Ability Perception and Privilege

My partner recently alerted me to a recent study which examines attribution theory; the effect of what we see as the cause of our successes or failures. As Moore indicates in his summary, the short version is that if we see our success or failure as the result of innate attributes, we’re less likely to improve.

My immediate response to this was to apply it to part of how privilege works, and the tendency of people to get defensive when their behaviour is pointed out at sexist/racist/etc. I think many of us have faced the “But I’m not a sexist/racist/etc.” response, and the often difficult task of clarifying to someone that telling them that something they did was sexist/racist/etc. is not calling them a KKK member. I’ve seen some interesting discussions as to whether the separation of calling someone’s behaviour sexist/racist/etc. and calling them sexist/racist/etc. is a useful one. This research suggests to me that it may well be, from a practical perspective.

What I suspect, drawing from Dweck’s findings, is that someone who considers sexism/racism/etc to be an innate attribute is less likely to believe anti-oppression work is either necessary or useful. As made clearer in Guy Kawasaki’s discussion, such a person would be considered by the research as possessing a ‘fixed’ mindset; wherein they believe they are ‘set’ as either good or bad, in this case, not sexist or sexist. Assuming ‘not sexist = good’ for the moment, since this is likely the majority case, what the research suggests is that someone who believes they are ‘set’ as ‘not sexist’ will not believe they have to work at being non-sexist, whilst someone who believes that they are ‘set’ as ‘sexist’ will believe that any work they do towards being non-sexist won’t make much difference.

Perhaps the key indicator of the applicability of Dweck’s model comes from some of her own efforts to apply the model in areas other than her original area of schooling ability:

Many kids believe they’re invariably good or bad; other kids think they can get better at being good. Dweck has already found that preschoolers with this growth mind-set feel okay about themselves after they’ve messed up and are less judgmental of others; they’re also more likely than kids with a fixed view of goodness to try to set things right and to learn from their mistakes. They understand that spilling juice or throwing toys, for example, doesn’t damn a kid as bad, so long as the child cleans up and resolves to do better next time.

Marina Krakovsky, The Effort Effect Standford Magazine

Dweck believes in the importance of encouraging the growth mindset. I tend to agree. I don’t always engage with people at this level. Sometimes I just really don’t need to be dealing with people who are going to be defensive in this way. Plus, that experience can be pretty harrowing if you take it on for too long without giving yourself some room to just not have to do that for a while. However, when I do engage at this level, I can already recall those who would fit quite clearly into these two mindsets. I can also recall that those who fit in the growth mindset were much more able to get past defensive behaviour and take a look at their privilege.

I suspect a copy of Dweck’s book, Mindset will eventually make its way onto my bookshelf.

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5 thoughts on “Ability Perception and Privilege

  1. And I’d go farther, suggesting that those who refuse to accept the “growth mindset” and acknowledge the possibility for change are at best wilfully obtuse and at worst profoundly immoral. But I have no trouble using moral language in these instances; most social scientists do.

  2. Yes! Kawasaki connection :-).

    We actually started a club around this concept at school. We called it “AHNS” (pronounce it as anus) –> “Always happy never satisfied”.

    The thing about growth mindset though is that it’s extremely hard to keep up. “Do you want to be great or do you want to be happy?”. You force yourself to admit that you’re not good enough, and then you have to remember that it’s actually another opportunity to grow. I have this problem all the time. When I feel happy after I closed a major deal or got a job offer, I stop trying. When I feel extremely depressed, I become extremely productive and grow. Trial by fire ne?

    Get James to introduce you to Zeb when you’re in Tokyo. Amazingly successful MS entertainment biz dev manager (ie. he cuts xbox content deals in Japan) who still sees his career as “just starting out”. Ask him about his career guidance tips (pure gold).

  3. Get James to introduce you to Zeb when you’re in Tokyo. Amazingly successful MS entertainment biz dev manager (ie. he cuts xbox content deals in Japan) who still sees his career as “just starting out”. Ask him about his career guidance tips (pure gold).

    Psst, I’m not the author of this post, Jen is. And I’m pretty sure she’s not going to Tokyo, though it would be totally awesome if she did 🙂

    But thanks for the advice, I will definitely keep it in mind.

  4. Kevin,
    tekanji’s already cleared up the misrecognition, so there’s no need for me to do that.

    You’re right that maintaining a growth mindset is difficult; particularly when we’ve grown up accepting a fixed mindset. I don’t think Dweck’s research really contradicts that. And though I don’t think you’re saying otherwise, I don’t think its difficulty to maintain is a reason to deny it’s utility in achieving better outcomes for ourselves.

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