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The Abstract

Are People Inherently Good or Bad at Learning New Tech? Your Opinion Matters

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If you think people are inherently good or bad at learning how to use new technology, odds are good that it’s harder for you to learn how to use new technology. Those are the findings of a recent psychology study from NC State University – and it’s something tech companies may want to consider when testing out new products.

“We wanted to determine whether a person’s mindset about technology influenced their ability to navigate technological tasks,” says Lawton Pybus, a graduate student at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work. “Basically, are individuals who think people are inherently good or bad at technology better or worse than individuals who think people are adaptable?”

To explore this issue, Pybus and his advisor, Doug Gillan, did a study involving 152 adults. Each study participant was asked three questions to determine whether he or she had a “fixed” or “growth” mindset about people’s general ability to learn or use new technology. Each participant was then asked to perform a series of tasks on unfamiliar websites.

“We found that 15 percent of participants had a fixed mindset regarding tech use, and that those with a fixed mindset performed worse at the tech-oriented tasks,” Pybus says. “It took them longer to perform the tasks, took more clicks to accomplish the tasks, and they were less likely to perform the tasks accurately.”

Even accounting for age, sex, and education, mindset was the only variable that significantly predicted performance on the tasks.

“But while we only found 15 percent of study participants had a fixed mindset in regard to technology, the number in the general population is likely much higher,” says Gillan, co-author of the paper and head of the psychology department at NC State. “After all, these participants are people who were willing and able to take an online test in the first place. And previous studies have found that there tends to be a 50/50 split in regard to fixed versus growth mindsets in other areas, such as intelligence and athletics.”

The recent study has applications in areas such as usability testing, in which researchers evaluate how easily people can use new technologies.

“One area we’re interested in exploring is whether we should incorporate this sort of mindset evaluation into usability testing, to control for that sort of potential bias on the tests,” Gillan says.

Basically, companies would want to know whether poor product reviews on usability tests are due to having a lot of test participants with fixed mindsets about using new technologies.

“On a more fundamental level, we’re also curious about whether having a fixed mindset about learning new technologies affects an individual’s willingness to use new technologies. That’s something we’re evaluating now,” Pybus says.

“We also want to know what can be done to move people from one mindset to another,” Gillan says. “We’ll keep you posted.”

The paper, “Implicit Theories of Technology: Identification and Implications for Performance,” was presented at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s annual meeting in Los Angeles late last month.