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).
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.
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.
- 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.
- Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
- Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256–273.
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- 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.
- 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.