Science has still not solved the nature vs. nurture debate. We know it’s a combination of both, but we don’t know which weighs more heavily or whether it’s the same for everyone. So as long as nobody knows, a team of psychologists at Michigan State University says we may as well go with nurture.

Their new study shows that people perform better when they believe their environment is more formative than in-born ability. The research is the first to prove with brain-monitoring electrodes that people’s brains actually respond to this knowledge. It was published this week in the journal Biological Psychology.

“Giving people messages that encourage learning and motivation may promote more efficient performance. In contrast, telling people that intelligence is genetically fixed may inadvertently hamper learning,” said lead author Hans Schroder in a statement. Still a doctoral student, he has helped write, on funding from the National Science Foundation, nine peer-reviewed, published articles.

In 1998, the Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck told one group of children they were smart and told another they worked hard, and then gave them problems to answer. Unsurprisingly, the group that was praised for its natural intelligence was crestfallen by wrong answers and performed poorly afterward. The other group, bolstered by its alleged work ethic, was unbothered by failure. The results were hailed as proof of a principle: People who don’t think they can improve don’t even try.

The Michigan State study is a continuation of that research but uses a shower-cap-looking brain-o-meter to measure the participants' cognitive reactions. Two groups were given conflicting reports — nature is the key; environment is the key — and then tested. “These subtle messages seem to have a big impact,” Schroder said. The group subjected to nurture propaganda focused more intensely after mistakes, “possibly because they believed they could do better on the next trial.” The other group focused more on its results, apparently just to see how smart they were.

The moral of the study, Schroder says, is to encourage kids to work hard instead of merely glorifying “naturals.”

Source: Schroder HS, Moran TP, Donnellan MB, Moser JS. Mindset induction effects on cognitive control: A neurobehavioral investigation. Biological Psychology. 2014.