Friday, 8 January 2021

Super Mario and Mindset

While looking for something completely different, recently I ran across this TEDx talk by Mark Rober, on - what he calls - the "Super Mario effect" (2018). As I watched the clip, I was struck by how similar his idea was to Carol Dweck's theory of mindset (2006).

Mark outlined an experiment where he had recruited fifty thousand participants from his pool of YouTube followers and set them a computer programming challenge, ostensibly to 'prove' that anyone could learn to code (Rober, 2018).

However, this was a deception experiment: Mark had split his participants into two groups. Group A got a version of the challenge where each time their code failed to run, they 'lost' 5 points from an assigned 200 points at the beginning. Group B did not lose any points, regardless of the numbers of failures. The challenge was identical in all other aspects (Rober, 2018).

So what happened? As Mark says, for "those who were penalized for failed attempts, their success rate was around 52%. For those who were not penalized, their success rate was 68%" (Rober, 2018, 1:47). That's fairly significant, when we consider that n=50,000... though granted, from a potentially skewed data pool.

The result? In Mark's words: "those who didn't see failing in a negative light [attempted] two and a half times more [times] to solve the puzzle" (Rober, 2018, 2:12). I like how this ties in with Carol Dweck's findings on mindset, more than a decade earlier (2006). However, while Mark does mention mindset, it seems to me that he thinks he has discovered something new in his results. I am not so sure.

What I do like is what Mark is proposing to do next. He is suggesting that we remove grades, and gamify education (Rober, 2018). While plenty of people have talked about this before, I think the intersection between Mark's ideas and mindset creates a different niche, and different reasons for changing how we do things. I think this is a worthy idea. Hard to do, but it would change how we teach and learn. We would have no more social promotion in schools, but take a Montessori-style approach: stick at elements until we gain mastery.

For some reason, Rober's proposal to education put me in mind of an artwork that a former colleague of mine had on their wall: "what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail". I wonder if we would no longer see the failure of education, but only the success. However long it took.

That would be epic.


  • Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Baltimore Books.
  • Rober, M. (1 June 2018). TEDxPenn: The Super Mario Effect - Tricking Your Brain into Learning More.

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