Individuals who believe they can learn from a mistake have a different brain reaction just after making an error than those who think intelligence is fixed, according to a new study to be published in Psychological Science.

“One big difference between people who think intelligence is malleable and those who think intelligence is fixed is how they respond to mistakes,” said psychologist Dr.  Jason S. Moser, of Michigan State University, who collaborated on the new study with Hans S. Schroder, Carrie Heeter, Tim P. Moran, and Yu-Hao Lee.

In general, when a person makes a mistake, the brain puts out two quick signals: the first indicates that something has gone wrong, and a second indicates that the person is consciously aware of the mistake and is trying to correct it.  Both signals occur within a quarter of a second of the mistake.

For the study, volunteers were asked to perform a task in which mistakes could be easily made. They were required to identify the middle letter of a five-letter series like “MMMMM” or “NNMNN.” While performing the task, each participant wore a cap that recorded electrical brain activity.

“It’s pretty simple, doing the same thing over and over, but the mind can’t help it; it just kind of zones out from time to time,” Moser said.

Individuals who believed in learning from mistakes actually did better after making a mistake.  Their brains also reacted differently, creating a stronger second signal, the one that says “I see that I’ve made a mistake, so I should pay more attention.”

“This might help us understand why exactly the two types of individuals show different behaviors after mistakes,” said Moser.

Source:  Association for Psychological Science