Praise, Self-esteem, And Performance Rise And Fall Together

June 16, 2018


Once upon a time, there was a young researcher that was fascinated by how people coped with failure and obstacles. She was curious about why some students love challenge, and others who may be equally skilled, shy away from challenges. She and her team decided to study the effect of praise on children’s motivation and performance and organized a series of experiments with four hundred fifth-graders in New York schools. She would take kids one at a time into a room and give them a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles. The tests were easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. When the children finished the test, the researcher would tell them their score and then a single line of praise. She would randomly praise some kids for their intelligence stating “You must be smart at this” and others for their effort stating “You must have worked really hard.”

Then, the researcher offered students a choice of test for the second round. The kids were told that they could choose a difficult test from which they could learn a lot. The other choice that the kids were presented with was an easy test, just like in the first round. That’s when the researcher and her team observed something very interesting. Ninety percent of the students that were praised for their effort went for the harder test, while most of the students that were praised for their intelligence picked the easy test. The results were enlightening. The researcher learned that when children are praised for their intelligence, the subconscious message they receive is “look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” The kids that were praised for being “smart” had done exactly that - they had chosen to stay smart to avoid the risk of being embarrassed. The researcher knew that she was on to something.

The name of this young researcher was Carol Dweck who would later become known as one of the world's leading researchers in the fields of personality, social psychology, and developmental psychology. Dr. Carol S. Dweck earned her PH.D. from Yale University and taught at Columbia and Harvard. She is currently a Professor of Psychology at Stanford. Her key contribution to social psychology is related to motivation, personality, and development, which challenged the common belief that intelligent people are born smart. It all started for Dr. Dweck from that experiment she conducted with children, discovering that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated. Her observations proved that with the right recognition the kids embraced the challenge, truly believing that they were learning, even when presented with very difficult tasks. Failure was not something that crossed their minds. This was a huge discovery for a young researcher who believed that human qualities were carved in stone.

The results of the research were even more telling once Dr. Dweck’s performed a follow-up round with the same group of students. This time the students were not given a choice. All students got the same challenging test that was designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. As expected, none of the students succeeded at this test. However, what was striking is that the kids praised for their effort on the first test applied a lot of effort and willingness to try every possible solution to the puzzles, and when failed, assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. This group actually enjoyed and was pleased when confronted with the challenging puzzles. Dr. Dweck was amazed to hear 10-year-old kids say things like “I love a challenge!” She was also amazed to hear the kids that were praised for their smarts accept their failure as evidence that they weren’t really smart. In conclusion, after the round of failure, Dr. Dweck gave all the students a final round of tests that were as easy as the first round test. The students that were praised for their effort improved their first score by thirty percent, while the "smart" students actually did worse than the first time by twenty percent.

Dr. Dweck initially expected differences among children in how they coped with the difficulty but was blown away by the magnitude of the impact of praise on kids. This effect of praise on performance also held true for students of every socioeconomic class when the study was repeated with different groups. She concluded that “Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. 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.” Dr. Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort by thinking "I am smart, I don’t need to put out effort." Furthermore, this type of mindset encourages them to focus on arranging successes and avoiding failures at all costs to stay “smart”. Struggles, mistakes, perseverance do not become part of this picture. This type of worldview was coined as a fixed mindset by Dr. Dweck.

The opposite of the fixed mindset is the growth mindset, also formulated by Dr. Dweck. She explains that in this mindset, people view the hand they are dealt with as just the starting point for development. She bases the growth mindset on the belief that our basic qualities are things we can cultivate through our efforts, our strategies, and help from others. Her observation is that “although we may differ in our initial aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience.“ Her extensive study showed that it is impossible to predict a person’s true potential or foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training. So, to help parents to get their kids started on the right path, she advises that "the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence."

If you are a parent that wants to learn the strategies on how to develop the growth mindset in your children, check out the following article for tips and specific steps to learn how to communicate the values that bring success.

Check out the next article here:
How To Communicate Values That Bring Success

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