Against expectations, people with more egalitarian political views were more open to the idea that intelligence is fixed

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People lower on “social dominance orientation” were more influenced by the argument that intelligence is a fixed trait (from Hoyt et al 2018)

By Alex Fradera

A growth mindset – believing your capabilities can grow over time – can help us set self-improvement goals, consider mistakes as a step towards mastery, and remain upbeat when facing tribulation. Psychologists are excited by the ways we can help develop such mindsets, particularly towards creativity and intelligence, but some studies have found the impact less impressive than earlier research had suggested. Now researchers are hungry to understand the individual characteristics that might prevent these interventions making an impact on some people.

New research in the British Journal of Social Psychology has investigated one possible candidate – political ideology, specifically a perspective known as “social dominance orientation”. If you are invested in preserving the status quo, perhaps that encourages you to see social relations as inevitable, as “just the way things are” – an essentialist, fixed view of the world that seems to carry over to how you view human capability.

Crystal Hoyt at the University of Richmond and her colleagues asked 300 online participants to rate their agreement with statements about social dominance like “some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups.” Participants then read either an article about intelligence that promoted a growth mindset, or an article arguing for the opposite (both articles used text and graphs to suggest that intelligence was either highly influenced or entirely uninfluenced by the circumstances of our lives, respectively). Finally participants rated their agreement with fixed mindset items like “you can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence”.

Overall, participants higher in social dominance orientation had a somewhat more fixed intelligence mindset. Their views also barely budged after reading either the growth or fixed-mindset article. In contrast, and against the researchers’ expectations, the low-dominance participants were particularly influenced by the article that argued for intelligence as a fixed quality (after reading it, they expressed a fixed mindset, as high as the high-dominance participants).

Perhaps people who are low in social dominance beliefs are more open to scientific argument, and the fixed article was the one that presented them with a new take. In any case, the evidence suggests they are not the ones with most to gain from growth interventions, as was expected, but instead they are at greater risk of sliding towards a fixed argument.

On a positive note, rather than suggesting that high-dominance people might be an especially hard nut for these mindset interventions to crack, the findings create a case for giving it a go – these people are no more resistant than anyone else, and may have further to go, and hence more to gain. All in all, this new research shows that individual differences are worth considering if we want to change mindset, but we’re still in early days of understanding how.

Social dominance orientation moderates the effectiveness of mindset messages

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

5 thoughts on “Against expectations, people with more egalitarian political views were more open to the idea that intelligence is fixed”

  1. I used to be very conservative in my views when I was younger, valuing tradition and norms. Being overweight since I was 8, I was socially isolated and mobbed a lot throughout school, so I focussed on being smarter than everyone around me, telling myself that I can lose weight anytime (I did, eventually), but they can’t get smarter. By now, my views are generally the exact opposite. I work in learning theory and it is clear that everything is learned, really, and that intelligence is a difficult concept that either does not actually exist in any interesting way or is much less important than folk theory would have it.

    And yet, it is difficult to shake this aspect of my thinking. I used to be proud of how quickly I can tell how clever someone is and that further experience with that person rarely proved me wrong, but even though I’ve repeatedly argued specifically against the very concept of intelligence, I still judge people that way and I’m always aware of precisely how smart I think everyone I interact with is.

    I’m trying to think of how to integrate my personal experience with that study, but so far all I can resort to is silly preconceptions. Like my first thought was that people with egalitarian views are probably smarter and better educated, which would come with a higher chance of being socially isolated and quickly learning to distinguish themselves from their peers in terms of their intellect like me, so that seeing this scientific evidence would give them some kind of validation or recognition, which we probably all care about, whether we want to (admit it) or not. But that’s not only preconceived, but also circular, presupposing the validity of intelligence (as otherwise the egalitarians couldn’t be smarter). Maybe it’s enough that people just *care* about being smarter more and that egalitarian views are more popular among historic figures generally recognized as smart to get that line of reasoning going.

    After I wrote the above, I actually took a look at the study, it seems pretty poor. It’s odd to me that only the third study includes a control condition, especially since the interaction vanishes then. The statistical modelling also looks suspicious, in particular because their outcome variable is ordinal (mean of responses on a scale), but they treat it as numeric. The items from the social dominance questionnaire and the general reasoning from results on that to believe in intelligence also seem rather murky, but I haven’t done any reading in that (which won’t change) and it’s just a feeling. All in all it’s a typical social psychology study, I guess.


  2. Intelligence – (amount of ‘adaptation potential ‘that a human has at birth), can enable the human to thrive or to be disadvantaged, depending on how much the environment they are born into (work, family , social status, geographical location, wealth and opportunity available in that environment), which either facilitates, or thwarts the expression of that ‘intelligence’.

    I guess people with an ‘egalitarian outlook’ are just more realistic in their assessment that some people are more, or less, ‘adaptive than others naturally. For any given population the normal curve of distribution for the concept of ‘intelligence’ applies just as well as it does to any other concept we like to measure.

    When their environment changes, humans (like all animals) do one of three things. They1) mitigate (e.g.learn new skills to help them cope with the change), 2) migrate to where conditions are more favourable or similar to what they already know, or 3) become extinct due to over -specialisation (my excuse for not relying on technology too much!). So, unless you are in a position to ‘fit the environment to the needs of the people’ (which most of us aren’t), ‘acceptance of the way things are’ is a logical way to resolve cognitive dissonance…

    Psychologist like to think that ‘fixing’ the individual so they fit better with their environment is the answer to their problems, often whilst simultaneously ignoring the necessary changes in environment needed to facilitate that behaviour (think obesity crisis or mental health). Maybe ‘political egalitarianists’ are just a more realistic.


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