Can working memory be improved by influencing a person’s attitude? According to Frédérique Autin and Jean-Claude Croizet of the Universite de Poitiers, the answer is yes. The researchers put some sixth graders through some mental challenges to test this point.
Eleven year old kids were divided into three groups. Two thirds of the kids were given a set of anagrams that were so difficult none of the children were able to solve any of them in the allotted time. Of those, half were subsequently given a pep talk about how failure in no way reflects on one’s abilities or intelligence and is in fact a sign of learning. A third group wasn’t given the anagrams at all. All the children were then given a working memory test. Those students who had been told that experiencing difficulty with a problem was normal had slightly better working memories than the students who hadn’t had their failures reframed or hadn’t done any anagrams. In fact, the kids who had their failure at solving anagrams reframed into a positive experience did even better at subsequent memory tests than kids who had solved easy anagrams.
When the kids were asked to decide how well a series of traits described them, those who had had their difficulties reframed were quicker to reject negative attributes and to rank themselves as being competent and good. To be clear, the researchers weren't simply buffing up the students' self esteem by telling them how great they were. They were merely explaining that failure is a normal part of learning. The kids drew their own conclusions about themselves.