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Applying ‘growth mindset’ techniques to a playground virtue

Parents often tell kids to “be nice,” hoping this will encourage kind behavior. But would be it more effective to treat kindness not as an inherent trait — being a “nice person” — but as a quality that can be strengthened through effort and practice? Thanks to a new two-year study funded by the John Templeton Foundation and led by Arber Tasimi and Carol Dweck of Stanford University, several potential mechanisms for strengthening kindness may soon be better understood. Through a series of four experiments, the project co-leaders hope to learn how to promote kindness in children.

A person’s kindness, according to Tasimi and Dweck, may be developed over time by rewarding actions instead of people, a technique used in growth mindset research called “process praise.” They hypothesize that choosing to commend someone for “doing a nice thing” (process praise) as opposed to “being a nice person” (person praise) will result in kinder behavior because it helps people view setbacks as challenges rather than inherent limitations. Instead of failure being regarded as a personal flaw, the theory goes, it becomes a part of the process and something that can be improved upon. Such an approach builds upon the pioneering research of Dweck, showing that having a “growth mindset,” or a belief that intelligence and other qualities are malleable, can help students perform better in school.

To test this hypothesis, Tasimi and Dweck have designed a series of four experiments that involve assisting a researcher in small tasks, such as picking up blocks and sharing prizes with other people. They aim to observe whether different types of praise – person, process, or none – change a child’s altruistic motivations, beliefs about kindness as a malleable trait, and whether they think they can always be nice in the future.

“Human nature is not who we are inherently, but rather, who we are capable of becoming,” say Tasimi and Dweck. The team will extend these findings to future studies to explore how a child’s perceptions affect their tolerance of others. They anticipate their results will be useful to researchers, educators, and parents seeking to cultivate this virtue in children and will present the experiments’ outcomes in conferences, workshops, and peer-reviewed journals.

Still curious?

Learn more about Carol Dweck and Arber Tasimi’s research on growth mindset and its applications.