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Dr Hugh Morrison (The Queen’s University of Belfast [retired])


The Brookings Institute recently published a study – entitled New Evidence that Students’ Beliefs about their Brains Drive Learning, by Susana Claro & Susanna Loeb – which drew heavily on the ideas of Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck.  The article appears to take Dweck’s research on so-called “Mindsets” at face value.

This  essay offers a proof that Dweck’s Mindset concept is simply wrong.


The central psychological concept in Dweck’s work is “belief”; according to Dweck, Mindsets are nothing more than beliefs.  Dweck never addresses, in any detail, the nature of belief.  She simply accepts the common-sense view that beliefs are entities carried in the minds/brains of individuals.  Despite a complete absence of any evidence in support of her claim that beliefs/mindsets are carried in the heads of individuals, Dweck has become something of a celebrity in psychological and educational circles; she has given “Ted-talks” and millions of dollars have been spent implementing her ideas in classrooms across the world.

It isn’t difficult to see why Dweck makes no attempt to analyse the psychological predicate around which all her research revolves.  If Dweck were to consult a standard text such as Peter Hacker’s The Intellectual Powers: A Study of Human Nature (published in 2013 by Wiley) she would find sixty pages of carefully-considered analysis directly addressing the notion of belief.  Alas, nothing contained in these pages supports her claim that beliefs are mental states or processes in the mind/brain of the individual.

Needless to say, such a claim is bound to have enormous popular support; when all is said and done, where else would one expect to find beliefs but in the head of the believer?  Alas, however, this appealing notion turns out to be wrong; beliefs are not objects in the mind/brain.  For example, on page 227 of Hacker’s book she would find the conclusion: “believing is not a state of mind,” and the title of section 8 on page 230 is “Why believing something cannot be a state of the brain.”  If beliefs cannot be construed as the property of the mind or brain of the individual who “has” them, then Dweck’s reasoning is vitiated.

In respect of the study published in Brookings the findings are invalidated if one cannot ascribe a definite mindset to everyone who took part in the study.  The purpose of the remainder of this essay is to offer a proof that Dweck is wrong about beliefs; mindsets, as Dweck construes them, do not exist.  The author hopes that the Brookings Institute will invite Professor Dweck to identify any shortcomings she can identify in the proof set out in the paragraphs below.

The proof centres on what Ludwig Wittgenstein referred to as “Moore’s Paradox.”  The philosopher G.E. Moore identified statements such as “It is raining, and I don’t believe it is raining” or “I believe it is raining and it isn’t raining,” as patently absurd.  The first part of these two conjunctions clearly contradicts the second part.  Indeed, all statements of the form “I believe p, and p is not true” are absurd according to Moore.

However, if one accepts Dweck’s claim that beliefs are carried in the mind/brain of the individual, the conjunction is perfectly intelligible because no contradiction exists between the two parts of the conjunction.  Why?  Because, on Dweck’s reasoning they refer to entirely different things: “it is raining” refers to the weather (something in the “outer” world), while “I don’t believe it is raining” refers to a mental state (something “inside” the head of the believer).

Carol Dweck’s only escape from this paradox is to accept that a belief is not an inner state or process in the mind/brain.  The following brief extract from Wittgenstein’s 1944 letter to Moore captures the depth of the conceptual flaw at the core of the Mindset thesis:

I should like to tell you how glad I am that you read us a paper yesterday.  It seems to me that the most important point was the “absurdity” of the assertion “There is a fire in this room and I don’t believe there is.” … If I ask someone “Is there a fire in the next room?” and he answers, “I believe there is” I can’t say: “Don’t be irrelevant.  I asked you about the fire, not about your state of mind!”