My former student David Yeager and I have been very concerned about violence in school. The problem in high school gets worse. People are shifting social groups; social labels are flying around, and kids are really stressed. If you add to this the common belief that  people can’t change—that everyone is fixed in their roles and that you are always going to be picked on or always going to be a loser— then the conflagrations begin. 

In other words, we realized that students’ beliefs play an important role in this.  In our study, we saw that many students believe that people are just fixed. They believe that if you are a bully you’ll always be a bully and if you are a victim you’ll always be a victim. When these students are picked on, they feel like losers, ashamed of themselves, and they desire violent retaliation.

David Yeager created a training program that taught students a growth mindset, the idea that people’s behavior is due to thoughts and feelings that can be changed. Then we brought students into a situation where they were excluded and they had the opportunity to retaliate against the excluder. We showed that kids who have the growth mindset intervention were 40% less likely to retaliate and 2-3 times as likely to engage in pro-social behavior than students who did not receive the training. Furthermore, their teachers reported much improved conduct in the classroom, students’ attendance at school was better, and their suspensions were way down.

When we addressed the beliefs the students had, the students began to realize that people can have all kinds of motivation. For the most part, people are not good or bad; they might just be insecure, have incorrect beliefs, or have some unmet needs, but those can be changed. Students with a growth mindset understand that no one is fixed and that everyone has the potential for change and so their response is much more adaptive; they react to exclusion, bullying and aggression with much less retaliation.

Interestingly enough, when we just taught students coping skills, without the growth mindset training, we found that it didn’t help them deal with aggression. They retaliated just as much, they felt just as bad, and they showed no improvement in conduct in the classroom. They did report fewer depressive symptoms but it didn’t help them cope socially. However, changing their beliefs, their mindsets, about whether people can change, had a positive effect across the board.

We are very excited about these findings and we are hoping to refine these interventions so that we can see longer term and more widespread change.