Why do people react so differently? Let’s talk about mindset

I am sure that you have noticed how different people react differently to you, even when you genuinely think that you have behaved exactly the same towards two different individuals. It may have been reactions in a meeting, or it may have been in casual conversation, but have you ever noticed how there is a range of reaction from people and how some people will behave quite predictably? For example, there may be that one colleague that always seems to object to anything you say, the one that tends to procrastinate because they worry about getting it wrong, or the one that always wants to change things…

Recent research has shown that people often call on what is called ‘implicit’ theories about personality when they are choosing how to react to others. You can think of these theories as CORE BELIEFS that dictate how an individual reacts in a whole host of situations.

These core beliefs predict and create distinct and contrasting patterns of how people see themselves and the world. They are the foundation for how people explain to themselves what is going on around them.

The need for prediction and control

Everybody has a high need for being able to control and predict what goes on – both within themselves and outside in their environment. Unpredictability is uncomfortable and is a source of worry and even anxiety, so being able to predict and even better control what goes on, is a key driver in everyone. The core beliefs dictate HOW we choose to predict and control ourselves and everything else, and because the beliefs in themselves are a way to control things, we are often heavily invested in maintaining them. Essentially, they are the platform for how we make sense of the world and so anything that questions them, can feel like a threat.

This is a particular challenge, because some of these core beliefs are not necessarily true – they are a product of millennia of history and culture that science has proven wrong – but since culture is difficult to change, we are still taught to believe things that are not true. A prime example is that society used to think that the brain was a static organ and that whatever capacity you had when you were born, was what you were doomed to live with for the rest of your life. As MRI scanners and neuroscience developed, it became clear that the brain is probably the MOST dynamic organ in the body – constantly changing and evolving depending on what you focus on. What this means is that anything is possible, provided you put enough time and effort into it and get the right instruction and coaching to help you hone your skills. Yet society constantly focuses on ‘talented’ individuals as if someone comes out of the womb with all sort of skills magically present – despite clear evidence that this is not how it works.

Because core beliefs are so pervasive in our lives and because they are very much part of our foundation, people can struggle with changing them even when they are being given facts that prove that they are on the wrong track. Typically, they may focus on maintaining their core beliefs to the point of distorting the information they receive by selecting what they pay attention to and quickly stopping any information that goes contrary to what they believe. Having your beliefs challenged is uncomfortable. And most people resist that discomfort very actively.

Key core beliefs: Mindsets

There are two core beliefs that are major drivers of how people choose to predict and control themselves and their environment: Entity and Incremental mindsets.

An entity mindset is characterised by the assumption that most things about a person is fixed and cannot be changed, including personality, intelligence and basic ability within different areas. You can say that the mindset assumes: ‘Everyone is a certain kind of person, and there is not much that can be done to really change that’.

An incremental or malleable mindset is characterised by the assumption that most things about a person can change. ‘Anyone can change even their most basic qualities’. These two mindsets are obviously opposite ends of a spectrum, and it is important to note that an individual may sit anywhere in between and that they may also hold different mindsets for different situations.

The entity and incremental perspectives have been shown to influence how we think, how we feel, how motivated we are and how we behave across a wide range of academic, social and moral domains. They dictate how we see another individual and how we interpret what they do and say.

How do we behave?

As a rule, when we fall into an entity mindset we tend to have more black and white thinking. We tend to assume that a person that has behaved a certain way once, will carry on doing so, rather than being capable of learning and changing what they do. We may also assume that if something is difficult for us (as is everything when we first learn), then we will not be able to learn it, and so we may stop trying to avoid the risk of failure. When we are in an entity mindset, we are more prone to stereotyping – e.g. assuming certain characteristics in people based on race, gender, nationality, shoe size, choice of lunch or anything else that we have a pre-conception of. When I grew up, it was always ‘drivers with a soft hat’ that according to my father, did not know what they were doing. These days, I often hear negative comments about BMW drivers – as if the choice of car was a predictor of personality and style of driving (it’s not, in case you were wondering..). From a management perspective we may be quick to put people in boxes (‘Promising’, ‘Difficult’, ‘Hopeless’..), and it has been shown that even when we are shown clear evidence that someone does not belong in that box, we struggle with changing our minds.

With an incremental mindset we have a more dynamic understanding of what is going on around us. We are aware that an individual’s behaviour may change dramatically in different situations or over time and we recognise that learning is a process that takes time and requires effort in order to succeed. We tend to actively avoid stereotyping (no, it is only because someone talked about BMW’s that we noticed the driver – that Skoda is much worse!) and instead focus on individual differences. From a management perspective, we assign better intentions to our direct reports and we are willing to spend more time coaching and training them, because we firmly believe that they can change and improve. We are also more focused on changing and improving things, and may push for change, even when change is not necessary.

What’s next?

Research has found that people tend to mostly sit in one or the other mindset. I have found in my work that while that may be true, it is absolutely possible for people to proactively change their mindset in specific situations to help them think better, feel better and behave differently. The focus, from my point of view, is not to push everyone into always having an incremental mindset, despite the clear evidence that it provides significant benefits – the focus is about recognising whenever we fall into an entity mindset and having the tools to switch to an incremental one instead – because only then do we have a choice and only then do we have true control.