Research links mindset on intelligence to stress

Cason Hunwick

Getting used to college is almost always stressful, but according to research by psychology graduate student Hae Yeon Lee, students experience less stress if they believe they can get smarter.

Lee and her team studied stress in middle schoolers transitioning to high school and found a correlation between amount of stress experienced and mindset toward intelligence, a finding easily related to college freshmen at UT. They published their study in the academic journal, Child Development, in July.

“If you look at the GPA trajectory of freshmen in high school, more than 60 percent see a decline in grades,” Lee said. “We wanted to measure different responses (of stress) depending on their mindset.”

There are two key mindsets, according to Lee. One is fixed, meaning people see intelligence as something you’re born with. The other is a growth mindset, or a belief that intelligence can change with experience, she added.

“If someone thinks intelligence is a fixed trait, then when your grades start to decline in a college transition, that can be more stressful, because you feel there is less you can do about it,” Lee said.

These findings also apply to college students, she added.

“So if you apply that knowledge to college settings, students who have the more fixed mindset think that even if there are resources out there, it doesn’t matter, because they feel their mindset is already fixed in certain ways,” Lee said.

Looking back on her transition to college, psychology sophomore Angel Bierce said she remembers struggling with a fixed mindset.

“When I had that fixed strategy, I kept trying things over and over … (and) getting the same result,” Bierce said. “I kept failing at this one thing and thought there’s nothing that can help me.”

Students with this fixed mindset are more stressed when facing adversity, Lee said. Conversely, students with growth mindsets experience less stress and interact more comfortably with their surroundings during a transition.

Bierce said she later experienced a change out of her fixed mindset and into a growth mindset.

“Now I know that learning and intelligence aren’t interchangeable,” she said. “We can use one to improve the other.”

Economics freshman Lucas Chitwood said he also thinks intelligence levels can change.

“I do think you can improve intelligence … by learning and practicing (and) creating some form of base knowledge that you can connect the dots with,” he said.

Chitwood started using more university resources when struggling academically, which lines up with Lee’s predictions about students with a growth mindset.

Lee also said being away from family and friends presents another challenge for students transitioning to college. Students have to find a way to rebuild their social connections, she said. And depending on your mindset, you might be less motivated to seek out helpful social connections.

“There was no grandma, older uncle, or younger siblings in college. I had to rebuild that social structure and even become that social structure myself,” said Bierce.

Lee said she believes students can choose between a growth and fixed mindset.

“The question becomes, are they going succumb (to) this struggle, taking (their shortcomings) as a sign that they cannot handle this, or are they going to fight harder and overcome the challenge?” Lee said.