The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.
"These are very persuasive findings," says Columbia's Dr. Geraldine Downey, a specialist in children's sensitivity to rejection. "They show how you can take a specific theory and develop a curriculum that works." Downey's comment is typical of what other scholars in the field are saying. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard social psychologist who is an expert in stereotyping, told me, "Carol Dweck is a flat-out genius. I hope the work is taken seriously. It scares people when they see these results."
Since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self- esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects.
By 1984, the California legislature had created an official self-esteem task force, believing that improving citizens' self-esteem would do everything from lower dependence on welfare to decrease teen pregnancy. Such arguments turned self-esteem into an unstoppable train, particularly when it came to children. Anything potentially damaging to kids' self-esteem was axed.
Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise. (There's even a school district in Massachusetts that has kids in gym class "jumping rope" without a rope— lest they suffer the embarrassment of tripping.)
Dweck and Blackwell's work is part of a larger academic challenge to one of the self-esteem movement's key tenets: that praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together. From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything—from sex to career advancement. But the results were often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 the Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature. His team concluded that self-esteem research was polluted with flawed science. Most of those 15,000 studies asked people to rate their self-esteem and then asked them to rate their own intelligence, career success, relationship skills, etc. These self-reports were extremely unreliable, since people with high self-esteem have an inflated perception of their abilities. Only 200 of the studies employed a scientifically-sound way to measure self-esteem and its outcomes.
After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn't improve grades or career achievement. It didn't even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.)