Implicit Theories of Intelligence and Personality

In this post I will briefly discuss the findings of two studies that explore how beliefs about the nature of intelligence and personality can influence people’s attitudes, behaviors, and political positions.

Many people have their own lay theories about the nature of intelligence. Psychologists have identified two dimensions along which people’s beliefs about intelligence vary. The first dimensions is the degree to which intelligence is a fixed trait. The incremental theory states that intelligence is malleable trait that care vary over time while an entity theory states that intelligence is more or less a fixed trait that cannot be changed. The second dimension how the potential for high intelligence is distributed throughout society. The universal theory states that nearly everyone has the potential to become highly intelligent while the nonuniversal theory states only some people have the potential to become highly intelligent.

Although these two dimensions are similar research has shown that they are only somewhat correlated with each other. That is to say that people who hold an entity theory of intelligence are more likely to also hold a nonuniversal theory. What this means is that the two are distinct beliefs about the nature of intelligence that can vary independently. So it is possible to believe that not everyone has the possibility to become highly intelligent, but nevertheless, intelligence is a malleable trait.

Given the nature of these different lay theories it is not very surprising that implicit theories of intelligence have been shown to influence people’s support of redistributive policies. A study published in the journal Interpersonal Relations and Group Process had participants exposed to material suggesting that only some people had the ability to become highly intelligent – the nonuniversal condition – or that everyone had the ability to become highly intelligent – the universal condition [1]. Researchers found that those exposed to the universal condition rather than the nonuniversal condition were more likely to support redistributive educational policies that benefited the poor at the expense of the wealthy. Exposure to the universal condition also caused participants to be more likely to support race-based affirmative action policies in education, private business, and government for a fictional island with a minority ethnic group made to resemble modern African Americans.

Furthermore, findings from the study of implicit theories of personality demonstrate that beliefs about the nature of personality influence how people react when confronted with statement about race and affirmative action. One study published in the journal Psychological Science found that participants who endorsed a more incremental view of personality – that is, the belief that a person’s personality is malleable – were much more likely to confront others who expressed negative views of race-based affirmative action in an experimental instant messaging session [2]. Researchers also used a fake Psychology Today article to manipulate the participants beliefs about the entitative or incremental nature of personality and found that those exposed to the incremental article were more likely to state that they would confront someone espousing negative views of race-based affirmative action than participants exposed to the entitative article.


The major limitation of these two studies is that the participants were all university students, which makes it difficult to apply these findings to the general population. But despite this limitation the results suggest that influencing people to adopt a more hereditarian position on intelligence and personality causes them to be less supportive of egalitarian policies such as race-based affirmative action.


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