Can too much praise be a bad thing?

Does the wrong kind of praise discourage schoolchildren?: Photo courtesy of Community Consolidated School District 15, Chicago, and NIST

All parents face the challenge of motivating their children to do well at school. Many tell their kids how smart they are to encourage them. But now comes a study showing that too much praise can be a bad thing:

The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”


Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice... was an easy test, just like the first. 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.

A second round of tests actually showed that students praised for their intelligence did worse on later tests than students praised for their efforts.

The lead researcher explains the phenomenon:

“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.”

Of course, a lot of this was explained by John Holt in his 1964 classic How Children Fail. But it's always good to get a reminder.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

This came from a New York Magazin article titled "How Not to Talk to Your Kids". Amazing article. And this does exmplain so good job but next time, you should cite the quotations.

posted on Tue, 12/07/2010 - 11:47pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

The words in red in the original post are a link to the NYTimes story. So while not formally cited (the way a teacher might ask you to do it), the quotations are attributed via link.

posted on Thu, 12/09/2010 - 7:41pm

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