How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.

Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.


Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score–by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning–by about 20 percent.


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.


The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.


In one [study], students are given two puzzle tests. Between the first and the second, they are offered a choice between learning a new puzzle strategy for the second test or finding out how they did compared with other students on the first test: They have only enough time to do one or the other. Students praised for intelligence choose to find out their class rank, rather than use the time to prepare.


But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort–instead of simply giving up–is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification. Delving into this research, I learned that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’salso an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain. Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis located the circuit in a part of the brain called the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex. It monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.” While putting people through MRI scans, Cloninger could see this switch lighting up regularly in some. In others, barely at all.

What makes some people wired to have an active circuit? … “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.” —Po BronsonHow Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise. (New York Magazine)

Praising children for being intelligent led them to choose easier work.

Praising children for their effort makes them more willing to take on more challenging work.

At some point, of course, the student has to produce a final product. At my previous job, I sometimes encountered students who protested that they have come to class every day, they have done all the reading, and they have submitted all the assignments on time, and who seem to feel that simply being a good citizen should earn them the A.

I don’t know whether the students here are different or whether I just do a better job dispelling that notion early in the semester. But I don’t see any more students who expect to coast to an A.

I had never really seen such a clear description of the connection between success and persistence. I’m about to introduce a fiction-writing unit for a freshman English class, and I’m conscious of the fact that some students will have been told by their high school teachers that they are “good writers,” and that some of these students may translate that praise to mean “Because I am a good writer, I won’t have to work very hard on this assignment.” But I’m getting ahead of myself… I still have papers to mark from the last set of exercises, so I should probably cut this off and get on with the routine stuff. (Persistence! I will feel great when I finish that stack of papers! Hold on brain, dopa is coming!)

2 thoughts on “How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.

  1. If you wait until the child has done a good thing, and then praise the determination and persistence that led to the good outcome.

    Praise a child for getting back up on the bike, rather than simply for trying to ride or wanting to learn to ride.

    In physics, effort can be pointless, but work gets something done. Would you feel more comfortable if we shifted the focus to persistence or diligence, rather than general effort? The article I blogged mentions that a hockey team whose members were praised for the number of times they checked an opponent improved the team’s fundamental gameplay, which brought a losing team into the playoffs.

    Two more papers and I’ll be done with the stack I promised I’d get to today… back to work.

  2. Alfie Kohn makes the comment that praising for effort actually produces lower efforts (“you mean its not good work – the only thing is that I _tried_ hard? Man…”) I just finished reading Kohn’s book “Punished by Rewards” which takes the very anti-behaviorist stance that all praise is negatively motivating; instead we should engage the students with questions which lead us deeper into the work without praising them.

    I’m not sure I completely buy it, but it was a very interesting book.

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