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We have two kids who are six and four, and when the kids are bicycling and they say that they're tired, we always say to them, it's when you're tired that your muscles are getting stronger. And the idea is to reframe for them what it means to be tired. Not it's not necessarily a reason to stop, but this is your opportunity to have that growth experience. It's when things are difficult that you are learning.
Hello and welcome. I'm Shane Parrish and this is the Knowledge Project, a podcast exploring the ideas, methods and mental models that help you learn from the best, what other people have already figured out. You can learn more and stay up to date at Stop Logush podcast. We with a newsletter that comes out every Sunday called Brainfeeder. It's free and packed with all the best content we've come across this week. That's worth reading, listening to or thinking about.
It contains, quote, book recommendations, articles and so much more. You can learn more at F-stop Blogs newsletter. Today I'm talking with Greg Walton. Craig is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University. Most of his research investigates the psychological processes that contribute to social problems and the use of wise interventions to help unleash human potential. In short, Greg is a mindset master. This episode is a master class in Intervention's tiny things that we can do that have an exponential impact.
We're going to explore what they are, how they work and how we can use them to become better partners, colleagues and parents. We're going to get carried on the four types of interventions. Explore why our response to mistakes as parents makes a huge impact on our kids and even talk about a simple technique that can dramatically improve any of your close relationships. Today you're going to walk away with a better understanding of how we make sense of ourselves and others understand how the meanings we draw can be counterproductive and self reinforcing and how to alter our perception and the perception of others in order to drive, benefit or unleash potential.
I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I do. It's time to listen and learn. The Knowledge Project is sponsored by Medlab for a decade, Medlab. This helps some of the world's top companies and entrepreneurs build products that millions of people use every day. You probably didn't realize that at the time, but odds are you've used an app that they've helped design or build apps like Slack, Coinbase, Facebook Messenger, Oculus, Lonely Planet and many more.
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Greg, you've been called an intervention guru, and I'm wondering before we even get into what an intervention is and what they look like and sort of the beliefs that are trying to address, I want to go back one step and ask how you got interested in interventions to begin with. Yeah, it really began in high school. I was part of this group called Students Educating Each Other about Discrimination. It was called seed. And we were basically a group of high school students who went into middle school to sixth grade classrooms and lead role playing exercises and discussions around inequality and race, class, gender in American society.
And it was it was part of that group that I became aware of the persistence of really large differences in educational success for students from different social class backgrounds and different racial ethnicities. And I also became aware of how those differences existed, despite the fact that as a society we had, it seemed, put forth a lot of effort to try to reduce them, for example, through a Great Society programs from the sixties onward. It was very discouraging. But then I, I read this early work published in The Atlantic Monthly by Claude Steele that introduced the concept of stereotype threat.
And it was revolutionary to me. It really opened my eyes. It was work showing that if you just change the way that a test was represented in the laboratory, you brought people in undergraduate skin and the original studies and you gave them a difficult GRE verbal test. You found that African-American students did less well than white students. And yet if you took this very same task and you said we're a bunch of cognitive psychologists and we're just interested in how people solve puzzles, this is not evaluative of your abilities.
Suddenly that inequality went away. African-American students did a whole lot better, just as well as white students with the same SAT scores, in some cases even slightly better. And I thought, that's amazing. Just changing the way that a test as represented could change how people perform on it. How could we do that in the real world? What would happen if we did that in the real world could be level the playing field a bit. Could we see students from lower income backgrounds, students of color, be able to achieve at higher rates?
That's fascinating. What's going on behind the scenes there? That sort of is it the framing? Is it like our beliefs about ourselves?
Yeah, it's the idea in the in the original work on stereotype threat was that when we say something as evaluative of people's abilities, all of us associate those abilities with different kinds of social groups. And if you are, for example, an African-American student and this test is said to be a validation of your intellectual abilities, or if you're a woman in math and science and the test is said to be validation like your math and science abilities, a space in which in many contexts women and girls are negatively stereotyped, we automatically call to mind those stereotypes and then we can fear that if we were to do poorly, other people could see us through the light of that stereotype.
They could think that maybe our poor performance is confirming of that negative stereotype that it makes it true. So we're thinking about the stereotype, which sort of leads us into it's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yeah, it's interesting. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's actually largely the effort not to think about it. Stereotype threat happens most in spaces where people are really identified, where they want to succeed. They care about that space. They care about doing well in that space. They also, though, have called to mind the stereotype and they don't want to be thinking about that stereotype. They want to be able to think about the task before them because it's really hard stereotype threat happens.
Most of people are doing things that are really pushing the edges of their abilities. So it's actually the effort to suppress the thoughts about the stereotype that takes up cognitive resources and makes it harder for people to actually devote resources to performing well on the task. That's fascinating. What are some of the other beliefs that get in the way of success when we step back? There are many beliefs that we have about school and about schooling that contribute to our performance, positive or negative.
These can include beliefs about whether a person like me can belong in this environment, beliefs about whether intelligence is something that's fixed or something that can grow and those beliefs can be shifted and they can affect how well people perform and whether people are able to perform to their potential within school environments, even over long periods of time. Is it because that's how we make sense of ourselves, which is how we also act?
Or the first thing to say that's important is that the beliefs that we have are often implicit in the sense that we don't directly interrogate them, but they come about from the social context that we're in as reasonable responses to the context that. So if you are going into a setting where your group is underrepresented, we're your group has historically been excluded or marginalized, where your group faces negative stereotypes, then it's a reasonable thing to wonder whether perhaps somebody like you, a person with your group identity, might belong in that environment.
That question gives you a lens for interpreting everyday events that happen to you. So you go into a complicated social environment. You're a new student and you're coming to college and taking college classes and you're meeting your classmates and you're meeting professors and you're trying to make sense of this whole new world. And you're asking, what is this place? How do I fit into it? How might my experience here develop over time? And if you have in the back of your mind this question about whether maybe people like you can belong, it gives you a kind of narrative structure within which to interpret everyday events.
So when bad things happen, when your professor criticizes you and you get a bad grade on a first midterm, when you feel lonely or homesick, when you don't get along with a roommate, if you're already wondering whether people like me can belong here, a question that comes from that context, then it can seem like those events confirm that interpretation that maybe you don't belong, which changes your subsequent sort of beliefs about yourself and your behavior or actions.
Yeah, in the case of Bellarmine, it's really a matter of the relationship between yourself and a context. That's how I think about belonging. It's a relationship between me and a place. And it confirms a fear that you might have that maybe people like you don't belong in that environment. And that confirmation in your mind then changes how you act in that setting. So you start to think that you don't belong. You're less likely to do things in that environment that really engage with it and would help to support your belonging.
If you feel like your professor is looking down on you when he criticizes you, you might be less likely to go to office hours and ask him a question. If you feel like the people in your dorm who didn't include you when they went out on a Friday night are telling you that you don't belong, you might be less likely to re-engage with those people or maybe even with other people in your dorm and outside of school, like what are some examples and maybe personal relationships or workplace that people can relate to as we sort of like deep dive into this?
So just as we have beliefs about our relationship with a place like beliefs about belonging, we have beliefs about relationship partners, and those beliefs can in some cases become maladaptive in ways that that undermine the relationship over time. There's, for example, beautiful work by Denise Marigold, who is at the University of Waterloo. And what Denise is interested in is how people with low self-esteem take a compliment from a romantic partner. Huh? And the idea is that what is low self-esteem?
It's it's a kind of persistent doubt about your worth and value. And if you think that maybe you aren't a person of high worth and value, then it's harder to believe and be confident that somebody else, a romantic partner, views you in that way. And so people with low self-esteem, they often tend to dismiss compliments from relationship partners. They think of them as something that he just had to say or something that she just had to say. And they don't take them to heart.
They don't understand them as a reflection, really, of the love and regard that their partner holds them in. Let's get an intervention, because I think we're going to sort of get in the weeds when we do that. When I think of an intervention, I don't know. Maybe it's growing up in the nineties. I think of like everybody sitting in a living room, you bringing somebody in and being like, hey, look, we've got a problem.
You're an alcoholic or you have a drug problem. And that's what I think of as an intervention. But that's not the type of interventions that you do.
Yeah, I think that's like intervention with a capital I it's kind of big and imposing and scary and foreign and not something we do every day. It's kind of a singular, rare event that's marked in people's lives. I think of interventions is something we do every single day, maybe in every single interaction. You are trying to get a child to go to bed on time or to do their homework, or you're trying to get your spouse to exercise a bit more.
You're trying to get yourself to exercise more. We're always in the business of trying to shape how we or other people think and feel about things in order to help us sort of do better and achieve the goals that we have. You know, we do this all the time in our in our personal lives. We also do this all the time in our professional lives. I think a big part of what a teacher is or what a doctor is is often in in helping other people, helping students or helping patients.
Let's think about the problems that they face in ways that are productive, how does a doctor talk with a patient who's overweight about how to exercise more? And we also see this all the time in corporate behavior. And, of course, marketing is full of this where marketers are constantly trying to change how we think or feel about different kinds of products so that they essentially can make more money. The kinds of interventions that I'm interested in are ones that originate in basic understanding of social psychological processes and then aim to use those processes to help people achieve their goals and help society and major institutions in society achieve better outcomes.
I was reading in prep for this that you mentioned four different types of interventions, including direct labeling, prompting active reflection, and I'm forgetting one increasing commitment. Yeah, those are intervention techniques. And so can you sort of like, walk me through all of those techniques? Yeah, sure. Of course. So direct labeling is just telling people what something is or what a situation is. This is particularly useful when people are newbies, when they're young or when they're just trying to make sense of things for the first time.
They don't have necessarily a preexisting view. So in a classic study, kids were assigned to different conditions and encouraged to not litter in the classroom. And in one condition, they were given a persuasive appeal. They were told it's really important that you don't litter. That seemed to increase sort of throwing away of trash and not littering in the short term, but not in the long term. Another condition, kids were told that they were not litterers, that they were the clean class, the school principal, the teacher, the janitor, all told kids that they were the clean class and that they didn't litter.
So here you have young kids being labeled. They're their group identity is being labeled. And then kids behaved in accordance with that label. They litter less even weeks later. Now, that's not how most interventions, especially with older populations or with people who are more sophisticated, don't just give people a label. They instead give people information upon which they can draw a new inference. They give people the new basis for interpreting something in the world. For example, the complement intervention work that I described earlier, what Denise Mericle did, she did an intervention to try to improve, increase the extent to which people with low self-esteem to compliments.
And the way that she did that is she asked people with low self-esteem not just to think about a compliment that their partner had given them, but then she asked them why that compliment has a global and enduring meaning, why it reflects the regard that their partner sort of truly has for them. And the low self-esteem participants in her work were then able to articulate that they describe the reasons why the compliment had this global meaning. It reflected the love of their partner, and then they benefited from it.
They felt more secure in the relationship. They behaved less negatively, more positively towards their partner. Their partners reciprocated. It set in motion a more secure and positive relationship cycle. What that intervention did is it didn't just label it. People weren't just told that their partner love them. People with low self-esteem might have rejected that. Instead, it gave people an opportunity to write about how their partner has compliment reflected the regard they had for them. And they then took that as a basis for feeling more secure in the relationship.
Is that like prompted reflection? Basically, yes. So there's a lot of different ways you can do prompting. I consider that a kind of leading question intervention. So people are asked the question that assumes an answer. In this case, the question was not a critically. The question was not does this compliment reflect a general and global regard that your partner has for you? The question was, why does it? That's really interesting because it's like crossing this reflection sort of like chiasm, but it's also like active perspective taking.
Yeah. So I think often what psychological interventions do is they try to help people into more adaptive ways to look at themselves or look at other people or look at an object of judgment in the world here. This the idea was that it would be helpful for these people to understand the compliment from their partner as reflecting this true regard that their partner has for them. Right. A third the third one is increasing commitment through action. And here the idea is that a long, long history of psychology, going back through cognitive dissonance shows that people are really motivated to see their behaviors and attitudes is consistent.
And so, for example, you get people to articulate and advocate for an idea, then they become more persuaded by that idea. This is sometimes called the same as believing procedure where you give people new information and then you ask them to describe that new information that those new facts to some third party, a group of people like them, but younger, need their help perhaps. And when they do that, they come to be committed to those ideas, more so than if you had just given them that information in the first place.
So it's enlisting people as active co-creators of an intervention message for other people. I like that. And so that's been used in many of the most powerful interventions. For example, work by Jason, a kind of to examine what teachers think about how to interact with kids who are misbehaving in school. And what Jason did was he gave teachers these are experienced teachers who gave teachers stories about teachers who listened, took us kind of empathic approach to their students who were misbehaving.
Instead of just punishing the student, they took time to listen to the student, to understand the perspective that the student had on the whatever the incident was, they prioritized maintaining a positive relationship with the student rather than just dismissing a student. And then he asked these teachers, how do you do this in your classroom? And we want to learn from you as an experienced teacher because we want to give these stories to future teachers in teacher training programs so that they, too, can really understand how to interact with misbehaving kids in class.
And that exercise reduced the suspension rate among students whose teachers got that message by 50 percent over the school year. So here the teachers believe themselves to be creating an intervention for future teachers and training when they themselves really benefited from that experience, from reflecting on how they did or wanted to take this empathic approach to discipline with their students. Their own students benefited. They were the ones being intervened on, although they thought they were just creating one for the future.
Sometimes we persuade ourselves most when we tried to persuade other people here, the teachers became particularly committed to this empathic approach to discipline that would be better for cutting off negative patterns of interaction with students when they were able to articulate that for other teachers, younger teachers, teachers in training. So it's really interesting to me because it's not a knowledge gap. Like we're not teaching them a new skill. It's a skill they already have and it's just getting them to apply it more effectively or with more intention, perhaps.
Yeah, that's right. And I think it's a really useful property of the term mindset that in many cases we have multiple conflicting mindsets about the very same thing. We both believe A and we believe not A in some sense and in teaching, I think. And in parenting, by the way, with disciplining your own children, I think that we can both have the the belief my job here is to maintain this positive relationship, to understand this child, especially when they have difficulties and to help them improve as they try to grow up and develop and learn from their mistakes.
And we also have a kind of punitive mindset that comes about from behavioral psychology or a perversion of behavioral psychology, where we think rewards and punishments are what drives behavior in kids. If kids misbehave, we need to punish them so that they learn from their their failures. And we have both of those ideas, both of those representations in our head and what the empathic discipline intervention did, what articulating to future teachers how how you yourself as an experienced teacher, take an empathic approach to your students.
It just helped elevate that more empathic idea. It didn't introduce it. It wasn't new. There's no rocket science here. There is no new skill that the teachers needed. But it helped elevate that. It helped increase their commitment to that as compared to a more punitive approach, an active reflection?
Yeah. So other interventions don't necessarily give people information. They instead just structure reflection exercises in open ended ways, but in ways that are designed to help support people's functioning. So, for example, to the world of positive psychology has shown that a reliable way to increase people's well-being and their happiness is to reflect on the gratitude that you feel to others. And so writing gratitude notes, even notes that you don't send that articulate the things that you have to the people who've made a difference in your life in an open ended way can improve well-being.
Other work by Jamie Pennebaker has shown that your traumas can linger in your mind and they can be they can distract you and undermine your experience. And so if you give people open ended writing experiences. Where they can reflect on the most difficult or traumatic experience that they've had in their lives, they can start to describe that experience. And in writing about it, they write it often with a kind of beginning, middle and end, creating a sense of closure that helps, again, to improve people's functioning and improves their health.
So there's a variety of kind of open ended writing techniques, often open-ended reflection exercises and often writing techniques that help people think through aspects of their life in ways that are supportive of their functioning.
So what would be the difference, just going back to the teachers for a second, between them being interventions in the way that they were and maybe intervention with active reflection?
Yeah. So in the empathic discipline intervention, teachers get a bunch of content. They they hear stories from students who've misbehaved in class and the things that they feel to their teachers when they respond to them in an empathic way. They hear stories from teachers about their use of these this empathic approach. They read articles about how to think about kids who are misbehaving in ways that sustain relationships. It's not just a simply Open-Ended exercise. They're instead given a bunch of content and then they reflect on that content and articulate how they themselves use that approach to kids who are misbehaving.
So whereas the open the active reflection exercises, people don't get any content at all, the exercise just structures how they how they think about something that's important in their life. So it's an example of your favorite sort of intervention. Let me give you an example of one that I think is particularly helpful for illustrating a number of important points. So this was work, that Daffner book, and Hall, who was a psychologist at Santa Barbara, did. She's retired now and she was interested in the problem of child abuse and how could we prevent child abuse.
And what she did was she worked with a group of low income, mostly single moms with Tina, many of whom themselves had been had experienced abuse themselves, and so were sort of demographically at risk for abusing their new children. And she assigned these mothers to three conditions. There was a control condition where nothing particular happened. The second condition was a state program that was visiting these mothers and giving them tips about parenting, budgeting, kinds of nuts and bolts things.
Then the third condition she just appended to that second condition. So, again, they got these state visits, but the social workers who were doing the visits were trained. And what they did was to ask these mothers about the most difficult challenges that they had with their babies. So these are newborn babies or in the first year of life. So they're infants. And the the social workers were to ask mothers, what's the most difficult problem you have with your baby in?
The mothers would say something like, oh, I can't get my baby to stop crying. I can't get my baby to stay asleep. I can't get my baby to take a bottle at the kinds of problems that you have with an infant. And what Daffner Bookstall had theorized was that there's a risk for a new mother in this circumstance of feeling like those problems might mean that maybe she's a bad mother or maybe the baby's a bad baby. So she then would just kind of surface that she at the social workers were trained to ask mothers explicitly, why are you having these challenges?
The mothers would often give reasons that seem to imply this kind of self blaming or this child blaming, thinking. And the social workers never they never directly contradicted that. Instead, they just kept asking, could it be something else? Could it be something else until the mother came up with their own kind of pragmatic way of thinking about the problem. So the mother might say, for example, oh, like maybe I should try a new swaddle to help the baby sleep, or maybe I should try a new nipple on the bottle, help the baby take a bottle, and then they would come back a little later, a few weeks later, and they would say, oh, so last time you said this and you said you would try this, did you try that?
How did it go? And what she found but looking down found was that this exercise dramatically reduced the rates of what she called harsh parenting, like things like spanking and other kinds of physical acts that that you could think of as child maltreatment within the first year of life, a dramatically reduce that rate. The state visits without this psychologically wise, the purge didn't have any effect at all. But this psychologically wise approach of asking mothers why they're having the problems that are having and keep asking that question, could it be something else until the mothers came up with a non pejorative reason.
That dramatically reduced the rates of abuse, it also improved the children's health or physical health, that reduced mother's rates of depression, and there were a number of important downstream consequences as well.
Sounds almost too good to be true. I think that one thing that's true of psychologically wise interventions is that when we think about big problems that society faces, when we think about problems like child abuse or problems like poor achievement in school or problems like failing marriages, we often have the intuition that we need kind of commensurately big solutions to these big problems. That is, if we're having a big problem, we need to invest a lot of time and we need to invest a lot of money.
And we need a big program and we need a big to do to make effective progress on those problems. And one of the lessons from my own experience early on learning about stereotype threat is that that's not always true. It wasn't it wasn't a big to do that was needed to help African-American students do better on that test in the laboratory. It was a representation of the test that took negative stereotypes off the table. And the reason why that's so that can be so important is that that change, it might not seem big from a different point of view.
It might not seem big from our point of view here or from a third party point of view. But for a person in that circumstance, it's almost there's nothing bigger. So if you are an African-American student coming in to take a test and said to be a violative of your abilities, the possibility that that reflects or could lead to a negative, stereotypical judgment of you and people like you is really threatening. And having that off the table is a really big deal.
If you are worried that you're a bad mother with your baby or that your baby is a bad baby, a way to think about that. That takes that off the table. That makes you not a bad mother. It makes your baby not a bad baby. There's nothing bigger from that perspective. And that's the perspective that we really need to understand is the perspective of the person who's critically acting in a circumstance who's trying to perform well on a test or who is working with a baby trying to help that baby and is with that baby twenty four hours a day.
And who themselves is in a difficult circumstance. And when we can understand that perspective and understand the concerns that that person has and help them put those aside, then we can make real progress and problems. What I like about it is that we're sort of like removing impediments to success versus like adding tools to give people more success.
Yeah, that's right. That's a really big and important lesson, is that often psychological processes act as barriers. And when we do a barrier analysis, when we ask what gets in the way of better outcomes, it leads us to these kinds of solutions. That's an old old idea goes back. Seventy five years within social psychology. There was a personal hero of mine, Kurt Lewin or Kurt Levine, one of the founders of social psychology, did important work in the World War two era when the United States government was concerned about meat shortages and wanted people to eat more organ meats, which were considered ethnic meats and were not to be consumed by middle class people.
And what Lewin understood as he pursued research on this problem was that it was that perception that people like me don't serve this. That was really the barrier, an important barrier to to people doing it right. People didn't need more reasons. They didn't need more recipes. They didn't need to be told about the importance for the war effort. They didn't need to be told about the healthiness or the tastiness even. Really, they needed to have that sense that people like me don't do this removed.
And once that was done, people were able to eat those meats. That's really interesting is saying that I was sort of like thinking back to some old podcasts that we've done where people and we talk about parenting specifically with people. There's an interesting overlap of our guests in terms of how they talk to their kids. And one of the things they do is like our family is kind of our family doesn't take shortcuts. And it's interesting how that labeling is sort of like coming out what you're saying.
Well, the actual way that Louann got there was a little bit different. What he did was he compared two different groups. One group got a lecture appeal, which they were told all the reasons why they should serve these these foods and the participants who are housewives importantly. So these are the people who are in Lewins analysis, bringing food into the household and preparing it. So one group of people got this lecture appeal and that the in that condition, almost no women served these organ meats to their families.
And the second condition, he brought women together in small group discussions. And there is a facilitator who led the small group and thinking about how these meats could be served to. If I barriers to serve them in your family, to think about how those barriers could be overcome, very importantly at the end of the conversation, which was a participatory conversation, again, it was not a lecture. Women are sharing ideas and sharing challenges and ways to overcome those challenges.
At the end, he asks or the facilitator asks the women who will serve these foods to your family in the next few weeks? And if you will, please show by raising your hand. And that's really powerful, people start to put their hands up. It's really powerful because first, from a self perspective, if you're looking around and you're seeing other people raise your hand, raise their hands, and then you raise your own hand, you are yourself committing to this action, to serving the needs.
But the even more important thing, I think, is that from a kind of social group perspective, you're looking around at your peers, other women like you in your community, your social class background, and you're seeing all these other women raise their hands. And your perception then that people like me don't do this, that gets directly challenged at that point. You think now actually people like me may do this, so it's not a matter of sort of changing what the group norm is.
It's just showing you that you look. Is it showing you that you can act outside of the group? It's changing your perception of the group norm. Right. So you go into the setting thinking people like me don't do this. And then you have the conversation. You see the other members of your small group discussion who are members of your sort of peer group, raising their hands, committing to serving these cheap meats. And at that point, your perception of the norm of your group has shifted.
No longer is your group just opposed to serving these meats.
It strikes me that one of the things that would lead to success would be if you had an intervention causing even a slight change in somebody or their perception of a situation or beliefs. They would act on that. And then the feedback based on that action, like if it was immediate and positive, would encourage further sort of like exploring that.
Yeah, that's very consistent with how we think about some of these interventions. It's almost like the intervention gives you a new hypothesis to test and then you test that within the world that you're in. And if that test seems to succeed, you become more committed to that view. So in interventions on social belonging, everybody worries at first about whether they belong and it gets better with time. And I think that you give people that idea, people who are otherwise wondering whether I or people like me can belong here.
You give people that idea and then they kind of test it out and interactions with their peers or with their instructors. And if the environment seems to confirm it, then the intervention can live and set in motion a cycle of growth makes a lot of sense.
You mentioned earlier about failing marriages and parenting growth mindset. Let's dive into some examples here. If let's say I have a child and I want to I don't want to say intervention. I want to nudge them or encourage them to think in a different way. I want to have a wise intervention with them on developing this growth mindset. What does that look like from the parent's perspective? Do you wait for a certain situation to you just instill it in your day to day?
Like, how do you do that?
Yeah, one important thing is to understand that when we do interventions, we do them with people, not to people, OK? And so you want to do things that help the people you're working with come to really understand and own in a real way to own the idea that will be adaptive for them. How do we do that? So there's a couple of things you could think about. So one thing you could think about is to talk about the idea of a growth mindset and how that can be true and ask the child to articulate that for themselves or describe that for themselves, to draw it or write it.
Like talk to me about situations where you've learned something like I think that you can you could ask a child, how would they explain this to somebody younger than you? How would you explain this to your little brother? That's great. Yeah. The second kind of thing is to think about everyday practices, everyday interactions and everyday practices and what those are conveying, even inadvertently to kids. A fabulous line of work by Tyler Hymowitz, who is a former graduate student here at Stanford, is now a postdoc at Penn, shows that kids tend to draw strong inferences from their parents reactions to mistakes.
So Kyla's work began with a very curious observation, which was that. The correlation between kids beliefs about the malleability of intelligence and their parents beliefs of the malleability of intelligence was not strong, was weak. So you have parents who believe in a growth mindset or who believe in a fixed mindset and their kids beliefs don't really correspond to their parents beliefs. And why was that? Kylo found that parents have a similar belief system which is only weakly correlated with their growth mindset beliefs, but importantly is really invisible to kids.
And that's their beliefs about mistakes. So parents can believe that mistakes are good and helpful and positive and productive for growth and learning. Or they can think that they're bad. And if you as a parent have the belief, even implicitly, that mistakes are kind of bad, then that is your reaction to your child's mistakes, even if you believe in a growth mindset, can be interpreted by the child as evidence that you believe a fixed mindset, that a fixed mindset might be true, and that the kid then takes his reasons to have a fixed mindset.
So if your son or daughter comes home and they made a mistake knowing this, how do you respond? Yeah, so, I mean, Kylah has some beautiful stories from parents who she asked just this question to imagine. Your child comes home with, say, a poor grade on a math test. What would you say? How would you respond? And I remember one parent said something like, oh, I would say, I'm so sorry you had this experience, but let's sit down together and see see what you got wrong and how we can learn from it.
Maybe we can have an ice cream as we do it to engage the child in the learning process through the mistake rather than to to say things like, for example, I would worry that my child might not be good at math if that's sort of like I'm going to have to think on that a bit.
But I love that sort of framing of it. And let's sit down together and go through it and see what we can learn from.
I think that parents also do a lot of work as their children are undertaking task to shape their children's understanding of of those experiences. So we have two kids who are six and four. And when the kids are bicycling and they say that they're tired, we always say to them, it's when you're tired that your muscles are getting stronger. And the idea is to reframe for them what it means to be tired. Not it's not necessarily a reason to stop, but this is your opportunity to have that growth experience.
It's when things are difficult that you are learning.
That's cool. I like that. What else do you have in terms of parenting and applying sort of like these little tiny interventions to foster a different mindset around growth?
I think that it's also just important to have empathy for yourself as a parent. The standard of parenting is not going to be perfection. The standard of parenting is going to be a commitment to a process that when you make mistakes, you tell your child you made a mistake. Right. And you commit to a process of trying to be the best kind of parent you can be. It's not about you're not going to be perfect. And I think that that's really important for the child.
The child's goal is not to be perfect either. You don't want a child who always gets everything right a realistic goal. The goal is to have sustained commitment to and and work towards goals of growth and learning and improvement that are that you value.
I remember the first time I apologize to my kids. It was sort of scary. And then it just became this thing where I would just use it as a means of feedback almost to myself. I would just apologize to them. Like I didn't handle that the way that I wanted to, or situation didn't work out. And then it took a while. But then they started coming up to me after and they're like, oh, I could have handled that better.
Yeah. I think the one of the best things my my mother did was I think a wonderful parent is she was very, very good at apologizing for mistakes that she might have made real or imagined in her mind. Another sort of representative story just quickly here is I backed into my garage a couple of weeks ago, like totally killed the garage door to the point where it had to be replaced. And we ended up sort of like laughing about it. I was a little stressed, obviously, but and then my son spilled milk and I was really proud of the way he handled it because he just came upstairs, gets a paper towel, and it's the first time he's sort of done that all on his own.
And just like you have a problem, you need to fix it. You know how to fix it. I'm here if you sort of like the guidance on that. But and then I talked to him after and I said, you handled that really well. Look, I'm really proud of you. And he's like, well, if you can handle backing into the garage door without getting upset, he's like, I think I can spill some milk without getting upset.
Yeah, there's, um, there's this fabulous musical group called Jemini Brothers, a local group in Michigan. They have a song called Oops. And the song begins with singing in the persona of a child who has dropped. The ball and spilled the salad dressing all over his sister, and then the father comes up to console the kid and tell the kid that everybody makes mistakes and then slips on the carpet as he's putting the child to bed and spills coffee all over himself.
The mother comes in and says, what's happening here? And then they all laugh together. It just kind of captures that.
I'm going to have to look that up. I want to come back to a feeling or a struggling relationship, sort of sort of interventions that people who feel disconnected from their partner feel like things aren't working. Even if you're in a good relationship, what would be an intervention you can use to strengthen meaning and connection? There's a lot of things that you could say about that in general terms.
Of course, you know, there's kind of the wise wisdom of spending time together and trying new things together and growing together, communicating. But I want to I want to talk about something very specific, which is a line of research led by Eli Finkel at Northwestern University, which is a study of married couples in the Chicagoland area. And these were not couples who are in any kind of marriage marital distress. They were just normal kind of middle aged married couples.
And they were involved in a several year longitudinal study in which every few months they reported on their feelings in their marriage, that passion and intimacy and closeness that they felt in the marriage. And they also described the kinds of conflicts that they experienced in the marriage and how they thought about those. And they did this for a year. And then at the end of that year, before the next stage of the study began, there was a randomized intervention that was introduced.
And what this was, was that after having described their most significant conflict that existed within their marriage, each member of the couple was asked a series of questions. They were asked, how would a neutral third party, who wants the best for all, view this conflict? Then they were asked what barriers would prevent you or make it difficult for you to take this perspective in a conflict situation with your spouse. And then the third question was, how could you overcome those barriers to take that neutral third party perspective?
And I think that one of the things that is so important about these questions is that people are not being asked to take their spouses perspective. You know, well, your spouse's perspective in a conflict and you think it's not rational, but instead people are asked independently to think of what a neutral third party who wants the best for all, not their perspective, not their partners perspective, but somebody somebody who's neutral and and wants the best for all. But how might they see this?
And what that study showed was that there was an overall slow decline over time in marital quality. People, as time went by, felt less close, less intimate, less passionate, less satisfied in their marriages. And as I understand it, that's a common finding in longitudinal studies of marriage and what the intervention did introduced at the 12 month mark. After having a year of these surveys, it was introduced at 12 months, 16 months, and at 20 months, three times.
People completed those questions each time, took about seven minutes. Is that that cut off that downward trend. It stabilized the quality of people's marriages. So they stop declining. They didn't necessarily get better.
But the sort of like the long term decline stopped, the long term decline stopped, it didn't necessarily get better, but the long term decline stopped. And as I said, these are not marriages in marital therapy or marriages that are necessarily going towards divorce. These are just typical marriage. Right. So the headline, the kind of joke headline is Twenty one minutes to Save a Marriage, because people did this exercise three times, seven minutes each month, 12 month, 16 month, 20.
But the important thing is what it did is it gave people space to step back and ask themselves, what would a neutral third party view be like? What might be the barriers to taking that? How could I take that perspective? And their spouse is doing that to them the next time the conflict arises, like maybe one of the members of the couples always late and that that's a source of conflict the next time the conflict arises. That's now a representation in each person's mind about how to think about how to handle how to respond to that situation.
It's almost like you're waiting for it if you're the other partner, right. If you believe your spouse is chronically late, then you're you're almost watching a clock waiting for it to happen. And you already know how you're going to respond and talk about it.
We have these sort of like self-fulfilling prophecies, right? Like, yes, we have stereotypes about people. We tend to reinforce the stereotypes and and dismiss evidence that might control that. Or if we think of our kids as responsible, we tend to see them as more responsible with attention to that. And we sort of like remove the disconfirming evidence of when they're irresponsible and we just sort of chalk it up to, I just think our beliefs becoming of the world that we live in.
And then we get feedback on that world based on our beliefs. I think it's especially vivid in a relationship, a close relationship context, because close relationships are like nothing more essentially than my perception of you and my beliefs about you and how I behave towards you and then your perception of and beliefs about that. You give that back to me and we're just in this cycle going forward and we can get caught in bad cycles that produce things like declines in marital quality or that produce exacerbating conflicts between teachers and students.
And one of the things that interventions do is that they can help people get out of those cycles and then produce the kind of better outcomes for both parties.
Thank you for the is there anything we've talked about today that hasn't replicated or is in question or there's doubts around? I think that everything is in a state of construction. The status of that construction vary across different problem spaces and different interventions. There's always going to be questions about the circumstances in which different kinds of interventions will be effective and will not be effective. We talked for a bit about how, for example, growth mindset interventions seem to be more likely to produce gains in conducive peer environments as compared to non of pure environments.
I think what's really important to understand is essentially heterogeneity and generalizability. That is, what are the boundary conditions? Where does where does an intervention with what kinds of populations and what kinds of context does an intervention tend to tend to replicate and tend to where does it tend not to produce benefits? In what kind of context can we then therefore generalize those intervention effects and understand that that kind of that kind of world, that population in that context would benefit from the treatment as opposed to a different kind?
I think that's the sort of useful way to think about this, is that all of this is sort of under-construction and always will be in a kind of state of construction. And the new questions emerge, especially around boundary conditions and as well as around sort of the processes of improvement. I think that's a great place to end this conversation. I want to thank you so much for your time. This was fascinating and insightful and new space for us. So thank you.
Great. Well, thank you, Shane. I enjoyed the conversation. The knowledge project is produced in collaboration with Jason Oberholtzer and the team it charts and leisure. You can find show notes on this episode as well as every other episode at F-stop blog podcast. If you find this episode valuable, shared on social media and leave a review to support the podcast, go to F-stop logged membership and join our learning community. You'll get hand edited transcripts of all the podcasts and so much more.
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