Psychologist Carol Dweck is known for her work on implicit theories of intelligence, which describe how an individual characterizes their own intelligence and learning ability. According to her work, people evaluate their own intelligence as either entity-based, with a fixed level of intelligence, or incremental and growth-based.  Which one you believe is likely based on how your parents, teachers, and coaches treated you as a child. The good news is your brain is adaptable and your theory about yourself can change. 

Consider how much you agree or disagree with these statements: 

  1. “You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can’t really do much to change it.” 
  2. “No matter who you are, you can significantly change your intelligence level.” 
  3. “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence.” 
  4. “You can change even your basic intelligence level considerably.”

An “Entity Theorist” will believe that intelligence is a fixed-quantity in a person and that it cannot be changed. Thus, you can learn new things as long as they are within the parameters of your talent or intelligence. Entity theorists will often blame performance failures on their abilities (or lack thereof), and react helplessly in negative outcomes. Being an entity-theorist is typically the result of being motivated by outcome over effort—achieving good grades, winning a competition, performing well on an exam, for example. 

An “Incremental Theorist,” on the other hand, believes that their intelligence is not a fixed-value and that it can be improved little by little through effort. Consider the difference between “Good job, you are very smart!” and, “Good job, your hard work paid off!” Incremental Theorists will blame negative outcomes on a lack of effort or strategy and likely improve those conditions through hard work. This type of person often frames failures as lessons learned. 

Our performance (intelligence, ability, or talent) is malleable—not a fixed-quantity. Dr. Dweck’s research shows that an entity-theorist will often avoid challenges, give up easily, feel threatened by the success of others, and ignore useful criticism. This doesn’t mean we should take the effort-based approach to an extreme and give everyone a participation trophy—but in teaching, coaching, and even parenting, we should consider that our words have impact. Outcomes matter, but only to the degree they help us get better. Are you an entity-theorist, or incremental-learner? For more information, read this article. There’s a great book that discusses this concept called The Art of Learning, by Joshua Waitzken.

Mike Doyle

Mike Doyle


Mike is a full-time police officer and tactical medic. He currently works as a K9 handler, SWAT team member, and Police Trainer. Mike started Tactical Tangents as part of his fundamental purpose to save lives. His goal is to enhance the survival of police officers and concerned citizens by helping them become better, smarter, faster, and more efficient. His opinions are for informational purposes only and do not reflect those of his employer or any other government agency.



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