The impact of implicit theories and goal setting

“My mother drew a distinction between achievement and success. She said that achievement is the knowledge that you have studied and worked hard and done the best that is in you. Success is being praised by others. That is nice but not as important or satisfying. Always aim for achievement and forget about success.”

-Helen Hayes

Just read  A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality (Dweck & Legget, 1988) and found the authors’ approach very interesting. The paper describes how personality factors (implicit theories) and motivation (goals) impact the two major patterns of cognitive-affect-behavior (helpless response vs. mastery-oriented response).

Human beings have a need to create categories to understand and apprehend the world around them, because of the limited amount of attentional resources. Without them we would be lost within the amount of idiosyncratic information present in the everyday life.One example of categorization is forming impressions about personality (vide Asch, 1946): such as, the trait “warm” might be associated with other traits such as “friendly” or “generous”. Implicit theories, in particular, show general expectations that individuals have about themselves, others, institutions or the world in general. They are also intrinsically related to stereotyping and social prejudice. In this paper, the authors approached implicit theories as possessing a dual nature: individuals hold beliefs about the way things are a function as being fixed entities or malleable characteristics. For example, when thinking about intelligence, an individual who regards intelligence as a fixed entity will see himself as being intelligent, or not, and as a result, effort is regarded only as lack of ability and, in a paradoxical way, it is granted useless. An individual who believes intelligence is a malleable characteristic, believes it can be developed and sees effort as a necessary ingredient for growth and improvement of one’s intelligence. These two theories of intelligence will, therefore, have an impact on the goals individuals set for themselves, and the way the behave and feel towards their successes and failures, whether this might be related to intelligence, to self characteristics, to the way the individual sees others, institutions or the world.

Entity theorists will strive to monitor, judge and measure their abilities or beliefs, and they will set performance goals for themselves. Although these might be good goals when confronted with a situation where a diagnosis of strengths and weaknesses is necessary, they can elicit maladaptative response patterns when the individual faces failure: heightened negative affect, helplessness, perseverance in problem-solving strategies (although successful in generating new strategies when facing success), negative self-cognitions (e.g., personal inadequacy) and tend not to persist in situations which might be challenging. In a moral situation, for example, they will avoid potential challenging situations, and opt for conformity. Because challenges are regarded as threatening, these individuals, if given the choice, will prefer situations where they can succeed, even if no significant growth and development comes out of it.

Contrary to entity theorists, incremental theorists will try to act and develop their abilities, and they will set learning goals for themselves. Because they believe traits and characteristics are malleable and changeable, they engage in challenging tasks that will promote their personal skills and abilities and give them a sense of accomplishment. They prefer higher challenges that are initially difficult and that can offer them the opportunity to develop new skills. When faced with failure, they are more likely to persevere, since they regard failure as a challenge to be mastered or an unsolved problem.. In these situations, these individuals engage in self-monitoring and self-instruction, they are optimistic about their prognosis and are able to adapt a create new problem-solving strategies.

However, although implicit theories may influence our disposition to choose certain goals, social and contextual situations can also set goals for the individuals and influence the cognitive-affective-behavioral responses. This is particularly worrying if we consider the influence different responses have on self-esteem and self-concept. Several european educational systems rely on setting evaluation as a main way to access children’s learning process. The achievement pattern is more highly dependent on the individual’s perceived ability in evaluation tasks. In turn, such tasks might elicit more helpless responses from individuals, especially if confronted with failure. We must not forget that implicit theories are socially construed, and education plays a vital role in the early development of these personal characteristics. This begs the question: what is the individual and social impact of education systems centered around goal structures that elicit achievement goals and maintain the perception of intelligence as a fixed trait? We must take into account the toil an entity theory might have on self-esteem or self-concept.

In addition, the authors point out that entity theorists might be more susceptible to form stereotypes and keep them even when faced with contradictory evidence. Incremental theorists would be more sensitive to situational and contextual factors, and more willing to engage in behaviors that might facilitate change. The more rigid or flexible standpoints are not only directed to the self, but to the way we treat and regard others, to the way we understand institutions processes, and how we relate and feel about the world. In a way, an entity approach creates a helpless approach to life, where life is accepted as it is, with its qualities and flaws, without hope for change. An incremental approach,on the other hand, assesses reality for what it is, but nourishes the ability to dream of what life may become.In the end, it is the parents, educators, and institutions responsibility to nourish and develop beliefs of changeability in individuals if we want a more responsible and empathic civilization in the future.


Dweck, C.S., & Leggett, E.L. 1988. A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95(2), 256-273

Asch, S. E. 1946. Forming impressions of personality, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 41, 258-290


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s