You might imagine that where you stand on the nature-nurture debate is purely academic. You would be very wrong. Simply holding the belief that genes largely or wholly determine you or your children can be toxic. For instance, if you suffer a mental illness, believing it's down to genes means you are less likely to recover, probably because you feel there's nothing you can do about it. Likewise, if you are a parent and you believe that what your nipper is like is basically due to nature, you are significantly more likely to maltreat them, up to and including abuse.

Studies have extended these findings into the realm of how your child views its own capacity. Secondary pupils who take a malleable view of their abilities get significantly higher grades than ones who believe they are fixed. When samples of teens and undergraduates are taught to think of themselves as being malleable rather than fixed, they get significantly better grades as a result of the tuition.

Cue two studies exploring how that works. The first looked at more than 300 13-year-olds, following them over a two-year period. They were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with statements such as "You have a certain amount of intelligence and you really can't do much to change it" or "You can always greatly change how intelligent you are." Sure enough, over the two years of study, children who subscribed to malleable beliefs steadily improved in their maths performance. The malleable were more successful than the fixed because they liked being made to think, they redoubled their efforts if they were not succeeding and did not feel helpless. But which came first: the try-hard motive or the malleable belief?

In a further study, 91 13-year-olds, mostly from low-income homes and doing badly at maths, were followed over a year. Half of them were given four lessons in malleability, the others were taught about other matters during those hours.

As before, the intervention group became more likely to subscribe to malleable beliefs as a result of the teaching, and the average maths score of that group rose, whereas the control group continued to do badly. The greatest improvement was found in the children who had started with a fixed view of their abilities and been taught to think of it as malleable: fixity is bad for performance. But above all, the sequence was clear: change the belief, you change the motivation, and that improves the grades.

Other evidence shows how critical it is that both parents and teachers do not regard genes as fixing children's capabilities: if either group have negative expectations of the child, academic performance suffers.

The overall message is that even if the evidence did prove that genes are critical, it would be poisonous to believe this. In fact, fascinatingly and contrary to the propaganda you may have read in newspapers or seen on television (notably from Professor Robert Winston), the science is increasingly showing genetic influence to be negligible. In the case of mental illness, for example, findings from the human genome project have forced psychiatrists to admit for the first time that there is no such thing as "a gene for" depression or schizophrenia.

But that is for another day. Today's message is you are best off believing that genes are not nearly as important as nurture and the current environment in influencing what you and your children are like. Peddle that message to your children and it could improve their exam results. (…)

Source:, UK