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?
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.
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.”
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.
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