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Why Your Parents Are So Bad At Tech

I have to show you how to call Uncle Joe on FaceTime, again?

Every young person knows this scenario: our parents ask us (for what feels like the hundredth time) to teach them how to call Aunt Julia on FaceTime, or attach photos to an email, or use the TV remote control. You roll your eyes, show them how to do it, and marvel that they can’t solve something that’s so freaking simple. Or … maybe you’re that technology illiterate person. You’ve accepted the fact that you’re inherently bad with tech and there’s nothing you can do to change it. Well, here’s some good news for everyone: according to a recent study, people’s mindsets about learning technology may affect their ability to use it—and if you have the right mindset, you may actually get better at technology.

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Social scientists say that people tend to have two main types of mindsets when they think about their abilities: a fixed mindset, where you believe that your ability to do “X” can’t change, versus a growth mindset, where you think your ability is flexible and can improve through experience. We possess either of these mindsets about all sorts of human attributes, such as our attitudes about intelligence, athletics, and technology. It’s possible to have a fixed mindset about, say, intelligence, but have a growth mindset about another attribute, like athletic skill. Surprisingly, whatever mindset we have about something makes a major difference in our ability to do that thing. Scientists have found that people with growth mindsets tend to have better outcomes—for example, one study found that students with a growth mindset about intelligence did better in math than students who had a fixed mindset. Researchers have seen the same effect in other areas, like athletics, gaming, and weight management.

Flickr user Meg Stewart

Researchers Doug Gillan and Lawton Pybus at North Carolina State University wanted to know whether people’s mindset had the same influence on their ability with new technology. In a peer-reviewed study (which they haven’t published yet), they asked 152 participants to rate how much they agreed with statements like, “Your ability to understand new technologies is something about you that you can’t change very much.” This assessment split the participants into two groups: 87% who had a growth mindset, and 13% with a fixed mindset. The researchers then had them perform a technology test, where participants had to locate and click on elements (like various links and buttons) for 13 different websites. That might not seem like a difficult task, but researchers found a significant difference in people’s performance, depending on their mindset toward new technology. Similar to findings in other studies, participants with a growth mindset had a better outcome: they were faster, more accurate, and completed the task in fewer clicks than people with a fixed mindset. “It wasn’t a huge difference in terms of absolute time,” says Gillan, a professor of psychology. “But if you think about searching the web for anything, those small differences would add up and become a pretty big difference.”

Outside experts caution that though this study shows a correlation between mindset and technological ability, it doesn’t necessarily mean that mindset influences ability. “There’s no causality here,” explains Dan Schwartz, an expert in human cognition and educational technology at Stanford, “It could be that people who’ve failed to learn these computer tasks have developed a fixed mindset. There are other possible explanations.” Joyce Ehrlinger, an assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University agrees: “They haven’t yet ruled out that the ability is driving the belief,” she says. But she also notes that the new study falls in line with other research on mindset. “This is usually the direction it works in,” says Ehrlinger. “When people have the mindset that they can improve, it usually leads to better performance.” She says that to prove causation, the researchers need to set up another study where people with fixed mindsets are taught that changing their attitude to a growth mindset can improve their skills, and then measure whether people who’ve adopted the growth mindset actually progress.

flashgun via Shutterstock

Of course, if you have a fixed mindset about technology, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be bad at technology. Gillan uses the example of a professional athlete—say, LeBron James. LeBron might believe that people are inherently good or bad at basketball, but he obviously has mad basketball skills. This is a mix of your mindset with a belief about your own abilities, which are two separate (though related) views, and the researchers say they didn’t test the latter in their study. Gillan also notes that they recruited people online for the study, so participants might be more tech-savvy than the average person, which could influence the results. “This was a highly skilled group to begin with, so we don’t know yet what this looks like in the general population.” They have plans to for a follow-up study on participants who better represent the general population.

If the research holds up, it’ll offer hope to all those tech illiterates out there. Past research has shown that it’s possible to teach people growth mindsets, and that this shift in belief can improve their ability. “Mindsets are really powerful,” says Ehrlinger, “They shaped the kind of goals we adopt, and then what we do to try to reach those goals. If you have a growth mindset, you’re more willing to put up with struggling and getting things wrong.” This mindset effect could be especially important for the large population of aging baby boomers, who didn’t grow up with laptops, smartphones, and tablets and now find themselves in a world dominated by tech. And although it’s daunting to learn something new when you don’t have much experience with it, Schwartz says, “To my knowledge, there’s no evidence that there’s something special about technology that makes it harder to learn than anything else.” You just need to have the right mindset.

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About the author

Annie Sneed is a San Francisco-based science journalist. She writes stories on topics ranging from beer microbiology to infectious diseases to the science of design for Fast Company, Wired, and Scientific American.

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