Can Reading One Article Change Your Life?

by Site Author

A dozen high school students filed into their school’s computer lab. They each sat down at a computer and logged into a web site. Forty-five minutes later, they logged off and went back to class.

After a few months, a team of researchers pulled the students’ transcripts. They crunched the numbers and proved something that seems—at least to me—impossible. Those 45 minutes changed the students’ lives. The students improved their grade point averages by 6.4 percentage points.

The web site had randomized students to study one of two articles. Some students, the control group, were assigned a neutral article about how the brain works. Other students, the treatment group, were assigned an article that emphasized the brain’s ability to adapt and rewire itself. The article argued that, based on the evidence, intelligence isn’t fixed and persistent effort can change the brain.

That second article was meant to give the students a “growth mindset,” a view that talent matters much less than persistent hard work. The article didn’t outright tell the students to believe in a growth mindset, instead it described the neuroscience in favor of that view.

That was it—students were randomized to one of two articles and studied the article for 45 minutes. There was no other secret sauce, no pill, no pep talk. And yet the intervention had a statistically significant effect on the lowest-achieving students’ grades.

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I’m skeptical that one article can have this much of an effect. I’d like to see a replication or two. The project’s senior researcher, Carol Dweck, has really pushed the “growth mindset” idea, and one should always be suspicious when researchers’ findings confirm their prior views.

That said, the researchers here are top notch, the article was published in a good psychology journal, and the intervention was randomized. The results are not so easy to dismiss.