By John Hudson
Do you ever feel that you’re just not a ‘statistics person’? Well, you’re not alone because research suggests that the vast majority of students in psychology-based degrees feel exactly the same (Onwuegbuzie & Wilson, 2003). Maybe there’s some comfort in that; I certainly remember feeling that way as an undergraduate, but just what is a ‘statistics person’ anyway? Are some people born with a ’magical’ ability to comprehend statistics? Now there are many things that are passed on via our genes, but if you can show me evidence that some newborns enter this world with an appreciation of skew and kurtosis, or a working knowledge of SPSS, I will give you my collection of S-Club-7 singles (*my lawyers have asked me to make it clear that this is a joke and that I will not, under any circumstances, be giving these away – but you knew that). Sure, a decent level of cognitive ability will help when thinking is required – and some of this is indeed genetic – but, if you are accepted onto an undergraduate degree you really do have more than enough basic intelligence to handle everything that a stats/research methods course will throw at you. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t feel confusing or intimidating sometimes, so maybe you still don’t believe there’s much you can do if you are not one of those ‘stats’ people.
In fact, research from Carol Dweck suggests that this belief alone may be one of the main things holding us back. Professor Dweck theorises that people tend to hold one of two contrasting mindsets regarding ‘the fixedness or malleability of personal characteristics’. On the one hand, people with a ‘fixed’ mindset see personal characteristics such as intelligence, maths ability, or even shyness, as fixed traits, while people with a ‘growth’ mindset believe these can be developed through additional effort or strategy (there is a nice overview of ‘mindset’ herewhich goes into more detail).
I have to confess that before I became aware of Dweck’s theory, I think I probably had a fixed mindset; it wasn’t something I ever actually thought about, because we are often not consciously aware of these beliefs. But they can still be highly influential; especially in the way we perceive and respond to learning situations. There is now ample evidence to suggest that people with a growth mindset tend to show greater improvement in learning situations than those with a fixed mindset (e.g. Blackwell et al, 2007). This makes sense, because even though learning new things can be very rewarding it can also be difficult at times – that is part of the process. Because it can be so challenging we often need a lot of persistence to keep going, especially when things get harder or we feel like we’re not getting anywhere. The theory suggests that with a fixed mindset – being more likely to view ability as something that cannot really be changed too much – there is less point in pushing yourself to improve because it feels like it’s not going to make that much difference. In contrast, someone with a growth mindset has more incentive to keep trying and practicing, because – for them – there is some light at the end of the tunnel; they believe that their efforts can make a difference, even if things are getting difficult. It is a little more complex than that, of course, but you get the idea.
Practice, and change your brain…
So far, all I’ve told you is that having a growth mindset seems to be helpful, while a fixed mindset is not. Which means, now all you have to do is change your ‘mindset’ and away you go? Well, yes – if you can. But although beliefs can be highly tenacious, there is actually a lot of evidence indicating that many of those abilities commonly viewed as innate can indeed be developed, regardless of your mindset. Long-term practice of a skill is associated with physical changes in your brain; in fact research has actually suggested that in some circumstance, detectable changes may begin to manifest themselves in as little as one week (May et al, 2007). Nonetheless, the real benefits come from sustained effort, over a period of time, as demonstrated in relation to skills such as meditation (Hölzel et al, 2011), juggling (Driemeyer et al, 2008), and taxi-drivers’ ability to navigate London’s complex road network (Maguire et al, 2000), among many others. In other words, these abilities are not fixed. For example, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of people saying that they’re not very ‘artistic’ – artistic ability might seem like one of those things some people are just born with, but I followed an inspirational thread on an online forum that shows what practice can do – this person committed to drawing and posting one picture a day and, over a period of years (that’s right, it didn’t happen overnight!), they went from relative beginner, to producing some amazing work (the original thread is here).
You could say the transformation is incredible – except it’s not really a ‘transformation’, it’s a progression. That’s the whole point. But I’m not really writing this for people who want an easy ride, I’m writing it for those who might feel that they just aren’t cut out for ‘stats’ (or anything else, for that matter); people who might feel that they could never learn a particular skill or ability. But you really can. However, that example was about drawing and painting, which is not the same as stats, is it? Well, as it happens…
Although improvements in artistic ability are much easier to see, the principle is the same. Sigmundsson and colleagues’ (2013) study indicates that practice is also what really counts when it comes to maths-related skills, not so much what you were born with. Meanwhile, Aydin et al (2007) showed a strong relationship between the length of time spent as a mathematician and specific brain-related changes (Aydin et al, 2007). So, – as if I haven’t got you excited enough about this already – budding statisticians among you can look forward to “an increase in gray matter density in the right inferior parietal lobule” (Aydin et al, 2007). Now if that is not something to get you rushing for your stats lecture notes, I don’t know what is.
Hack through the jungle: practice
There you go – the more you practice, the stronger and more efficient these pathways in your brain become; but at first, it probably doesn’t feel like it! If you’re learning something new, there probably aren’t too many of these paths/connections in the first place, which is why it might feel so hard; but these will develop as you study/practice. I always think of learning a new skill being similar to hacking a path through thick jungle; it can feel like a staggering amount of effort, yet all you’ve really done is make the tiniest of gaps in the ‘undergrowth’ – a path that is still a struggle to get through. That can feel quite demotivating, but if you keep going, slowly your efforts will make the path wider, and easier to get navigate, until eventually – after a lot of work – you’ll have built a nice wide motorway that can take you from A to B in no time at all. In other words, what previously took you a lot of effort, now feels fairly easy. But remember, it doesn’t happen overnight – the frustration and confusion you might experience in learning are like the pain you might experience in the gym if you were trying to build up your strength or stamina: a necessary part of the process.
This is great news because it means that a decent understanding of maths and stats – or almost anything else – is with our grasp if we juststick with it and keep practicing. That’s not to say that some of us might take longer than others, but we can do it. However, there is a downside, because once we know this it means we can’t rely on the ‘I’m just not a maths/stats person’ excuse anymore!
So, although there isn’t a magic wand that can instantly transform your mindset (if you needed to), being aware of your own mindset, and your capacity to learn new skills, can be an important first step.
- Aydin, K., Ucar, A., Oguz, K. K., Okur, O. O., Agayev, A., Unal, Z., … & Ozturk, C. (2007). Increased gray matter density in the parietal cortex of mathematicians: a voxel-based morphometry study.American Journal of Neuroradiology, 28(10), 1859-1864.
- Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child development, 78(1), 246-263.
- Driemeyer J., Boyke J., Gaser C., Büchel C., May A. (2008). Changes in Gray Matter Induced by Learning—Revisited. PLoS ONE, 3(7): e2669. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002669
- Dweck, C.S. (2008). Can Personality Be Changed? The Role of Beliefs in Personality and Change. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 17(6), 391-394.
- Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S.M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S.W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.
- Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97(8), 4398-4403.
- May, A., Hajak, G., Gänssbauer, S., Steffens, T., Langguth, B., Kleinjung, T., & Eichhammer, P. (2007). Structural brain alterations following 5 days of intervention: dynamic aspects of neuroplasticity. Cerebral Cortex, 17(1), 205-210.
- Onwuegbuzie, A. J., & Wilson, V. A. (2003). Statistics Anxiety: Nature, etiology, antecedents, effects, and treatments–a comprehensive review of the literature. Teaching in Higher Education, 8(2), 195-209.
- Sigmundsson, H., Polman, R. C. J. & Lorås, H. (2013). Exploring individual differences in children’s mathematical skills: a correlational and dimensional approach. Psychological Reports. 113, 23-30.