New research has finally begun to shed light on the complexity of mental maps. Social psychologists Joyce Ehrlinger, Ainsley Mitchum, and Carol Dweck thought that the answer might lie in the implicit beliefs that overconfident people hold about the malleability of the brain and inherent ability. Decades of research by Dweck and others has shown that some people see personality and intelligence as relatively “fixed” (i.e., you are born a math whiz, leader etc. and there isn’t much you can do about it), while other people believe your intelligence, abilities and brain functions are changeable. With the brain being malleable, we are capable through learning and deliberative practice of changing and developing with effort and through experiences new wiring for our brains. These beliefs have profound consequences for how we live and see ourselves and others and how we learn (or don’t). For instance, people with a fixed mindset tend to be much more interested in proving or showing that they are smart, rather than pursuing opportunities to grow and get smarter.
Ehrlinger and her colleagues theorized that overconfidence might be another overlooked aspect of fixed mindset–thinking. In their studies, students solved a set of problems that varied in difficulty. Before learning their score, students were asked to guess how well they had done. Fixed mindset students were indeed overconfident — their estimates were more than 25% higher than their actual scores. Those students who believed their abilities to be malleable (i.e., “growth mindset”) overestimated their performance by only 5%. It seems that if you believe your abilities are fixed, that belief motivates you to inflate your abilities and skills.
To figure out why this overestimation of ability persists, however, Ehrlinger and her team had to dig a bit deeper. When they looked at how the students tackled the test, they realized that the fixed mindset students had spent more time working on the easier problems and less time on the harder ones. In other words, they’d selectively attended to the problems that reinforced their overconfidence — confirming their high opinion of themselves and ignoring everything else as much as possible. False beliefs and pride don’t just come before a fall; pride is what trips you in the first place.