The power of praise
There’s a fascinating article in the New York Magazine
about the dramatic effects of different types of praise on a child’s success when tackling new challenges.
A team of researchers led by Prof Carole Dweck asked children to complete a series of short tests, and randomly divided into groups. Each child was given a single line of praise.
One group was praised for their intelligence (”You must be smart at this”), while the others were praised for their effort (”You must have worked really hard”). This simple difference had a startling effect.
Children who were praised for their effort were more likely to choose a harder test when given a choice, were less likely to become disheartened when given a test they were guaranteed to fail, and when finally given the original tests again, their marks improved.
In contrast, the children praised for their intelligence tended to choose an easier test if asked, were distressed by failure, and actually had worse marks after re-taking the original tests.
Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”
In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids’ reasoning goes; I don’t need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.
Repeating her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls—the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure).
Praising children is incredibly important. Countless psychological studies have shown that excessive critical comments have a damaging effect on mental health.
This research just suggests that in terms of encouraging children to tackle challenges effectively, praising their effort seems more effective than praising their intelligence.