How/why do we get defensive about our intellect?

Have you recently been defensive about not "performing" on a cognitive task and feeling "dumb"?

It's normal to feel "dumb" if you see cognitive skills as stable, expressing themselves in all contexts, in a stable manner. How we react when facing challenges or failure may depend on your beliefs about the nature of intelligence (Kaufman, 2013).
  • Fixed mindset ("intelligence is stable, in all contexts and forever") : with such attitude, a possible failure may suggest that one’s ability is inadequate. (Perceived) failure is seen as reflecting poorly on the individual and pushes individuals to protect or defend against the threat of incompetence.
  • Malleable mindset and self-evaluation: would help someone view obstacles as setbacks and not as indicators of inadequacy. The interpretation would then be that the appropriate effort or strategy was not employed – perceived failure is not a threat to the person's ego.  (BTW, we all have an ego and it gets threatened, sometimes. And that is ok!)
Have you notice which perception of intelligence speaks to you the most?  (these beliefs are often implicit - we are not always aware of them!)
If intelligence is fixed and cannot be improved, then my goal will be to perform, to appear smart. I will have performance goals or achievement goals: I may be very motivated to pursue goals that allows me to demonstrate or validate my abilities – I may have a strong desire to prove my competency! ....However, the joys and curiosity of learning may be tamed in the process, may be overshadowed by the need to perform, to avoid feeling "dumb".
However, if my theory is intelligence is malleable and can grow, with curiosity and sustained effort, then my approach and goals may be different. I may focus more on the process, having learning goals/mastery goals. This disposition may help me pursue goals that support my belief that intelligence can be improved and I may be able to better focus on learning/development!
Have you notice what kind of goal orientation you usually have ?  (they may be context dependent - some tasks may trigger you while others don't!)
More on this topic in upcoming posts.
This is inspired from my McGill University course on human Intelligence as well as this book chapter (that I strongly recommend) The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice. Kaufman, 2013