Societal Growth Requires Rehabilitation

post by squidious · 2018-05-26T03:00:01.013Z · LW · GW · 12 comments
Disclaimer: My intent is not to criticize growth mindset as initially intended, but to criticize the version of straw growth mindset that has become a rationalist meme, particularly by pointing out its relation to some of the problems we have on the community level.

"Growth mindset" ranges from a sort of rallying cry to a "that's what she said" sort of joke, depending on what crowd you run with, but underneath all of this is an attitude that we can get better. We use the phrase to lift ourselves up, to tell ourselves that no matter what our current problems, we can grow and become stronger. We treat technology similarly; someday, our cars will drive us and death will be cured. In the future, things will be better -- assuming X-risk doesn't take us all out first.

Sadly, this mindset seems to leave little room for the struggling. "Growth mindset" gets used to mean "everything is good and getting better" rather than "bad things are getting less bad", which erases those for whom "everything is good" seems like a false statement. Cryonics and self-driving cars only exist for those who can afford it. On a social level, only those with the resources for personal growth can realistically work on themselves to the extent where "growth mindset" is actually a realistic phrase. Ideally, we'd work on this by making things like therapy and education more accessible. Ultra-ideally, we'd also start teaching things like EQ and metacognition in public schools, and work toward decreasing stigma around mental illness, therapy, and self help.

The pervasiveness of growth mindset does not seem unusual from the average person's perspective. Personally, the moment that made me question it is when I was working with a special needs class whose teacher was assigned to do a lecture on it. This was a class that was considered "moderate to severe"; most of the students were nonverbal and struggled to read or grasp abstract concepts at all. The thought that these kids gained anything from a lecture titled "Are you a tree or a brick?" is absurd.

Growth mindset, when taught poorly, will imply that anything can be achieved through effort. This kind of attitude can be harmful because for some, it is simply not true. Just as most of my students couldn't comprehend growth mindset, there are many others who will never be able to do things that the average person considers necessary for modern life. While growth mindset may work well to combat the attitude that success is purely inherent, the way it is often presented swings the pendulum too far in the other direction. In a sense, we have yet another version of the nature vs nurture debate, with a similar answer: success consists of both effort and circumstance.

If we want to be the kind of community that applauds social growth, we also need to be the kind of community that assists the struggling before things get dire. High status people touting "growth mindset" while many others only one or two degrees away struggle with suicidality creates a "rich get richer" kind of social landscape. We can't get better as a society without helping those who are worse off, and that starts with our own community. There is no true growth mindset without rehabilitation.

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comment by jimrandomh · 2018-05-26T06:35:38.765Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
"Growth mindset" gets used to mean "everything is good and getting better" rather than "bad things are getting less bad", which erases those for whom "everything is good" seems like a false statement.

This does not match my experience with people using that phrase at all. Dialects exist and people might be using it with that implication elsewhere, but if they are, I see that as a problem with their local usage, not with the phrase itself.

comment by ozymandias · 2018-05-27T15:28:10.016Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

FWIW, as a suicidal person, I found an emphasis on personal growth to be tremendously important in my recovery from suicidality. It was important to have the idea that my suicidality *could* change, and that it wasn't going to change if I sat on my butt and waited for someone else to magically fix it for me. I have no doubt that there is variation in how useful memes around personal growth are for different people, but I really don't think status and amount of suffering are the axes on which it differs.

Replies from: squidious
comment by squidious · 2018-05-29T21:03:28.041Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Huh, this is very different from the experience of myself and those who I have spoken to about this when writing this post. Is this something you or anyone else has written about?

comment by romeostevensit · 2018-05-27T20:06:32.237Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Insight porn is more fun than training. LW does not have a training culture component. I blame the lack of a clear skill tree. I thought, a long time ago, that CFAR would eventually turn something like the rationality checklist into a proper skill tree with feedback loops.

comment by Thrasymachus · 2018-05-26T13:54:57.548Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems right to me, and at least the 'motte' version of growth mindset accepts that innate ability may set pretty hard envelopes on what you can accomplish regardless of how energetic/agently you pursue self improvement (and this can apply across a range of ability - although it seems cruel and ludicrous to suggest someone with severe cognitive impairment can master calculus, it also seems misguided to suggest someone in middle age can become a sports star if they really go for it). As you say, taking growth mindset 'too far' has a dark side in that we might start thinking that people fail or struggle because they aren't trying hard enough (generally a fault which we morally criticise) rather than lacking the ability (generally 'blameless').

But I'd venture a broader criticism about growth mindset which apply both to the 'motte' form sketched above, but also its sincere use in the rationalist community - that we shouldn't only 'not take it too far', but not take it anywhere at all:

1) Growth mindset as expounded by Dweck and colleagues has not weathered replication well. The most recent systematic reviews give extremely minor effects on achievement (r=0.1) and even smaller intervention effects (d=0.08). The authors of the meta-analysis are about as sceptical as I am about whether these residual effects are real, but even if real they are extremely minor compared to more traity things (you can get much better prediction of academic achievement by genotyping than assessing growth mindest).

2) There's a natural story of reverse causation, which also applies to the closely related 'internal versus external locus of control'. If you're smart and living in propitious circumstances, you may be right in thinking "I can get good at this if I really try" for many different things. If you lack this good fortune, your belief "Even if I try really hard at something, for most somethings I probably won't develop mastery (or even competence)" might be a case of accurate and laudable insight.

3a) I can think of more than a few occasions in my life where the latter was better for me. One was when I was contemplating what subjects to keep before I went to university, and I had discussions with various teachers along the lines of, "You're good but not exceptional at this, maybe think about something else?" Or (in medical school) a conversation along the lines of, "You have dysgraphia, which probably makes you somewhat weaker at fine manual dexterity. Opthalmology requires really good fine manual dexterity, so maybe this isn't the specialty for you."

3b) It also seemed to serve me better when I couldn't circumvent my limitations by picking a different line of work. I focused especially hard on training myself to perform practical procedures because I realised I was working from a disadvantage, and so had to try harder to be satisfactory (I maintained no illusions of becoming great at it).

3c) My impression is that conversations (or thinking) like this tend to be more emotionally difficult than more aspirational, "Don't worry, you can do it!" exhortations. So I'd guess they are probably under-supplied from their optimum.

In essence, there's an underlying empirical topic which 'growth mindset' relies upon: that a lot of whether one accomplishes something or not depends on mindset or attitude. The answer to that, as best as I can tell, is this isn't really true: we live in a world which has the uncomfortable features where which tickets one draws from the genetic lottery, birthplace lottery, and early environment lottery (etc) determine the broad strokes of one's life far more than particular efforts of will and mindset (and growth mindset in particular, which seems to have slim-to-no effect). Many things which are possible for someone are not possible for us, no matter what we do, and no matter how hard we try.

Then there's a prudential question of (even if it isn't true) whether it would be better to act and believe as-a growth mindset would suggest. Again, it doesn't seem so: the evidence for mindset interventions working is slim to none, and insofar as one can survey anecdata my impression is 'anti-growth mindset' advice is undersupplied relative to its importance.

It is inarguable one should often persevere in work to improve oneself, to not give up 'too soon', and to encourage others when trying to do the same. Yet there are times when it is better to recognise the limits of one's abilities, that one should cut their losses, and to shoulder the burden of (if one believes it to be the case) telling someone they should quit something because they 'don't have what it takes'. The right judgement in these cases is a matter for practical wisdom. Insofar as growth mindset as it is preached (but also as it is practised) biases us more to the former sort of behaviour, it should be resisted.

comment by Davis_Kingsley · 2018-05-28T06:59:59.149Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At the risk of sounding elitist, you mention people who are nonverbal and struggle with abstract concepts. To be frank, the community is not oriented towards those people, does not particularly try to serve them, and would be stretched very thin if it tried to do so. I suspect that efforts headed in such a direction would be counterproductive.

That isn't to say that we shouldn't try to be inclusive - but at some point a line should be drawn with respect to who is and isn't in our target audience, and I think "this person does not grasp abstract concepts" is far over that line.

comment by Dagon · 2018-05-27T19:24:45.830Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Growth mindset, like all simple models and recommendations, has some truth behind it but as it gets popular it gets misunderstood, over-applied, and generally less close to truth.

I've never heard "things are getting better" or "bad things are getting less bad" tied to growth mindset. they're useful beliefs, especially to counter depressive or over-pessimistic beliefs. But growth mindset means more about your personal agency than about the overall trend or result. "Your efforts will make things better, or at least less bad".

"don't give up" may apply to both types of advice, but they're still different in application.

comment by jimrandomh · 2018-05-26T06:33:45.482Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The phrase "growth mindset" does not mean the same thing when LWers use it with each other, as it does when academics use it in the context of childhood educati

When the phrase "growth mindset" is used within the rationality community or Less Wrong context, it typically refers to skill-building by adults, driven by their own agency. The direct reference is to a change in mindset, but it's one that's reasonably expected to translate into priorities and actions, and if "growth mindset" has any effects, it's understood that they're mediated by those actions.

When the phrase "growth mindset" is used in a childhood education context, it typically refers to approaching a fixed set of adult-provided skill-building exercises (ie, school), just in a slightly different way. The implied intrinsic motivation and autonomy are no longer there. This makes it a very different thing, and one which, while potentially still good, is much less convincing.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-05-29T17:25:38.569Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It would be helpful if your posts defines what you are talking about. In my view self-driving cars have little to do with the general idea of the growth mindset according to which they belief that it's possible to change yourself is useful.

The sentence "self-driving cars only exists for those that can afford it" feels strange to me. Cars generally only exists for those that can afford it whether they are self-driving or aren't. One of the great things about self-driving cars is that they can make transportation cheaper than it is currently because then you can get ubers without having to pay the cost for the driver.

Scott Alexander recently wrote about how much of a problem a lot of poor people have with their cars. Driverless cars have the potential to bring more improvement to poor people than to rich people who don't have a problem to pay for Uber currently.

When it comes to depressive people that are only one or two degrees away struggle with suicidality, those people do profit from the believe that it's possible to come out of their depression instead of thinking that their struggle is hopeless.

comment by Elo · 2018-05-26T21:17:31.052Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Have you read the "mindset" book?

comment by ex cinera · 2018-05-26T04:37:42.997Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In its ideal, most reasonable form, and even in the diluted form espoused by rat[ional]ists, I don't personally have any issue with the concept of growth mindset in and of itself. It seems no different than any other form of naïve optimism, power-of-intention handwaving, or placebomancy -- but precisely because of this, I feel it falls short of its mythical status as received wisdom.

I've noticed that rats have a tendency of venerating concepts like this in a scope that far outstrips what the original (evidence- or logic-based) formulation was used to denote. To me, there's no big problem with that. All groups of people share some sort of mythos, or things that "everyone knows". Demanding that all of these sayings and mottos and dank memes be based on dispassionate statistical analysis is not only unreasonable, but an obstacle to making progress.

However, I think that we had better become mindful of the fact that our memes are not substantially better, and we are, most of the time, not substantially wiser than members of any other subculture when we try to apply them to reality -- or we run the risk of digging ourselves into antics far more absurd than even the most foolish "normie" could dream of!

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2018-05-31T11:39:22.654Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think the common usage of it is about placebomancy. Take social skills as an example. A lot of nerds are bad at social skills.

A nerd without growth mindset would say: "I'm just not talented at social interaction" and doesn't do much to change it.

The growth mindset nerd doesn't say: "I will just get better if I believe that I will get better". He rather tries to research how social skills are build and then does what needs to be done to build the skill.

In a similar way the mindset leads to our community generally doing more sport than other nerds because we don't let a nerdy self-identity get into the way of physical exercise.