“Think not those faithful who praise all thy words and actions; but those who kindly reprove thy faults.”
This weekend I read a booked called "Nurture Shock", which outlines some new theories relating to raising children. The first question one might ask, is why a 36-year old bachelor is spending weekends reading child psychology? That is actually a pretty good question and I’m not sure I have an answer. Regardless, the studies in the book appeal more broadly than to just parenting. Specifically, there is one chapter that discusses praise and how to effectively use praise. As I will outline, the insights from this chapter are broadly applicable to the work force and other interpersonal relationships. Not to mention, quite interesting to a 36-year old bachelor!
To some extent, Socrates hit the proverbial nail on the head in his quote above, which is that we need to be very careful with praise. Not only because there may be ulterior motives behind praise, but also because praise itself may be much less effective than we realize. In "Nurture Shock", the authors open this chapter, which is called “The Inverse Power of Praise”, with the following quote:
“Sure, he’s special. But new research suggests if you tell him that, you’ll ruin him. It’s a neurobiological fact.”
To this point, a survey conducted by Columbia University indicated that 85 percent of American parents think it is important to tell their kids they are smart. Ironically, a number of recent studies suggest just the opposite, which is that telling your kid he or she is smart may be actually leading to underperformance.
Dr. Carol Dweck studied fifth graders in New York City over a period of 10-years. The kids were taken out of their classes and given a non-verbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles. At the end of the IQ test, the kids were given a single line of praise. They were told that they were “very smart at this” or they were told “they worked really hard”. In effect, they were either praised for their innate intelligence, or praised for their effort and process.
In the next round of tests, the kids were given a choice of a set of harder tests or a set of easier tests. They were told that they would learn a lot from the harder tests, but that they were definitely harder. Almost 90% of the students that were complimented on their work ethic and process in the first round, chose the more challenging tests. Conversely, the majority of kids who were complimented for “being smart” chose the easier tests. In effect, the “smart kids” took the easier path.
In the next round of tests, none of the kids had a choice and all the kids were given a more difficult test, which was designed for kids who were two years ahead of their grade level. Not surprisingly, everyone failed the second, but the two groups responded very differently. The group that was praised for their effort, and not their smarts, after the first round “got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles.” Conversely, the group that was praised for their smarts “were sweating and miserable.” The results were astounding. The students that were praised for their effort on the first test improved by ~30% on their first score, while those that were praised for their smarts scored worse by ~20%.
In the follow up interviews, Dweck quickly determined the key variable. Those students that believed success was based on innate intelligence, grossly discounted the impact of effort. The reasoning was in effect, “I’m smart. I don’t need to put out effort.” Dweck repeated this initial experiment and found that the results held true for every socioeconomic class and both males and females.
The irony of the results of this experiment, and many like it, are that its results are totally disregarded by many school systems and have been for years. According to Dwek, since the early 1980s:
“Anything potentially damaging to a kids self esteem was axed. Competition was frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed trophies out to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved praise.”
Much of this self esteem movement was actually supported by studies. In fact, from 1970 – 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly studies on self esteem.
In 2003, the Association for Psychological Research asked Dr. Roy Baumeister to review this body of research. Of the 15,000 studies, Baumeister found that only 200 utilized a scientifically sound way to measure self esteem and its outcomes. After reviewing those 200 studies in greater detail, Baumeister concluded that self esteem didn’t improve grades, career achievement or decrease alcohol usage. Ironically up until that point Dr. Baumeister had been an advocate of the unadultered praise philosophy and called this study the biggest disappointment of his career.
Dweck’s work and others like it calls into question how we encourage our children, motivate our employees, and coach our players. One fact that is increasingly clear, telling someone that they are “smart” or “great” merely to boost their confidence will likely have an adverse impact on their actual performance. The key is to encourage the process or actions that will lead to the successful outcome.
As the old saying goes, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” That is of course especially true when the talent is only a mirage created by ill advised attempts to promote self esteem.
Is not being full of praise for your kids tough love? Maybe, but a little tough love may actually going a lot way towards their future success.
Daryl G. Jones