I’ve been reading a book called How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. This book is very interesting to me for both personal and professional reasons—it describes a lot of the “stuff” we don’t usually understand about why and how we do the things we do in life (and why it’s hard to change by will-powering yourself through it).
There are a lot of things I’d like to tell you from this book, but I’ll stick with one for now.
A study was done on over 400 fifth graders, in which they were given an “easy” puzzle test. After the test, the teacher randomly said one of two things to each student.
Either, “You must be smart at this,”
“You must have worked really hard.”
Next in the study, each child chose between taking a second easier test or a second harder test that they would learn a lot from.
The kids who had been told they were smart generally chose the easy test, and the kids who had been told they worked hard generally chose the more difficult test that they would learn a lot from.
The next part of the study was to give all the kids a very hard test (meant for eighth graders). The kids who had been told they were smart were more likely to get discouraged as they made inevitable mistakes. The kids who had been told they worked hard, worked harder, got involved, and even said this was their favorite test.
Next, the kids were all offered to see the tests of other kids—they could choose to see tests of kids who did worse or better than they did. The “smart-labeled” kids chose to boost their self-esteem by looking at tests of kids who did worse, and the “hard working-labeled” kids chose to see tests of kids who did better so that they could understand their mistakes, learn from errors, and figure out how to do better.
The last part was for each kid to take a test of the same difficulty level as the very first test. The hard workers improved their scores by 30%, and the smart kids decreased their scores by 20%. Remember, all these kids were randomly selected for the groups—not based on whether they really were hard workers or on their intelligence.
What is the point?
Our brains learn by trial and error. Of course there is a lot to this—a whole book, in fact. However, I think it’s worth trying to work with the way we make decisions and not against it (trying to get a label such as “smart” or “skinny”….and use willpower to get there). In other words, maybe we can stop trying to be something, and start focusing more on learning something.
Telling kids they were smart encouraged them “to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.”
I think that even though this is about learning and problem solving/decision-making, it’s probably the same thing we need to do for our own wellness and lifestyle improvements. It’s important to have our goals (For example: be a skinny person who eats all raw food, go to the gym everyday, manage stress better, etc.), but just setting the goal and wanting to be that person doesn’t get us there. We have to try, be determined to figure out the best path for ourselves. Trial and error—it isn’t just at the external everyday level, but it is working at the level of neurons. When you immerse yourself in figuring it all out, your brain is continually creating and modifying the neural paths that inform your decisions. Being wrong and having plans not work is not only ok, but it’s essential to making progress.
Be a hard worker—try again, read articles and books and inspirational stories. Make a list of reasons for improving yourself, list your goals, and then most importantly—try something, evaluate the results, and try again.