Jack Uldrich
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Unlearning Intelligence or Why You Shouldn’t Tell Your Kid He’s Smart

Posted in Anti-Library, Books, Business, Creativity, Culture, Education, General, Human Resources, Innovation, Parenting, Psychology, Science, Unlearn Strategy

Effort_whosaidcant_lg Like many of you, the bookshelf by my bed is stacked with more books than I can possibly read. As a result, I often find myself reading two or three books concurrently. One of the beauties of this approach is that you can stumble upon serendipitous insights.

One such insight just occurred last night. I first read some of the "Thinking Course" by Edward de Bono. In the book he argues that intelligence is different from thinking. In fact, de Bono even argues that "intelligence" can be detrimental to thinking when intelligence is used to defend an erroneous point of view. He calls this the "intelligence trap" and writes "[Intelligent people can so ably defend their point of view that actual exploration of the matter seems a waste of time." (See "Unlearning Land Bridges: A Lesson for Scientists" for a concrete example of this idea.)

Next, I began reading Jonah Lehrer's new book, "How We Decide." In an early chapter he highlights the extraordinary work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford who has spent her career demonstrating that one of the crucial ingredients of a successful education is the ability to learn from mistakes. (It is also an invaluable life lesson as I explained last week in this piece, "Unlearning Danger for the Sake of Your Child.")

Alas, most teachers — and many parents — teach the exact opposite of this very important lesson. These well-intentioned individuals instead praise kids for "being smart" when what they should be doing instead is praising kids for their effort.

In one experiment, Dweck gave 400 kids a test. Afterward, she praised half for being intelligent. ("You must be really smart.") The second half were praised for their effort. Next, she offered both groups a choice between two follow-up tests. One test was easy and the second was more difficult. Surprisingly, 90% who were praised for their effort went for the more difficult test while a majority of the "smart" kids went for the easy test because they feared failure.

The results don't end there, however. Many of the kids who were praised for effort actually enjoyed the more difficult test and were more interested in learning from their mistakes. While those who were at first praised for their intelligence were more easily discouraged when they didn't do as well and were confronted with the reality that they were no longer as "smart" or intelligent.

Both lessons highlight the fact that we may want to unlearn how we view intelligence. Intelligence used in defense of a bad idea is not intelligent. Nor is it wise to praise people for their "intelligence" if that praise has the counter-intuitive affect of encouraging them to become less intelligent.

4 thoughts on “Unlearning Intelligence or Why You Shouldn’t Tell Your Kid He’s Smart”

  1. Dr. Uldrich,
    Thanks for your blog post. Building on it, Dr. Dweck’s research has all sorts of practical relevance for the way we interact with the kids in our lives, and also in how we interact with one another. She really inspires us to rethink our approach, even “unlearn” some of our bad habits. If you or your readers are interested in learning more about Dr. Dweck’s research, she’s written a great book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in which she details the study you mention with middle schoolers, and outlines what she calls the growth mindset that enables us to challenge ourselves and learn from our mistakes. She’s also put all of this incredible research to work in an online program for young teens that teaches them about their brains, how they can make them stronger and how to develop a growth mindset. More information about the program can be found at http://www.brainology.us.

  2. kamekish says:

    Dear Chief Unlearning Officer, I am fond of your article and analysis. They are great and I hope that I shall get some time in this life to meet you for many reasons.
    I am also a follower and reader of Edward deBono and his lateral thinking. It is correct that Intelligence can be fatal if used in wrong direction. Osama is a nice example. Who has not only made his life hell but encouraging many Muslim youths to follow wrong trap.
    And I think that you are right to advise unlearn intelligence. Besides the logic what you gave, I feel that today intelligence has no meaning because, you still need opportunities, sincere efforts, perservarance and so on to succeed.
    Keep telling world to unlearn… Thanks..

  3. Jack Uldrich says:

    Thanks for your note. I follow your work as well and I, too, hope we can meet some day. In the meantime, though, I look forward to unlearning together via electronic means!

  4. Jack Uldrich says:

    Dear Brainology Team:
    I appreciate the notice of Dr. Dweck’s new book. I look forward to reading it.

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