Intelligence mindset, which denotes individual beliefs about whether intelligence is fixed versus malleable, shapes academic success, but the neural mechanisms underlying mindset-related differences in learning are unknown. Here, we probe the effects of individual differences in mindset on neural responses to negative feedback after a competence threat manipulation. We hypothesized that when their competence was threatened, participants with fixed mindsets would interpret further negative feedback as punishing. After receiving either no score or a competence-threatening IQ score, participants performed a learning task with feedback that emphasized either the evaluative or informational weight of negative feedback. Participants who experienced the competence threat had the strongest predictive relationships between mindset, performance, and caudate activation. The competence threat may have compounded the subjective punishment of negative feedback for fixed mindsets relative to growth mindsets, causing poorer learning from negative feedback in the evaluative context and inflexible striatal responses to negative feedback across feedback contexts.
Self-belief has been found to have a powerful effect on academic success. One influential line of research has focused on differences in academic achievement and motivation due to intelligence mindset, which refers to individual beliefs about whether intelligence is malleable or fixed (Dweck, Mangels, Good, Dai, & Sternberg, 2004; Dweck, 2006). Those who believe that intelligence is malleable have "growth mindsets" and are referred to as incremental theorists, while those who believe that intelligence is fixed have "fixed mindsets" and are referred to as entity theorists. Holding a fixed mindset can impede goal pursuit and impair test performance (Cury, Da Fonseca, Zahn, & Elliot, 2008), especially in the presence of a competence threat (e.g., an intelligence test). Such threats can strengthen the relationship between goal pursuit and intelligence mindset (Burnette, O’Boyle, VanEpps, Pollack, & Finkel, 2013). For entity theorists, who believe that their performance reflects their abilities in a fixed and unchangeable way, the threat induced by an intelligence test may enhance the threat carried by negative feedback and thus the subjective sense of punishment that it engenders. Whether this interaction between competence threat and intelligence mindset is reflected in neural learning signals remains unknown. Several studies have examined the behavioral and neural correlates of intelligence mindset (Mangels, Butterfield, Lamb, Good, & Dweck, 2006; Moser, Schroder, Heeter, Moran, & Lee, 2011; Myers, Wang, Black, Bugescu, & Hoeft, 2016; Schroder, Moran, Donnellan, & Moser, 2014, 2017). Entity theorists, relative to incremental theorists, demonstrate a stronger alerting response to negative performance evaluative feedback (Mangels et al., 2006) and a reduced attentional allocation to post-error adjustments (Moser et al., 2011; Schroder et al., 2014, 2017). In contrast, incremental theorists have greater co-activation at rest between learning related regions (e.g., the striatum) and other executive function regions (Myers et al., 2016), presumably to support their flexible learning capacity. To date, however, no studies have examined task-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) activation related to intelligence mindset or the interaction between intelligence mindset and competence threat. In educational settings, students are consistently presented with standardized tests that challenge their competence.