Praise Junkies

by Stacey

Kids who are told they are “smart” may actually do worse in school than kids who are praised for hard work. This from a growing body of research on the effects of praise on kids.

Last February Po Bronson published a cover story in New York magazine, in which he looked at a series of studies on praise. In one experiment, considered to be seminal in the field, researcher Carol Dweck and a team of others at Columbia University (she is now at Stanford) conducted a study on 400 fifth graders. This was the set up:

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. 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 kids were given a choice for a second test. They were told one option was a set of puzzles that would be more difficult than the first test, but the kids would learn a lot from it. The other test, they were told, was as easy as 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.

In her summary, Dweck explained the results. “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”

Then the researchers returned to the classrooms for another round of tests. This time, the students were not given a choice and the test was intended to be too difficult. (It was designed for students who were two grades ahead.) The fifth graders roundly failed.

But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study’s start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ ” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”

The researchers made one final visit to the students, this time giving them a test that was as easy as the first.

Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.

The conclusion from all of this was that when effort was emphasized, the kids felt they could control the outcome. When told their success was a result of innate intelligence, the children became overly concerned about the appearance of success.

Also troubling, Dweck discovered that students who were told they were smart developed a negative view of effort; trying hard became equated with the inability to rely on natural gifts.

Other studies show similar results. One meta-analysis of 150 praise studies by researchers at Reed College and Stanford found kids who are praised too much become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. They are more competitive with their peers and more interested in comparing themselves to others.

After I saw this article I kept thinking about why we praise our kids so much. Bronson says it’s an indirect way of praising ourselves, which I thought was an interesting take on it. He also suggests that it’s our way of letting our kids know we love them and we’re on their side. How shocking to think that we could be undermining them instead. So for now, when I feel the urge to praise I’m going to try to think of something specific to say. If nothing’s there, I’ll zip it. One day at a time.



Filed under child development, education, family life, kids, parenting, psychology, relationships

3 responses to “Praise Junkies

  1. dcslugabed

    Hi Stacey:

    I finally got a wordpress account so I can comment. This is a very interesting article. It seems to me that the study is not cautioning against praising too much though, only against praising for being smart. Praising for effort seems to have positive results. I’ll have to keep that in mind. I think it suggests that the whole concept of “smart” is problematic. I know that in the excellent private high schools and college I attended there was definitely a bias among many that if you were really smart you shouldn’t have to work too hard–and that this bias probably did add to a fear of actually working hard and finding out that your best effort actually wasn’t as “smart” as the next persons. Our friend who is a principal has a slogan for her kids that is something like: “Be kind. Work hard. Get Smart.” I haven’t talked to her about it, but I think that in her school’s context, which serves a lot of underpriveleged kids who in many ways may have been sent the signal that they are not smart, she is trying to emphasize the connection between working and “smartness”–that it’s something you acquire through effort, not something to put in opposition to effort, and certainly not something you’re either born with or not.

  2. Hi Slugabed,
    You are right in many regards. One, not all praise is bad. I neglected to mention that the article says that praise that is specific and sincere is good for kids and motivates them. Praise that is meant to boost their self-esteem, but isn’t really earned is often interpreted for what it is and backfires. Also, the writer in the article talks about telling kids that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use. Or if that’s too tortured, at least that intelligence is developed not a given. Sounds like our friend’s school has an excellent motto. Kudos to her for not being phony – I think so many schools are guilty of piling on fake praise to kids.

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