From the Research Digest, August 2016

Some highlights from our blog.

Parents who think failure harms learning have children who think ability is fixed
In Psychological Science

Children respond better to learning setbacks when they believe that ability and intelligence are malleable – that is, when they have what psychologists call a ‘growth mindset’ rather than a ‘fixed mindset’. This immediately raises the question of how to cultivate a growth mindset in children.

So far, there's been a lot of attention on how to praise children (it's better to focus on their effort and strategies rather than their ability), but not much else. Surprisingly, parents' mindsets (growth or fixed) do not seem to be related to their children's mindsets. A new study in Psychological Science suggests this is because children can't tell what kind of mindset their parents have. Rather, children's beliefs about ability are associated with how their parents' view failure.

The Stanford University psychologists Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck began by surveying 73 parent–child pairs. Parents' and children's attitudes to ability were not related. But parents who saw failure as a chance to learn tended to have children who had a growth mindset, whereas parents who saw failure as more negative and bad for learning tended to have children with a fixed mindset.

Why is parental attitude toward failure seemingly more important than their attitude toward ability? It's to do with what's visible to children. Further surveys of more children and their parents suggested that children don't know whether their parents have a growth or fixed mindset, but they are aware of their parents' attitudes toward failure. Moreover, children who think their parents have a negative attitude to failure tend themselves to believe that ability and intelligence are fixed.

This seems to be because parents with a negative attitude toward failure respond to their children's setbacks in characteristic ways, such as comforting them and telling them that it doesn't matter that they lack ability, that are likely to foster in children the belief that their ability is fixed. Parents with a more positive attitude to failure, by contrast, tend to encourage their children to use failures as a chance to learn or get extra help – approaches that encourage a growth mindset.

A final study tested whether parents' attitudes toward failure really do cause changes in the way they respond to their children's failures. Over one hundred parents completed an online questionnaire that was either filled with items designed to provoke in them a negative attitude to failure or items designed to promote a positive attitude to failure. Next, the parents imagined their children had come home with a fail grade and to say how they would think, feel and respond. Parents primed to see failure as harmful to learning were more likely to say that they would respond to their children's failure in ways likely to cultivate in them a belief that ability is fixed – such as worrying about their child's ability, or comforting their child for their lack of ability.

‘Our findings show that parents who believe failure is a debilitating experience have children who believe they cannot develop their intelligence,’ the researchers said. ‘By establishing these links, we have taken a step toward understanding how children's motivation is socialised. It may not be sufficient to teach parents a growth mindset and expect that they will naturally transmit it to their children. Instead, an intervention targeting parents' failure mindsets could teach parents how failure can be beneficial, and how to react to their children's setbacks so as to maintain their children's motivation and learning.’ 

Christian Jarrett

Which pedestrian are you?

In Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance

You know that situation where you're walking across a train station concourse or a park and there's another person walking on a different trajectory that means if you both hold your course and speed, you're going to collide? Are you the kind of person who assumes the other guy will give way, or are you the polite one who slows down and lets the other person cross your path?

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance recreated this scenario by pairing up 20 participants – a mix of young men and women – and having one person in each pair walk diagonally from one corner of the room to the other, while the other person walked the other diagonal. On each of many trials, both participants in each pair began walking on a starting signal and they were asked to make sure they didn't collide, all without communication with each other. The participants also filled out personality questionnaires and the researchers recorded their heights, weight and age.

The participants tended to show a consistent pattern of behaviour across trials: roughly a quarter were more inclined to give way to avoid colliding; a quarter usually crossed the potential interception point first, making the other person give way; while the others showed a mixture of behaviours. But crucially, neither personality traits nor gender, age, height and weight were related to what kind of collision avoidance strategy the participants tended to use. It seems some of us are dominant in this situation, some more timid, others ambivalent, but the kind of pedestrian we are is not related to major traits such as extraversion or to our physical size.

Alexander Knorr and his team performed a second study in a bigger room with more participants, and this showed that the decision about who will give way tends to be made very early. The more dominant person actually tends to make a slight adjustment to heading and speed first, but this isn't sufficient to avoid a collision. The second person who ultimately gives way seems to detect these early signals, then waits and makes their own adjustments thus avoiding the collision.

What this research doesn't address, sadly, is that other pedestrian problem of when you're heading straight towards another person, and you both dodge out of each other's way in the same direction, then the other, so you end up virtually colliding and uttering embarrassed apologies – or is that just a British thing?

Christian Jarrett

The lingering burden of seeing a past trauma as central to your identity

In Applied Cognitive Psychology

Horrific experiences often cast a pall upon our lives, but for some people it’s worse than others. A new study in Applied Cognitive Psychology explores a key reason for this difference known as ‘event centrality’ – when we consider an experience to be core to our identity, the trauma that follows is typically more serious and longer lasting.

Ines Blix and her colleagues surveyed 259 ministerial employees caught up in a particularly grim piece of Oslo history: the July 2011 far-right terrorist attack upon government ministries. At one, two and three years after the attack, the participants reported the severity of their post-traumatic symptoms, such as feeling jumpy, continually vigilant, or numb and closed off from others. They also reported the degree to which the terrorist attack was central to their lives, for example through their agreement or not with statements like: ‘This event has become a reference point for the way I understand myself and the world.’

Participants who considered the terrorist event very central to their life one year after the attack experienced higher levels of trauma, both at that time and through the subsequent years. However, they recovered at a faster rate from the trauma, meaning the greater severity of their symptoms compared with the other participants reduced as time went by. This likely reflects the fact that they had more recovery to do. Essentially, seeing a traumatic event as definitive to your life fixes a particular trajectory: Blix’s team characterise this as ‘launching’ the trauma.

It’s not just that event centrality reflected how much the participants were caught up in the carnage – when the researchers controlled for whether the person was injured themselves, had witnessed killings, or seen dead bodies, the association between event centrality and trauma severity held true.

There was also some evidence that trauma and event centrality remain intertwined longer term. The two measures were in general highly correlated and in most participants both eventually declined. This might just be a coincidence and the two factors aren’t linked; but arguing against that, it’s notable that when event centrality increased at the 2013 assessment (two years after the event), trauma recovery also tended to stutter. However, even if the two measures really are linked, we still don’t know whether centrality exacerbates trauma or trauma exacerbates centrality.

These new findings add to previous work, such as an earlier study on post-traumatic stress in Vietnam veterans that found higher rates in those vets who attended the experiment wearing medals and other regalia, suggesting that the war was more central to their identities.

It’s important to understand how victims think about their traumatic experiences – their  ‘mental models’ of the event – because these models can be interrogated and changed. For example, in a study published last year, a course of acceptance and commitment therapy successfully helped a group of women who had suffered abuse to reduce both event centrality and traumatic symptoms. This new Norwegian study suggests that it may be better to target such treatment early, to help survivors reject the idea an event is life-definitive and prevent it launching them down a path of greater trauma. 

Dr Alex Fradera

10,000 hours debunked again? In elite sport, amount of practice does not explain who performs best

In Perspectives on Psychological Science

In elite sport, what distinguishes the best from the also-rans? A new meta-analysis in Perspectives on Psychological Science looks at all the relevant data to see whether the most important factor is an athlete's amount of accumulated ‘deliberate practice’ – that is, practice that's designed, through feedback and other methods, to improve performance. In fact, the new analysis shows that differences in amount of practice do not explain performance levels among elite athletes. At sub-elite levels, it's a relevant factor, but by no means the most important.

The importance of deliberate practice for top-level performance in sport and other domains, such as music and chess, was famously put forward by Anders Ericsson, the psychologist whose research has been distorted into the mythical idea that achieving greatness depends on completing at least 10,000 hours of practice. Ericsson has actually never claimed that elite performance can be achieved by anyone who puts in enough practice, as suggested by some popular psychology writers. But he and his colleagues have claimed, based on their findings, that ‘individual differences in ultimate [top-flight] performance can largely be accounted for by differential amounts of past and current levels of practice’. In other words, they proposed that at elite standards, it is the competitors who spend more time honing their skills who will usually perform at the highest levels.

To test this claim in the context of sport, Brooke Macnamara and her colleagues scoured the literature available up to 2014, and they found relevant findings from 34 published and unpublished studies, involving the practice habits and performance levels of 2765 athletes across various sports including football, volleyball, hockey, swimming and running.

They found that at the elite level, amount of practice was not related to performance (in statistical terms it explained less than 1 per cent of variance in performance). This makes intuitive sense – most professional athletes in the top echelons of their sport practice exhaustively through their careers. Instead of amount of practice time, what likely separates them are physiological differences influenced by their genetic makeup, as well as complex psychological factors, such as their personality and confidence. Also, competition experience and time spent in play activities might also be relevant, the researchers suggested.

At sub-elite levels, amount of past and present deliberate practice was relevant to performance, accounting for 19 per cent of the variance in sports performance – an important factor, then, but by no means the only or most important factor. This basic finding applied regardless of whether the researchers focused on team or individual sports, or ball vs. non-ball sports. Another related finding was that more skilful sport performers did not tend to have started their sport at an earlier age.

The researchers said their results suggest that ‘deliberate practice is one factor that contributes to performance differences across a wide range of skills [but] it may not contribute to performance differences at the highest levels of skill’.

The new findings add to earlier research into chess players and musicians, that also called into question the importance of deliberate practice. However, in a rejoinder to the new meta-analysis, published in the same journal issue, Ericsson argues that Macnamara and her colleagues used too broad a definition of ‘deliberate practice’ to include ‘virtually any type of sport-specific activity, such as group activities, watching games on television, and even play and competitions’. He says that his claims about the importance of deliberate practice to elite performance refer to a much more specific subset of activities: ‘individualized practice with training tasks (selected by a supervising teacher) with a clear performance goal and immediate informative feedback’.

As the debate rumbles on, one message that comes through from this new meta-analysis is how so much speculation and argument is based on so little actual concrete evidence. To put things in perspective, the combined research into the role of deliberate practice in elite sport amounts to data from just 228 athletes, and that's using the definition of deliberate practice that Ericsson claims is too broad.

Macnamara and her colleagues end with a call for more research, including studies that look beyond the relevance of deliberate practice to consider other factors: ‘Scientists must draw not only from research on skill acquisition and expertise but also from research on cognitive ability, personality, learning, behavioural genetics, and research within the performance domain (e.g. sports science). This effort will shed new light on the origins of expertise.’ 

Christian Jarrett

What makes our work meaningful? Do bosses really make it meaningless?

In MIT Sloan Management Review

There have been times in my life where work seemed pretty pointless, on occasion because the position was a prime example of what anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bullshit’ jobs’ – those that give no real value back to oneself or society. But I’ve more frequently experienced the sense that a job was at some times meaningless, and at others very worthwhile. That’s a theme picked up in Catherine Bailey and Adrian Madden’s new study published in MIT Sloan Management Review, where interviews with 135 people within 10 different occupations explored times when work was meaningful or meaningless.

Like myself, interviewees didn’t consider meaningfulness as a fixed property of their job. They described it arising in episodes, highly intense and memorable peaks separated by unremarkable lulls. Some cases exemplified what the work was all about, such as an academic giving what they knew to be a superb lecture, whereas others were quite outside the norm, such as a shop assistant tending to a critically ill customer.

Often, these episodes had a personal flavour, such as the participant who recalled the first music recital attended by her parents. Many involved recognising the impact their work had had on people besides themselves, whether their students’ graduation or when their engineering innovation had been translated into products used by others. These personal and transcendent aspects were easily fused, such as in the example given by a refuse collector, where, during a crisis triggered by contamination of the local water supply, he visited one neighbour after another providing clean water.

It’s tempting to assume valuable work experiences should be positive – euphoric, air-punching highs – but the interviews teemed with examples that were heavy and challenging. Nurses described end-of-life situations; lawyers, toiling through a heavy, hard case; workers, pushing together against a seemingly intractable problem. Bailey and Madden suggest that organisations and researchers both may be neglecting such poignant experiences, which don’t tally with a superficial account of positive psychology, but may be very important in making work meaningful.

Times that meant something often involved contact with family and friends, peers and particularly the people served by the job. In contrast, managers were mentioned in accounts of meaningless work: times when the interviewee felt treated unfairly, disempowered or taken for granted, or when managerial priorities separated them from important relationships with peers, or disconnected them from the values that mattered most to them, such as when the bottom line was placed over the quality of work. It’s for this reason that Bailey and Madden concluded that managerial meddling is often to blame when our work feels meaningless – a claim that has attracted boss-bashing headlines in the mainstream media, such as MoneyWeb’s ‘Bosses destroy meaningful work’.

But this media coverage, while fun, forgets an important point – in all but the most dysfunctional organisations, managers have a role in determining the conditions around work, which means – as Bailey and Madden themselves note – that a deft manager can be of benefit.

How does the work have a bigger meaning; for example, how does recycled waste actually lead to the creation of new objects? How can people devoted to their work get opportunities to interact with each other, and with the people their work benefits? How can the difficult times at work – like the eventual loss of a resident at your hospice – be met with appropriate support, but also recognised as valuable? And how can grey tasks like filling out forms be reduced, or at the least, be joined up with the important stuff? Should management ever manage to solve such problems, they would fade into the background, and in all likelihood, stay unsung in interviews about meaningful work. But that won’t mean that their efforts didn’t matter, and hopefully they can take pride – and meaning – in that.

Dr Alex Fradera

The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog at, and is written by its editor Dr Christian Jarrett and contributor Dr Alex Fradera. 

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