The Perils of Praising Children

Awesome! You’re so smart! So automatic for most parents. The string of praise after your child’s feats from large to trivial. Especially for those of us raised at the zenith of self-esteem worship. The theory being that praise begets self-esteem that begets achievement and assorted other valued outcomes. A notion that even Roy Baumeister, the one-time academic guru of self-esteem, eventually debunked after reviewing the by-then massive literature. Praise, as it turns out, does not always lead to higher self-esteem, or better performance. In fact, many researchers have come to conclude praise can be particularly perilous. Even after success. Yes, success. Ridiculous? Read on.

Researchers Mueller and Dweck suspected the type of praise children received would affect their academic goals and the attributions for their successes and failures. You might have read about their research in a recent New York magazine, you might remember the cover, the boy-king languishing on the oversized throne?

Here’s how it went. One hundred twenty-eight fifth-graders completed a relatively easy set of mathematical problems. Each was told that he or she did very well on the problems. Now here’s the experimental manipulation. Some then heard “you must be smart”, others, “you must have worked hard.” Next the kids had to choose what kind of problems they would prefer to do later (they wouldn’t actually be doing them). The tasks focused on either performance (“easy problems so I’ll do well”) or learning (“problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look smart”). After doing a second, more difficult set of math problems all the children were told they did poorly. Then they were asked about the reasons for their poor performance, their enjoyment of the problems, and whether they’d like to do more problems. Then they did a third set of problems similar in difficulty to the first set.

Okay. Now the interesting stuff. Do you think the type of praise children received affected them? You bet. Those whose ability was praised (you’re smart) chose the “easy” problems they could do well on. Reflecting a desire to do well. Perform well. But those who were praised for their effort (you worked hard) chose to do problems they could learn a lot from doing. Reflecting a desire to learn. Moreover, those who got ability praise enjoyed doing the problems less and had less desire to do more problems than those who got effort praise. They also were more likely to attribute their poor performance (on the 2nd set) to their lack of ability. The kids praised for effort were more likely to attribute their poor showing to lack of effort.

And here’s the troubling part. Yes, it gets darker for the children whose intelligence was lauded. They actually DID worse on the third set of problems than the other kids. In fact, though there was no difference in how the two groups did on the first set of problems, their scores fell on the third set. Even though it was relatively easy like the first set, they did worse. The “effort” kids? They actually improved on the last set. The praise bolstered their performance.

Striking, eh? Those are pretty persuasive results. Significant findings on all measures, including one performance measure. A nice, tidy study. What any researcher would love. Mueller and Dweck present five other similar studies in this paper. All very successful studies. Successful enough to land in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the A+, the front-runner, the primo journal in the field.

Now, it’s true that this set of studies was conducted over a short period of time. But it is striking that just one sentence (you’re smart/you work hard) had such powerful effects not only on children’s beliefs but also actual performance. So imagine what happens over the long haul. Kids can hear a whole lot of praise. Know what I mean? We do have some evidence of this phenomenon going on in the real world, as opposed to an experiment. For example, Dweck, a highly regarded researcher, has just published a real world investigation demonstrating how an emphasis on ability derails students over their middle school years. At this time the perils of praise are well-documented in experiments and in real life.

Thus I have to wonder about these findings in the context of our present educational system. In the context of No Child Left Behind, an initiative that if anything, emphasizes results. We hear all the time about teachers teaching to the test. Make you worried? Make you cringe?

Read the article for free.

Mueller, C. and Dweck, C. (2007). Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Praise. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78 (1), 33-52.


Anonymous said...

As i read your review of the perils of praise, i caught myself flashing back to dozens of memories of me lauding my kids with superlatives after some of their most silly achievements.
the emphasis of effort over achievement fits well with my belief of "i can" over "IQ" ... but seeing this research have such strong results is stunning.
Great stuff, dr polly. thanks!

Bobby said...

Thanks for the research. Making sure kids know it is the effort they put into a project that is going to train them to handle all aspects of their future is important. It is easier to get them to apply themselves when they learn what the rewards of hard work can be. The praise is good, but getting them to truly understand what achievement means and what it can bring to their lives is just as important.