Ability, Effort, Praise, and Self-Esteem

I don’t particularly like New York City, but a subscription to New York magazine came free of charge with some membership or other, and I’ve just finished an article I’m going to remember for a very long time.

Many people joke about how the self-esteem movement has cheapened praise, emptying it of much of the content it formerly held. But in “How Not to Talk to Your Kids,” Po Bronson describes studies from experimental psychology that may surprise you. It turns out that praise of the wrong sort isn’t just empty; it can actually be very harmful.

I was particularly convinced by a four-step study of fifth graders in the New York public schools. In phase one, two groups of students were given the same test, a fairly easy one. After predictably scoring well, one group was told, “You must be smart at this,” while the other group was told, “You must have worked really hard.” This one line of feedback was enough to cause dramatic differences in how the two groups responded to the next three phases of testing. For example, in phase two, the researchers asked the kids whether they wanted to do another “easy test, just like the first,” or a test that would be more difficult but from which they were promised they would learn a lot. A majority of the kids who had been praised for being smart chose the easy test, whereas ninety percent of the kids who had been praised for working hard wanted to take the more challenging phase two test. The explanation? Kids praised for being smart fear failure and shun effort, which they come to believe is only for people who aren’t smart enough to do without it. Kids praised for effort are not as threatened by the prospect of failure; they are conditioned to respond to challenging situations by working harder.

In phase three, both groups were given tests two years ahead of their grade level. Everyone failed. But the kids who had been praised for their effort in phase one attributed their failure to not having worked hard enough, and they responded by getting “very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles. . . .Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.'” By contrast, the kids who had been praised for being smart assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. The were described as “sweating and miserable.”

Finally, in phase four . . . no, I won’t spoil it. Read about phase four yourself. But lest anyone think that this topic is related solely to academic achievement, the article describes further findings suggesting that kids praised for effort rather than for innate ability are likely to be more persistent, more honest, more resilient in the face of adversity, and less dependent on instant gratification. In addition — and this point should be of particular interest to Reasonable Minds — “research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern — they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down.”

That explains a lot, doesn’t it?

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2 Responses to “Ability, Effort, Praise, and Self-Esteem”

  1. Steve Grannis Says:

    Good effort, Mark! You’re smart!

  2. Mark Patton Says:

    Thanks for the link to this article. It’s actually exceedingly timely, in that there has been a fairly intense discussion in our house over the past few days of the fact that “A’s for effort” don’t count for a whole lot in the adult world. My wife, gentle soul that she is, insists that “nice try” is a meaningful and valuable form of praise–even for adults. My tendency, aggressive nut that I too often am, is to think that “grown ups” don’t really care how hard you worked–they only care if you did the job right.

    I still think my view is an accurate statement of the prevailing culture in many–perhaps most–professions. This story has substantially eroded my cock-sure, if somewhat world-weary, view that this is simply the nature of the world. (Warning! Imagination Failing!) More importantly, it’s brought home with great impact the fact that this sort of jaundiced “show me the money” approach is likely to be massively destructive to children, and indeed to anyone trying something new.


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