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NYU & Stanford Conference Presentations: Essentialist and Implicit Theories of Intelligence

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Children’s Academic Achievement and its Relation to Essentialist and Implicit Theories of Intelligence

Presented at:

The NYU Research and Scholarship Showcase - April 14th 2015
NYU Steinhardt Undergraduate Research Conference - May 8th 2015
Stanford Undergraduate Psychology Conference - May 16th 2015



The term intelligence has become a buzzword that most students encounter at an early age (Heyman, 2008; Molden & Dweck, 2006). Within their social and academic environments, students begin to draw inferences about what it means to be smart and how intelligence works (Ames, 1992; Friedel, Cortina, Turner, & Midgley, 2007; Heyman, 2008; Molden & Dweck, 2006). For example, teachers and parents relay certain messages to students regarding whether intelligence is an innate, biological trait or is environmentally influenced, and whether intelligence is fixed and unchanging or malleable and developed through effort (Ames, 1992; Dweck, 1976; Friedel et al., 2007; Heyman, 2008). Studies show that students’ lay beliefs about intelligence are important, as they provide a foundation that can reliably predict students’ academic success as early as ten years of age (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007; Dweck, Chiu & Hong, 1995; Heyman & Dweck, 1998). 

Researchers typically measure lay beliefs about intelligence by assessing whether students think intelligence is a fixed trait or a malleable trait, and have found that students who think intelligence is malleable tend to also believe in their own capability to learn (i.e., have greater self-efficacy and self-confidence), are more motivated to succeed, and, therefore, achieve higher academic scores (Dweck & Leggett, 1988; Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999). However, some scholars argue that students’ reasoning about intelligence is much more complex and extends beyond beliefs about malleability (Gelman, Heyman, & Legare, 2007; Graham, 1995; Harackiewicz & Elliot, 1995). These researchers expand the current understanding of students’ beliefs about intelligence to incorporate essentialist views – that is, children’s beliefs about the innateness or biological nature of intelligence – and propose that essentialist beliefs might play a role in the way students think about the malleability of intelligence, thereby potentially influencing academic achievement, as well (Gelman et al., 2007; Gotfried, Gelman, & Schulz, 1999; Haslam, Bastian, & Bissett, 2004; Haslam, Bastian, Bain, & Kashima, 2006; Keller, 2005).

If essentialist beliefs about intelligence can be examined and measured, a more nuanced understanding of children’s lay theories might be developed and strategies for promoting adaptive mindsets and academic success can be explored. Thus, this study utilized a new quantitative essentialism measure which measures children’s beliefs about how inborn, brain-based, stable, malleable and environmentally influenced intelligence may be, to examine the relation between essentialist beliefs and academic achievement. Three research questions guided the study: (1) Is essentialism a unified construct that can be captured through quantitative methodologies? (2) To what extent are children’s essentialist beliefs and implicit theories of intelligence related? (3) How do essentialist beliefs uniquely relate to children’s academic achievement? Fifth grade was specifically targeted since studies show lay beliefs about intelligence become more cohesive and reliably predict outcomes around the age of ten (Gelman et al., 2007; Heyman & Dweck, 1998). By examining students’ essentialist beliefs, the goal of this study was to gain insight into children’s reasoning about intelligence, beyond malleability, which is a critical first step in fostering mindsets that are more adaptive to academic success.