning from their mistakes. A full 40% of the students who were praised for their intelligence in Dweck's 1998 study proceeded, with no prompting, to lie about their scores to other students!

"What's so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart" - Carol Dweck 

Another recurring theme is how individuals who have a fixed mindset will believe that “effort is only for people with deficiencies... if you have to work at something, you must not be good at it”. The evidence that this is not the case is all around us, much of Dweck's book is made up of case studies of examples such as Mozart, Darwin and Edison - people who we might think of as being born talented due to folklore but who actually worked extremely hard, in a nurturing environment, before they achieved what they did.

Carol Dweck's recent lecture for the RSA is on Youtubeyou can also download the MP3 here, it is about half an hour long with another half an hour of questions, file it under unmissable lectures.


Blackwell L.S., Trzesniewski K.H. & Dweck C.S. (2007). Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention, Child Development, 78 (1) 246-263. DOI: (PDF)

Gunderson E.A., Gripshover S.J., Romero C., Dweck C.S., Goldin-Meadow S. & Levine S.C. (2013). Parent Praise to 1- to 3-Year-Olds Predicts Children's Motivational Frameworks 5 Years Later, Child Development, n/a-n/a. DOI: (PDF)

Kamins M.L. & Dweck C.S. (1999). Person versus process praise and criticism: Implications for contingent self-worth and coping., Developmental Psychology, 35 (3) 835-847. DOI:  (PDF)


Mangels J.A., Butterfield B., Lamb J., Good C. & Dweck C.S. Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model., Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, PMID:  (PDF)

Moser J.S., Schroder H.S., Heeter C., Moran T.P. & Lee Y.H. (2011). Mind Your Errors: Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments, Psychological Science, 22 (12) 1484-1489. DOI:  (PDF)

Mueller C.M. & Dweck C.S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75 (1) 33-52. DOI:  ($)

Pomerantz E.M. & Kempner S.G. (2013). Mothers' Daily Person and Process Praise: Implications for Children's Theory of Intelligence and Motivation., Developmental Psychology, DOI:  (automated PDF email delivery from author)

Wood R. & Bandura A. (1989). Impact of conceptions of ability on self-regulatory mechanisms and complex decision making., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56 (3) 407-415. DOI: (PDF)

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Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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