Our need to know ourselves can sour unexpected success

Our need to feel as though we know ourselves is so strong that unexpected success can leave us feeling anxious and undermine our future performance. That’s according to Jason Plaks and Kristin Stecher who looked specifically at the issue of whether people believe intelligence is fixed or subject to change.

About 100 students performed a verbal intelligence test before being given a fixed result and lessons on how to improve their performance. They then repeated the test and once again were given false feedback.

Those students who previously endorsed the idea that intelligence is fixed, reported feeling more anxious after they were given feedback showing they had improved or deteriorated, compared with others holding a fixed view of intelligence who were told their performance had stayed the same.

By contrast, students who previously endorsed the idea that our intelligence is malleable, suffered more anxiety when their final test performance appeared to show no change, relative to deterioration or improvement.

The students whose ‘performance’ didn’t match their view of intelligence also showed signs of wanting to reassert their ability to predict future outcomes. When asked to work out whether it was their pressing of a keyboard button that was controlling a changing screen display, the students whose view of intelligence had previously been contradicted, spent significantly more time testing out whether they were controlling the screen or not.

Another experiment showed that similar effects were observed when students views on intelligence were manipulated using an article, ostensibly from a psychology magazine, to make them think that intelligence is fixed or malleable. These students showed increased anxiety when their subsequent test performance contradicted the account they’d read.

A final study showed that students who received intelligence test feedback that contradicted their views on intelligence didn’t just experience increased anxiety afterwards, their subsequent intelligence test performance also suffered compared with the students whose earlier feedback had matched their views.

“Participants exhibited a motivation to confirm their working lay theory [of intelligence] and even reacted in potentially self-defeating ways after experiencing an outcome that violated that theory,” the researchers concluded.

Plaks, J.E. & Stecher, K. (2007). Unexpected improvement, decline, and stasis: A prediction confidence perspective on achievement success and failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93, 667-684.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.