Mindsets: Q&A with Dr. Alia Crum, Stanford Psychology
Updated: Dec 31, 2019
I've always believed in the power of a positive mindset and the value of seeing opportunities within challenges. So when Dr. Jonathan Berek, Director of the Stanford Women's Cancer Center, asked to interview me in 2018 for a research project focused on understanding how mindsets can be changed to affect physiological and psychological well-being, I was more than happy to participate. This research was led by Dr. Alia Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and the Principle Investigator of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab. I recently chatted with Dr. Crum about my work with Designing Silver Linings and share with you below our conversation regarding what her research has revealed about the impact our mindsets have on our physical health, whether mindsets can be changed, and what role mindsets play in resilience, coping, and the ability for one to design their own silver linings.
To start off, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
[Crum] I grew up in Aspen, Colorado, spent 15 years in the Northeast completing my BA, PhD and Post Doc and am now back on the West Coast living in Palo Alto, CA with my husband and 16-month-old daughter, Siggy. I love spending time with both of them, hiking, running, swimming, and playing outside. I work as an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, teaching and doing research on the power of our minds to influence our health.
How did you decide to pursue the field of psychology and what is your area of specialty?
[Crum] I think I was always destined to be a psychologist. My father taught stress and conflict management workshops using a meditation/mindfulness-based approach and my mother wrote and directed children’s musicals. I was an avid athlete from an early age, competing as an elite gymnast as a child, a division 1 ice hockey player, and then later in life as a triathlete. As an athlete, I was always fascinated by the power of the mind and, in particular, how a person having the same physical capacity from one day to the next could have completely different results depending on their mental state. As an undergraduate at Harvard, I made my choice of majors by circling every course in the course catalogue that I was interested in taking; the choice was fairly obvious after realizing that 90+% of them were in the psychology department. I’m fortunate to have parents who supported me in the pursuit of my interests/passion and teachers and advisors (thank you Ellen Langer, Tal Ben-Shahar, and Phil Stone) for helping me hone my interests into the specific field of academic psychology.
Mindsets can change our reality by shaping what we pay attention to, how we feel, what we do, and what our bodies prioritize and prepare to do.
What is “mindset” and why is it important?
[Crum] Mindsets are core assumptions we make about the things and processes in the world that orient us to a particular set of expectations, explanations, and goals, for example: “aging is an inevitable decline”, “cancer is a catastrophe”, “healthy foods are discussing and depriving.” The world is complex and uncertain and yet we need to predict what will happen in order to act. Mindsets are our human way of simplifying and understanding a complex reality. The mindsets we adopt are not right/wrong, true/false, but they do have an impact. Mindsets can change our reality by shaping what we pay attention to, how we feel, what we do, and what our bodies prioritize and prepare to do.
Many of us are familiar with your colleague Carol Dweck’s, work on “growth mindset.” Can you tell us more about what that is and how it influenced your area of research?
[Crum] Carol’s work has been extremely influential in shaping my thinking. Her original work discusses one particular type of mindset: the mindset that “intelligence is fixed” (versus the mindset that “intelligence is malleable”). Her research has shown that people who have (or can be inspired to have) the mindset that “intelligence is malleable” are more likely to have learning-oriented goals, are more likely to persist in the face of challenges and setbacks, and are more likely to succeed in performance domains over the long-haul. More recent research has expanded this work to looking at mindsets about the malleability or fixedness of other personal attributes such as personality or the ability to be empathetic. Our work expands the idea of mindset even further - to mindsets about things and processes relevant to health. For example, I have studied mindsets about stress, exercise, diet, and what it means to have a disease like cancer. Importantly, mindsets do not have to be about whether something is fixed or malleable but instead can reflect other adjectives, like the degree to which something is enhancing or debilitating, pleasurable or painful, an opportunity or catastrophe, etc.
In your TEDx talk, “Change your mindset, change the game,” you shared fascinating studies about the impact one’s mindset can have on psychological, behavioral, and physiological outcomes. Can you briefly describe those studies and what you learned?
[Crum] The first study I shared was a study in which we looked at the role of mindsets about exercise in shaping our health. Ellen Langer and I worked with hotel room attendants and found that even though they were getting a significant amount of physical activity in their daily job cleaning hotel rooms, they did not perceive themselves as being active. What we found was that, compared to a control group that received no information, hotel room attendants who were informed that their work was good exercise showed improvements in health as measured by weight and blood pressure four weeks later, even though they did not change their behavior or do any more exercise.
The second study I shared was a study in which we looked at the role of mindsets about food in shaping our health. Kelly Brownell, Will Corbin, Peter Salovey and I gave people the same exact milkshake at two different time points but led them to believe it was either a high fat or high calorie milkshake. We were interested in their physiological response to the shake, as measured by the gut peptide ghrelin (often referred to as the hunger hormone). What we found is that when people thought they were consuming an indulgent shake, their ghrelin levels dropped at a three-fold steeper rate after consumption than when they thought they were consuming a low-calorie, sensible shake.
Together these results showed us that the effects of behaviors like exercise and diet are not just a result of the objective ingredients (e.g., how much exercise we get or how many calories we consume), but also what we think and expect about the exercise we are getting or the food we are eating.
The effects of behaviors like exercise and diet are not just a result of the objective ingredients (e.g., how much exercise we get or how many calories we consume), but also what we think and expect about the exercise we are getting or the food we are eating.
In your paper titled “Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2013, you refer to the “stress paradox.” What is that and what has your research shown about the impact of stress on health and performance?
[Crum] This study was the third study I shared in the TEDx talk. In this paper we explore the role of mindsets about stress in shaping our health, wellbeing and performance. Although the effect of stress can sometimes have negative ramifications for our lives, the research on stress shows that the stress response can sometimes be a positive thing, helping us to learn and grow, rise to the occasion, or become psychologically and even physiologically tougher. Our work explores our mindsets about stress (i.e., whether you hold the mindset that “stress is enhancing” or “stress is debilitating”). We find that while many people in our culture hold the mindset that stress is negative/debilitating (probably in part because of the negative media attention to the negative effects of stress), people’s mindsets can be changed and changes to a “stress is enhancing” mindset lead to better work performance, fewer negative health symptoms associated and better physiological responses in the face of stress.
It is important to clarify here that having a “stress is enhancing” mindset does not mean that you view the stressor as a good thing. It also doesn’t mean that you need to deny the realities of the stress you are experiencing. Rather, that the experience of going through something stressful (whether that be taking a tough exam or facing a cancer diagnosis) can help us learn, grow and be stronger. Not in spite of the stress, but because of it.
The experience of going through something stressful (whether that be taking a tough exam or facing a cancer diagnosis) can help us learn, grow and be stronger.
I meet a lot of warriors who have faced a variety of hardships ranging from health to heartbreak. What role do you think mindset has in resilience, coping, and the ability for one to design their own silver linings?
[Crum] We can’t always control the hardships that we are faced with. Fortuitously however, we can control our mindsets. Choosing adaptive mindsets such as “stress can be enhancing”, or “cancer can be an opportunity” can transform our experience.
When we started measuring mindsets about illness we were surprised by just how many people diagnosed with cancer came to adopt the mindset that “cancer can be an opportunity.” Ironically, having stress or trauma in one’s life in some ways forces people to think about the ways they are responding to it and to choose more adaptive ways of thinking.
We can’t always control the hardships that we are faced with. Fortuitously however, we can control our mindsets.
It’s clear that mindset matters. But what about people who don’t naturally have a mindset that is advantageous for them? What have you learned about whether and how one’s mindset can be changed?
[Crum] Not all people naturally adopt useful mindsets for every situation. This can be in part due to cultural messaging that reaffirms or reinforces unhelpful mindsets (a key example of this is how our food culture serves to establish and reinforce the unhelpful mindset that healthy foods are disgusting and depriving). Fortunately, our work has shown that mindsets can be changed – sometimes relatively easily. Other times, mindset change may be harder, especially if someone has a deeply engrained mindset and or lives in a culture that makes it hard to think differently.
What is your next wave of mindset research focused on and what do you hope to learn from it?
[Crum] Although there is mounting research that demonstrates the powerful role of mindsets in health, surprisingly little has been done to capitalize on it. This lack of action in the face of promising results drives our latest wave of research which is to develop new theories and interventions that could shift both medical treatment and behavioral intervention approaches to more effectively leverage mindset.
Two such projects we are currently engaged in are: 1) developing and evaluating an intervention to help patients adopt more useful mindsets and 2) developing and evaluating a training program to help providers understand the role of mindset in healthcare and leverage it to improve healthcare outcomes.
What parting words or advice would you want our readers to consider?
[Crum] My parting advice is for people to remember that our mindsets are not a reflection of the world as it actually is. Instead they are our subjective interpretations of what is or could be that are informed by the cultures we live in, our development, by influential others and even by conscious choice. And that, when we recognize that we have mindsets, that they are not inevitable, and that they matter in shaping our health and wellbeing, we are empowered with a great gift: and that is the power to change our mindsets to improve our health and our lives.
When we recognize that we have mindsets, that they are not inevitable, and that they matter in shaping our health and wellbeing, we are empowered with a great gift: and that is the power to change our mindsets to improve our health and our lives.
Alia J. Crum, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and the Principle Investigator of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab. She received her PhD from Yale University and BA degree from Harvard University. Dr. Crum’s research focuses on how changes in subjective mindsets—the core assumptions we make about things and processes in the world—can alter objective reality through behavioral, psychological, and physiological mechanisms. Her work is, in part, inspired by research on the placebo effect, a robust demonstration of the ability of mindsets to elicit healing properties in the body. She is interested in understanding how mindsets affect important outcomes both within and beyond the realm of medicine, in domains such as exercise, diet, and stress. Moreover, Dr. Crum’s research aims to understand how mindsets can be consciously and deliberately changed through intervention to affect physiological and psychological well-being. To date, her research has won several awards including the NIH New Innovator Award and the Association for Psychological Science’s Rising Star Award. She is also the recipient of the Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award and the Dean’s Award for First Years of Teaching at Stanford University. In addition to her academic research and teaching, Dr. Crum has worked as a clinical psychologist for the VA healthcare system and has created, delivered, and evaluated interventions focused on mindset change for organizations including LinkedIn, UBS, Stanford Healthcare, and the United States Navy.
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Parul Somani | Designing Silver Linings Mother. Warrior. Storyteller.
Parul is a business executive and cancer survivor turned storyteller on a mission to inspire others to design their own silver linings. Combining her experiences as a young working mother diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 30s, a caregiver who transformed her parents' lives with her patient advocacy, and a businesswoman with 15+ years of experience in management consulting and executive roles in consumer, technology, and healthcare companies, Parul aims to help organizations and individuals understand the value of health advocacy, resilience, and a positive mindset. She has shared her personal story through her cancer blog that's been read in ~80 countries, films on survivorship and mindset, TV and radio segments, podcast interviews, and public speaking engagements. More information about her mission, story, and portfolio of work can be found at DesigningSilverLinings.com.
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