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How the Power of Mindsets can Build Up or Tear Down People’s Lives

How our mindsets control the way we think, feel and act

In a previous article I defined mindsets as types of cognitions (perceptions and thoughts). They are similar to cognitive schemas in that they both:

  • Consist of mental frameworks that include ideas, beliefs, biases, judgements, attitudes, heuristics, observations, interpretations, intentions, intuitions, etc. These mental structures help us organize and make sense of our experiences.
  • Are developed, cultivated and promoted by our experiences throughout life and are deeply ingrained in our way of thinking.
  • Strongly influence our emotions and behaviors in reaction to those experiences.
  • Have a major impact on our psychological wellbeing and physical wellness.

This article focuses on explaining why it’s so important to understand how mindsets affect our lives. It also examines how mindsets control much of what we think, feel and do.

The topics I cover define and describe:

  • Mindset characteristics and effects
  • Mindset development and change
  • Mindsets’ influence on humanity’s future.

Let’s begin by defining the main characteristics of mindsets and how they affect us.

Mindset Characteristics and Effects

In this section I discuss the main characteristics (aspects, qualities) of mindsets and how they affect people’s lives.

Unique Characteristics of Human Mindsets

There’s an enormous variety of human mindsets. They affect many aspects of life including our physical and emotional health, security and safety, social relationships, achievements and failures, judgements and values, intentions and reactions, and much more.

The depth and breadth of human mindsets are much greater than in other animals due to the extensive capabilities of our brains. Human brains enable mindsets that are distinguished from other primates in a number of ways. For example, our mindsets help manage more complex social behaviors and our ability to process, store and communicate vaster amounts of complex (and abstract) information than other species are capable of doing.

Mindset Effects

The net effects of mindsets are how they influence a person’s emotional and behavioral responses to the ever-changing dynamics of life.

The effects of a person’s mindsets can vary greatly in different situations and at different times. That means an adaptive (beneficial) mindset could become maladaptive (detrimental), and vice versa, if there are changes in the characteristics of a situation or if the person’s desires/goals change. Likewise, some people might consider a mindset to be adaptive, while others find it maladaptive.

More details about these two categories of mindsets are presented later in this article.

Due to the effects of mindsets on people’s lives, it’s useful to understand how they develop and how maladaptive mindsets can change.

Mindset Development and Change

In this section I discuss ways mindsets develop and can change.

Mindset Development

Mindsets develop in response to two interacting factors:

  1. Internal (genetic and epigenetic) factors give rise to biological traits with natural immutable (inherent) characteristics such as sex, skin color, hair color, height, temperament, intelligence, physical abilities, health vulnerabilities, etc.
  2. External (social, institutional, environmental) factors include the effects of a person’s present and past experiences with one’s social relationships, natural and built environments, cultural and religious values, financial situation, education level, occupational skills, etc.

Next, I discuss how these internal and external factors influence mindset development from a species, culture, and childhood experience perspectives.

Mindset Development through Species’ Evolution

Evolutionary forces have evolved human mindsets in the last few million years. For example, the Cultural Brain Hypothesis proposes that bigger human brains have enabled more and better learning which has allowed our species to adapt to increasingly larger and more complex societies. This implies that:

  • Our specie’s survival requires skills that drive the innovation of new tools and the creation of new rules of behavior. These skills, tools and rules required mindsets that enabled humans to avoid predators and deal with enemies, feed and shelter larger groups of people, develop strategies for coordination and cooperation, and so on.
  • The evolution of bigger brains enabled development of adaptive mindsets that foster the establishment, use and continual improvement of the new skills, rules and tools.

Mindset Development through One’s Culture

Cultures influence mindset development by promoting cognitions related to each culture’s core values, priorities and beliefs. If those cognitions are adaptive, the developed mindset will be beneficial to the culture’s survival and quality of life, and vice versa.

Here’s one example of an adaptive mindset fostered by a country’s culture. Research has shown how a Norwegian cultural mindset helps its citizens cope effectively through the long, dark Arctic winter. Maladaptive mindsets can make people feel depressed as they think and complain about the cold, snow, constant darkness and loneliness. In Norway, however, instead of calling the polar night the “dark time” (mørketid) and feeling badly about it, their culture promotes a mindset in which the term “Blue Time” is used to refer to the color present during this period. And when Norwegians gather, they talk about feeling alert and refreshed when they’re outdoors.

An example of another cultural mindset, especially in capitalist societies, is what’s called meritocracy. It asserts that people’s power and wealth are based on their abilities and attitudes (e.g., skills and work ethic) alone, and that family resources and discriminatory factors play no role in someone’s ability to achieve success (prosperity and upward social mobility). Some people believe this claim is valid and thus consider it an adaptive mindset. Others, however, argue that the claim is false and call it the “Myth of Meritocracy.” These people consider it a maladaptive mindset because race, gender, family wealth and connections, etc. give the wealthy “elite class” a much greater chance of achieving such success.

Overall, culturally fostered mindsets impact such things as:

  • What people experience, learn, value and believe
  • How they live, work, interact, communicate and treat one another
  • How families are formed, children are raised, and roles are assigned
  • What laws are established, how people are governed, and what methods of reward and discipline are used.

Mindset Development through Childhood Experiences

Mindsets (and cognitive schemas) often begin to form in childhood. When caregivers fail to give a child adequate physical and psychological care — such as safety and security, nurturance and attention, love and acceptance, respect and autonomy, a realistic sense of power and control, guidance and direction — the child is likely to develop maladaptive mindsets. As the child grows up, these mindsets can lead to ineffective coping strategies, problematic behaviors, and emotional disturbances.

I will now examine mindset change.

Mindset Change

Mindsets tend to be stable over time. They are, nevertheless, malleable to a degree and some can change quickly in response to life-altering experiences.

When people change mindsets they think differently, their feelings change, and actions often change as well. It’s often difficult, however, to make such changes in one’s cognitions, emotions and behaviors.

A useful first step to making adaptive change is to modify irrational thought patterns to make one’s cognitions more accurate, reasonable, effective and wise. This can be done by gaining knowledge and insights that lead to more rational ways of thinking. Possible ways to do this includes psychotherapy, by associating with rational thinkers, by reading and viewing good self-help media, etc.

Mindsets and Humanity’s Future

It’s clear that mindsets are complex and exert great influence, for better or worse, on what we all do and feel.

What does this mean for our species…Where will our mindsets guide humanity into the future?

If we replaced much of our maladaptive mindsets with adaptive ones, the health and wellbeing of our populations and planet would be much better-off than now, and well into the future. Such change, I contend, is a worthy goal for anyone who cares about the fate of humanity. I challenge anyone to refute this assertion!

So, how might this goal of mindset adjustment be achieved?

One possible strategy focuses on changing the core values, priorities and beliefs that promote — and are promoted by — maladaptive mindsets in many of today’s cultures around the world.

Such positive changes could be done by making people aware of how their mindsets, for better or worse, effect their lives and the lives of others. Then show the benefits of transforming their maladaptive mindsets into adaptive ones.

I suggest the likelihood of such a strategy’s success depends in large part on each culture’s core characteristics that are associated with mindsets of its people and leaders.

Maladaptive Mindsets of Cultures

The maladaptive mindsets of cultures least amenable/receptive (most resistant) to change would include those in which:

  • Priorities are driven by a lust for material wealth, power and control at any cost
  • Peoples are divided through self-serving tribalism and prejudiced judgement that divert awareness and recognition away from humanity’s core oneness
  • Close-minded, dictatorial, dogmatic rules stifle an open, honest, democratic way of life.

Adaptive Mindsets of Cultures

The adaptive mindsets of cultures include those that foster:

  • Love and caring of people and planet
  • Mutuality, cooperation, compassion and acceptance of people’s differences
  • Rational thought, wisdom, open-mindedness, integrity, truthfulness, trustworthiness, etc.

I compare adaptive to maladaptive mindsets at this link.

I’m a clinical psychologist and software architect focused on understanding the intricacies human nature, mind, consciousness, thought, emotions and experience.

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