The perils of praise

Praising your child’s intelligence can backfire, writes Po Bronson in a great New York Magazine story. Kids told they’re smart may be afraid to try new things for fear they’ll look stupid; they can’t deal with frustration. Children praised for their effort have the resilience to tackle challenges.

Psychologist Carol Dweck gave fifth graders an easy puzzle test.

Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

. . . Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Given a hard test, the “effort” students worked hard to solve the puzzles and said they enjoyed the test; “smart” students were miserable.

On the final, easy test, students praised for effort improved their scores by 30 percent while those told they were smart did 20 percent worse.

Another study at a school for low-income minority students found dramatic improvements when students were told that hard work exercises and strengthens their brains. They started working harder and learning more.

The self-esteem movement has cheapened praise. Bronson cites experiments by psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer.

According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well — it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism — not praise at all — that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

Specific praise — you did a good job of passing the ball or focusing on your homework or sounding out words — is useful feedback. “You’re so smart” is not.

Of course, this ties in with research on Asian vs. U.S. parents: Japanese and Chinese parents tend to believe school success is a function of effort, while U.S. parents are more likely to think innate intelligence is the key factor. Guess who works harder?

Update: Here’s a Media Bistro story on how the Po Bronson story came to be. I like the part about the writer and the editor trying out the no-general-praise theory on their own kids.

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Comments

  1. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well — it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement.

    I think that’s the real killer. Students recognize early that all sorts of claims of concern from the counseling establishment are phony, a recognition carries over to the university level clearly. (Anyone remember “Esteemsters?)

  2. Isn’t 12 about the age that U.S. kids have a fairly general drop off in educational attainment?

  3. I have found that praising sixth graders for a job well done works wonders. Blanket praise for everyone is meaningless. It has to be specific and sincere for it to work. Even as an adult, I find that to be true.

  4. My third grade teacher ran that experiment on me. After a year of being told how smart I was, I saw no need to actually do anything. My fourth grade teacher knew how to fix that – ouch.

  5. Indigo Warrior says:

    R.J. O’Hara:
    I think that’s the real killer. Students recognize early that all sorts of claims of concern from the counseling establishment are phony, a recognition carries over to the university level clearly.

    Well, they are phony.

    The counselling establishment really doesn’t care if the students live or die, and would prefer if they turn into quiet little zombies that don’t take up anyone’s time. Suicide? It must be prevented because it makes the school look bad, and it takes away one unit of educational cannon-fodder. So what if they made that student’s life hell?

    Since one of the topics was the difference between American and Asian schools, here’s an example. A highly-talented engineer from Japan told me that when he was at the tender age of 13, he did so well in science that his science teacher and his family invited him for dinner, and they talked all evening about science and math. I’m talking college-level thermodynamics that very few teachers here would understand!

    Here, the teachers would be spending hours after class trying to drill into the heads of their “underprivileged” students the difference between a rock and a mineral, and have no time for whiz kids.

  6. tim from texas says:

    Almost everyone everywhere in this country gets a standing ovation now.
    Too much praise or praise all the time or most of the time makes the recepients full of themselves, especially children. It’s an ancient lesson that we seem to want to forget or ignore. So, is another ancient lesson, that is even more important in my opinion, to remember. It is monkey see monkey do.

  7. Linda Seebach says:

    How did they get informed consent for that experiment? And how control for the fact that kids are not equally smart?

    And is it ethical to lie to low-income students in order to get them to work harder?

  8. This makes so much sense. As a child I was repeatedly told how smart I was. When my 5th grade teacher decided to try some new technique that involved the class picking our own spelling words, I always picked easy words I’d been spelling correctly for years.

    I was so scared of failure that I didn’t stretch myself at all. I wonder if the teacher ever noticed or said anything to my parents. She certainly didn’t say anything to me about it.

  9. Michael Lopez says:

    There is a peril in praising effort as well, however, one with which I am quite familiar. If you spend too much time praising a student for effort, they may come to see a heroic failure as actually more desireable than than an easy victory — they may come to value the effort more than the result. This is, of course, precisely at odds with what matters once you are OUT of school. No one cares how hard you try or how many obstacles that you have to overcome or how exhausted you are: they just want performance.

  10. Sometimes the best reward is avoiding an unpleasant punishment.

    That’s why Americans won’t take the Asian solution which includes large doses of failure, social sanctions, and in severe cases humiliation. If no one can feel bad about themselves, you deny people the chance to really feel good as well.

  11. “Blanket praise for everyone is meaningless”…one of my nephews, when he was about 8, was shown a school video on the general theme “you are wonderful.” He came home and said to my sister, “Mom, how do they know I’m wonderful? They don’t even know me!”

  12. tim from texas says:

    If all work and effort is praised how will anyone recognize quality effort, work, quality anything.

  13. That’s funny. I think I received more of the “you must be smart” compliments as a little kid (Asian here, btw), but I remember that I liked going after the tougher stuff. Of course, memory tends to play tricks on us, so perhaps I’m just deluding myself.

    My reasoning for liking the hard work was because I was a competitive little weasel and thought, “I want to be the best, and I’m really not the best if I get 100% on this while so-and-so gets 100% on that.”

    And sometimes the easy stuff is just way too boring. Who wants to keep doing the easiest sudoku puzzles over and over again when the more tantalizing advanced levels await?

  14. Indigo Warrior says:

    curm:

    That’s why Americans won’t take the Asian solution which includes large doses of failure, social sanctions, and in severe cases humiliation. If no one can feel bad about themselves, you deny people the chance to really feel good as well.

    American society too has a good share of failure, social sanctions, and humiliation – often at a very early age. How often do you hear of an Asian kid being labelled a “sissy” or “fag” for preferring violin to electric guitar, or preferring geometry to baseball? The stereotype of Asians being obsessive-compulsive or “just plain crazy” (promoted by oh-so-non-racist Hollywood) originates from their culture being supportive of their individual talents from an early age.

    The real difference is that the failures in Asian societies are the unproductive ones; and in American society, the unphotogenic ones.

  15. “…their culture being supportive of their individual talents from an early age.”

    As long as those talents fall in line with what Asian society deems is acceptable. I mean, I really don’t think that most Asian kids have some innate talent for the violin, piano, cello, or flute. I certainly didn’t. It’s just become the default activity of choice for many Asians. If an Asian kid decided he preferred electric guitar, his parents might have heart palpitations.

  16. Indigo Warrior says:

    I just wanted to deflate the myth of the freewheeling, child-centered, happy-go-lucky America vs. oppressively Gradgrindian Asia. For American kids born in the last decade whose parents are successful professionals, the “freewheeling” part is likely true. American kids from blue-collar ghettos in the middle of last century tell a very different story!

    Both American and Asian cultures have their oppressiveness, their mindless tribal conformity. It’s not just “guilt vs. shame”, as oversimplified by the media.

  17. Ah, well, that’s true. :D