Study says believing is enough to nurture your genius

05 September 2014 - 12:09 By AFP Relxnews

Researchers from Michigan State University say being told that achievement comes from hard work rather than genetics provokes instant changes in brain patterns and could inspire greater effort on the part of those who wish for success.

"Giving people messages that encourage learning and motivation may promote more efficient performance," says Hans Schroder, a third year doctoral student in clinical psychology whose work is funded by the National Science Foundation. "In contrast, telling people that intelligence is genetically fixed may inadvertently hamper learning."

Past studies have homed in on the importance of positive reinforcement, although Schroder's may be the first to provide physiological evidence that believing one is not limited by genetics could increase confidence, effort and perhaps even success.

Schroder told Relaxnews that he worked with a total of 44 undergraduate students, with women slightly outnumbering men.

He divided them at random into two groups in which they were given one of two articles to read, conveying intelligence as being either genetic or trainable in a challenging environment. He then attached participants to electroencephalography machines and asked them to complete a simple computer task under EEG surveillance.

The EEG readings of participants' brainwaves allowed him to see how much attention participants paid to their mistakes during the task.

"You can pay attention to your mistakes," he told Relaxnews, "but that doesn't necessarily mean you're doing anything effective with the material you learned from making them."

Sure enough, the group that had read the article proclaiming that intelligence is genetic was clearly concerned with performance, for they paid attention to their mistakes in a manner that did not relate to performance on trials after errors.

"We were asking the question as to how the brain communicated the individual's behavior," Schroder said. "If you paid attention to the mistakes does that carry over to the next trial? Does it correlate? Are you slower, faster or more accurate?"

As for the group that had read the article saying that genius can arise from a challenging environment, their EEG readings reflected more efficient brain behavior upon mistakes, indicating a belief that they could improve on their performance.

Schroder told Relaxnews that future research would involve exploring the long-term consequences of such messages, with an eye to creating optimal learning.

For more information on Schroder's research:

Schroder's study was published in the journal Biological Psychology.