Implicit and Self-Theory of Ability

Implicit or self-theories of ability refer to individuals’  views  on  the  stability  and  changeability  of personal  attributes.  Two  lay  theories  are  argued to exist: an entity theory, whereby individuals consider  qualities  and  attributes  of  the  self  or  others to be fixed and trait like, and an incremental theory,  whereby  qualities  and  attributes  are  thought to be dynamic and changeable, and which can be developed. People can thus be described as entity or incremental theorists in relation to their beliefs about  specific  human  qualities.  In  this  entry,  the pioneering  work  of  Carol  Dweck  in  the  domain of  intelligence  is  discussed.  This  body  of  work essentially  examines  how  the  two  sets  of  beliefs lead  to  the  adoption  of  different  goals,  which  in turn,  result  in  different  outcomes  in  educational settings. This section will be followed by a presentation of key issues and empirical findings in sport and school physical education, demonstrating the theoretical  and  practical  relevance  of  this  area  of research in sport and exercise psychology.

Research in the Education Domain: Beliefs About Intelligence

Interested   in   why   children   of   similar   ability respond to challenging tasks and achievement setbacks  in  a  very  different  manner,  Carol  Dweck proposed  that  a  mastery  response  (characterized by  responding  to  challenge  and  setbacks  with increased  effort  and  determination  to  succeed) is  underpinned  by  the  pursuit  of  learning  goals, which  themselves  are  undergirded  by  the  belief that  intelligence  can  be  improved.  In  contrast, the  helpless  response  (characterized  by  responding to challenge and setbacks with negative affect and  withdrawal  from  the  task  at  hand)  is  underpinned by the pursuit of performance goals, which themselves  are  undergirded  by  the  belief  that one’s  level  of  intelligence  is  fixed.  Learning  goals refer  to  striving  to  develop  competence  in  a  self-referenced  fashion  whereas  performance  goals refer to striving to prove one’s competence to others.  Thus,  beliefs  and  goals  combine  to  create  a

meaning system or personal framework in achievement  settings  such  as  education.  Adopting  an incremental view of intelligence sets in motion an adaptive  (mastery)  response  in  which  children, irrespective  of  actual  ability,  try  hard,  value  the giving  of  effort,  and  are  more  likely  to  achieve their  potential.  On  the  other  hand,  adopting  an entity view of intelligence sets in motion an adaptive response only when children are confident in their ability. When doubts about competence exist, a  maladaptive  (helpless)  response  is  predicted, as  children  are  unlikely  to  believe  in  their  ability to  demonstrate  normative  competence,  and  thus reveal  to  others  their  lack  of  (fixed)  intelligence. It is thought that individuals do not possess a generalized  cognitive  style;  instead,  domain-specific frameworks  exist  within  the  person.  This  idea has  led  researchers  to  consider  incremental  and entity  perspectives  in  the  physical  domain  and, in  particular,  the  notion  of  implicit  beliefs  about athletic ability.

Research in the Physical Domain: Beliefs About Athletic Ability

Initial research in the area of implicit beliefs in the physical domain has centered on youth sport and school PE. Essentially, researchers were interested in  whether  the  two  theories  could  be  identified with  reference  to  athletic  ability.  Thus,  the  concept of intelligence was substituted with physical competence in sport and PE activities. In order to discover  whether  processes  of  goal  adoption  and resultant  outcomes  were  evident  in  the  manner found  in  the  classroom  setting,  it  was  necessary to devise a reliable measure of self-theories of athletic ability. Early efforts in this regard identified three components underpinning both incremental and  entity  theories.  In  relation  to  the  incremental  view,  children  and  adolescents  responded  to items tapping learning, improvement, and specific aspects of athletic ability; in relation to the entity view,  participants  responded  to  items  assessing gift, stable, and general aspects of athletic ability. Subsequent  research  resulted  in  the  subscales  of general  and  specific  components  of  ability  being dropped. The Conception of the Nature of Athletic Ability   Questionnaire–Version   2   (CNAAQ-2) conceptualizes  and  measures  the  two  theories  as higher-order  constructs  underpinned  by  notions that  ability  in  PE  and  sport  can  be  learned  and improved upon through hard work (incremental),and  by  notions  that  ability  is  a  genetic  gift  and immutable (entity). Work in the physical domain implicitly adopts the perspective that individuals’ self-systems are domain-specific and not uniform across  broad  life  domains  (e.g.,  relationships, morality, stereotyping).

Correlational Research

Findings from correlational research with young people  in  sport  and  PE  have  generally  supported the theoretical and empirical work of Dweck and colleagues in education. First, psychometric work with  the  CNAAQ-2  has  supported  the  existence of  the  two  implicit  theories.  Second,  these  theories have been linked with achievement goals and important  outcomes.  More  specifically,  an  entity belief  has  been  shown  to  positively  predict  amotivation  in  PE  and  sport  (a  maladaptive  form  of motivation  characterized  by  a  lack  of  purposeful intent and behavior—e.g., “I don’t know why I’m doing this”). In contrast, an incremental belief has been  shown  to  positively  predict  enjoyment.  In both  cases,  these  effects  were  partially  mediated by  performance  and  learning  goals  respectively. Work has also provided evidence of reliable links with  affective  responses,  self-handicapping,  and self-regulated learning in PE classes. For example, among Norwegian PE students, an entity conception of ability has been associated with increased anxiety  and  reduced  satisfaction,  regardless  of perceived competence. In the same study, an incremental  conception  of  ability  predicted  increased feelings of satisfaction among students.

Qualitative Research

In  addition  to  correlational  research  with  the CNAAQ-2,  investigators  in  this  area  have  undertaken qualitative forms of inquiry both to substantiate  prior  findings  in  regard  to  links  with  goals and  outcomes  but  importantly  to  identify  the socialization  factors  responsible  for  the  development  of  theories  within  individuals.  One  study with  low  handicap  golfers  revealed  the  role  of the  coach  in  facilitating  the  view  of  golf  ability as acquirable, the importance of high-profile role models  such  as  Tiger  Woods,  learning  about  the game, and player’s own practice and development. Peers  were  viewed  as  potentially  endorsing  either belief. Exposure to talented and dedicated golfers helped  to  formulate  the  view  that  natural  talent could  be  built  upon.  Unexpected  development  in golf ability, as well as the notion that players with little all-round sporting ability could improve their golf,  also  underpinned  the  theme  of  developing natural  attributes.  Moreover,  this  study  explored the idea of a ceiling effect (an upper limit at which the  individual  believes  further  improvement  is not  possible)  and  the  potential  specificity  of  golf beliefs  (e.g.,  some  aspects  or  components  of  the game may be seen as more fixed than others).

A  second  interview-based  investigation  has examined elite (Olympic standard) track and field athletes,  specifically  with  respect  to  sprinters  and throwers. As with golfers, the socialization of athletes’  beliefs  is  complex,  illustrating  the  value  of conducting both quantitative and qualitative methods of inquiry in this area. In accordance with previous  findings,  athletes  endorsed  the  importance of key social agents including family members and coaches in shaping beliefs. Interestingly, these studies  have  also  identified  psychological  attributes, such as confidence and motivation, as components of achievement that are subject to entity and incremental perspectives.

One  area  of  interest  in  sport,  as  in  education, is  how  individuals  respond  to  setbacks  and  the role  played  by  implicit  theories  of  ability  in  formulating a response. Setbacks have been found to revolve around injury, poor performance, and relationships. An incremental theory may help to buffer against setbacks and lead to a more optimistic view of the future—that is, that injury can be overcome, that performance can improved upon, that relationship issues can be resolved. However, more research is necessary to validate these notions.

Longitudinal Research: Are Young People’s Implicit Theories Stable?

There  has  been  some  interest  in  whether  and how implicit theories of athletic ability change as children transfer to secondary school. This work, although  limited,  has  shown  that  both  beliefs decline  across  the  transition.  Similar  work  has found  evidence  for  a  decline  in  athletic  ability beliefs  among  older  secondary  school  students. More  longitudinal  work  is  required—both  to illuminate  the  direction  and  extent  of  changes  in implicit beliefs that occur and to link these changes with  important  outcomes  (e.g.,  goals,  behavior) along with the factors that might explain instability  in  beliefs.  One  promising  line  of  inquiry  is  to examine  possible  change  in  motivational  climate(the extent to which environmental cues in school PE classes or sports teams endorse either learning or performance goals) as a predictor of instability in incremental and entity theories.

Experimental Research: Can Ability Beliefs in Sport and Exercise Be Changed?

From   an   applied   perspective,   it   is   vitally important to investigate whether implicit theories themselves  can  be  changed—that  is,  whether  an incremental  belief  can  be  fostered  in  individuals. Studies  have  shown  that  school  and  college  students’ beliefs about athletic ability can be altered, at least temporarily. In experimental studies, beliefs are  typically  manipulated  through  participants reading  a  passage  that  espouses  either  an  entity or incremental view of the ability concerned, such as  golf  putting  ability  or  another  novel  exercise task. After conducting a manipulation check, links with cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes are  examined.  For  example,  attributions  to  ability following failure have been found to be higher among school students exposed to an entity theory manipulation  than  students  exposed  to  the  incremental condition. Researchers need to investigate alternative  means  of  manipulating  beliefs  using video  and  Internet  sources,  as  well  as  conduct longer-term  interventions  with  PE  classes,  sports teams,  and  exercise  groups.  Research  with  adults in  this  regard  is  sorely  lacking.  Changing  adults’ perspectives  on  ability  may  prove  more  challenging compared with young people.


This  entry  has  sought  to  discuss  the  concept  of implicit  or  self-theories  of  ability  in  the  physical  domain.  Building  on  original  research  in  the education  domain,  it  has  been  shown  that  incremental  and  entity  perspectives  of  athletic  ability can  be  identified  and  have  important  links  with achievement-relevant outcomes. In addition, work in  physical  settings  using  multiple  methods  has sought  to  identify  the  antecedents  of  the  beliefs, the role played by beliefs in dealing with setbacks or  adversity,  temporal  characteristics  of  beliefs among  young  people,  and  the  susceptibility  of beliefs to experimental manipulation. More work in this area is warranted, not least because of the applied implications for coaches, exercise instructors,  teachers,  and,  indeed,  parents.  Evidence  to date  suggests  that  identifying  key  socialization influences, and in particular, finding ways to foster and cement incremental views of ability, could have  positive  consequences  for  motivation  and behavior in the physical domain.



  1. Biddle, S. J. H., Wang, C. K. J., Chatzisarantis, N. L. D.,& Spray, C. M. (2003). Motivation for physical activity in young people: Entity and incremental beliefs about athletic ability. Journal of Sports Sciences, 21, 973–989.
  2. Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
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  5. Slater, M. J., Spray, C. M., & Smith, B. M. (2012). “You’re only as good as your weakest link”: Implicit theories of golf ability. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 280–290.
  6. Spray, C. M., Wang, C. K. J., Biddle, S. J. H., Chatzisarantis, N. L. D., & Warburton, V. E. (2006). An experimental test of self-theories of ability in youth sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7, 255–267.

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