Social Psychology of Education

, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 331–346 | Cite as

Against the odds: academic underdogs benefit from incremental theories

  • Jody L. Davis
  • Jeni L. Burnette
  • Scott T. Allison
  • Heather Stone


An implicit theory of ability approach to motivation argues that students who believe traits to be malleable (incremental theorists), relative to those who believe traits to be fixed (entity theorists), cope more effectively when academic challenges arise. In the current work, we integrated the implicit theory literature with research on top dog and underdog status to predict self-efficacy in an academic context. To examine our predictions, we assessed college students’ (N  =  165) implicit theories of mathematical ability and manipulated their underdog versus top dog status in a math competition. We hypothesized that holding an incremental (vs. entity) theory would interact with competition status (underdog vs. top dog) to predict mathematical self-efficacy. When in an underdog position, incremental (vs. entity) theories boosted students’ mathematical self-efficacy. Moreover, a mediated moderation model revealed that the experience of less helplessness accounted for greater self-efficacy in mathematical ability among academic underdogs with incremental (vs. entity) theories. Implications for teaching practices are discussed.


Implicit theories Underdog Helplessness Self-efficacy Expectancy 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jody L. Davis
    • 1
  • Jeni L. Burnette
    • 2
  • Scott T. Allison
    • 2
  • Heather Stone
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyVirginia Commonwealth UniversityRichmondUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of RichmondRichmondUSA

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