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Washington State University
CAS Connect October 2013

In Motion: Joyce Ehrlinger examines self-beliefs

Is a person’s intellectual capacity fixed or can it be improved though focused effort?

How do our beliefs about the mutability of intelligence influence our acceptance of new information and our likelihood of satisfaction and success?

Joyce Ehrlinger
Joyce Ehrlinger

These are some of the questions underpinning Assistant Professor of Psychology Joyce Ehrlinger’s studies of accuracy and error in self-insight. By examining our beliefs about intelligence, Joyce is trying to understand what are the barriers to learning that may come from inside our own heads.

This novel research, supported by a recent $1.6 million grant from the Institute for Education Sciences, “has far-reaching implications in terms of the way we educate people at all levels, and even the way people’s career trajectories develop,” said Rebecca Craft, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology.

Seeking connections across community

In the three short months since she came to WSU from Florida State University, Joyce has already begun establishing new lines of related research and collaboration with colleagues across the University. She hopes to continue building connections with high school administrators and teachers in the regional community “who are interested in new tools that can help kids learn,” she said.

"I came to WSU because I was looking for a collaborative, intellectual environment. It's clear that people in the psychology department are excited abou collaborating and the broader university values it, too. This type of environment really helps produce good science." -- Joyce Ehrlinger


This week, Pullman High School agreed to work with her to conduct research and introduce strategies proven to improve students’ math skills.

“By teaching students to approach math with a growth mindset, we can improve their enthusiasm about math and help them raise their grades and test scores,” she said. “We have tools that have been proven to improve kids’ performance on standardized tests, ultimately, just by teaching them this idea that intelligence is changeable.”

Through her post-doctoral and ongoing work with Carol Dweck at Stanford University, Joyce has found that the way students perceive their intellectual abilities—either as fixed or with growth potential—affects not only their grades but their anxiety and confidence levels, too. These self-judgments can make learning a challenge or a joy.

Shaping beliefs to shape outcomes

Independent of research on the actual determinants of intelligence, Joyce’s studies examine people’s beliefs about whether intelligence can be increased and how these beliefs shape attitudes, behaviors, and expectations.

“A belief that you can become smarter is consequential because it shapes the types of goals you set for yourself. It shapes your attitudes toward negative feedback and your willingness to attempt tasks that might be hard for you. It ultimately shapes how successful you are in learning,” she said.

To someone who believes intelligence is fixed, struggling with a task means that person inherently lacks capability. But to someone who believes intelligence is changeable, struggling is just a necessary step toward attaining knowledge.

Joyce is reaching out to other educators who can help youngsters develop “the mindset that they can become smarter. The brain is always building new connections,” she said.

Advancing theory to do good in the world

This new line of research into self-insight and learning cuts across multiple areas of Joyce’s expertise, including social cognition and motivation and achievement. It also combines both basic and applied approaches in a way that she believes “advances psychological theory while doing real good in the world.”

"As an assistant professor, Joyce has already made significant scholarly contributions to the field of social psychology." -- Rebecca Craft


Recognizing the particular obstacles faced by female and minority students in STEM disciplines, Joyce hopes her research can be applied to help improve their participation and career success.

“It’s breaking new ground to understand more of the science—the science of how the mind works, the science of how belief systems form, and how these beliefs affect behavior and outcomes,” she said.

Adventures in being wrong

An aspect of Joyce’s previous research into bias and self-confidence is cited in this year’s WSU Common Reading book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schultz. Joyce will discuss the ways we process negative feedback and the prospect of being wrong in her presentation titled “Bias Blind Spot” as part of the Common Reading Program on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at 7:00 p.m. in Todd Hall, room 130. The event is free and open to the public.

Learn more about Joyce’s research

Snapshot: Department of Psychology

The field of psychology is both science-driven and practice-oriented; the Department of Psychology offers hands-on experience in both arenas.

psych researcher attaches electrodes to cap on student's headFaculty and students explore the scientific aspects of psychology in diverse areas, such as neuroscience, sensation and perception, memory and thinking, social relationships, mood disturbances, adult/child clinical disorders, and health psychology.

Those interested in the practice of psychology engage in both clinical practicum experiences and peer teaching.

Knowledge gained through coursework and application-based experimental and clinical methods are useful tools in many careers.


Psychology faculty and instructors teach a variety of undergraduate and doctoral-level courses. Their expertise in select areas of experimental and clinical psychology further enriches classes, whether on-campus or online. Students can work closely with faculty on research projects, both in the laboratory and in the field.

Active faculty research areas include industrial and organizational psychology; behavioral neuroscience; child development; personality and social psychology; speech perception; industrial and organizational psychology; and the study of addictive behaviors.

Teaching and research are conducted on the Pullman, Vancouver, and Tri-Cities campuses, with additional research conducted in Spokane. The undergraduate degree is also available through the Global campus.

Degrees offered

  • Bachelor of Science
  • Doctor of Philosophy

Pullman Campus

Research focus areas: Psychopathology; Psychopharmacology; Aging and Dementia; Personality; Alcoholism and Addictions; Attention and Action Planning; Sleep and Cognition; Political Interaction; Self and Social Cognition; Infant Temperament


  • Johnson Tower – offices, laboratories, public clinic
  • Wegner Hall – laboratories and vivarium


  • Full time: 17
  • Part time: 4
  • Affiliated: 10

Undergraduates: 1,000+

Graduate students: 60

Vancouver Campus

Research focus areas: Neural Mechanisms of Pain; Occupational Health and Safety; Addictions; Health Psychology

Faculty: 9

Graduate students: 6

Tri-Cities Campus

Research focus areas: Personality and Affect; School Readiness of Children; Resilience and Multi-Cultural Psychology

Faculty: 4

Graduate students: 2