Sunday, May 31, 2009

the inverse effects of praise

While preparing my lessons for the Beehives, I often check out some online resources, such as beginningsnew (website founded/run by a friend's sister who is a YWP - not that this makes her an expert, but I seem to have a similar way of looking at things as she does). There was a link on the side that led me to a rediscovery of some studies done on praise.

It seems logical and helpful to tell our kids that they are smart, in order to help foster a healthy self esteem and to help teach them that they can do whatever they set their minds to. In actuality, much research shows that praising EFFORT over ability is actually crucial. I've never been a big fan of psychological research. In mulling this over last night, it finally struck me that it's not psychological studies per se that cook my goose, it's poorly designed research in general that drives me bananas. I just have a stronger association between psych studies and poor design for some reason. So, I've been trying to be more open minded.

The studies referenced in this NY Mag article conducted by Carol Dweck totally intrigue me. Briefly, in one experiment, students were given ONE LINE of praise following a simple puzzle test. When they completed the task they were either told they 'must be really smart' or that they 'must have worked really hard.' When given the choice of a second test and told that one was easier, but that the other would teach them a lot, the majority of 'smart' kids chose the easy one, and 90% of the 'good effort' kids chose the harder one. Kids praised for their intelligence are more afraid of failing or looking bad - exactly opposite the effect parents are shooting for when by TELLING their kids that they're smart.

The entire article was fascinating to me, in particular the conclusion. After doing a significant amount of research, the author took a step back and looked at how she treated her 5 year old. The old adage 'Try, try again' seemed too trite, until she came across some research about persistence. There is an unconscious neural circuit in the brain that is activated when a reward is not immediate. This circuit is formed by intermittent rewards - if a subject is rewarded too frequently, they'll (a rat in this case, but people too) give up when the rewards stop. The author discovered that praising her son was a way of expressing her love for him, a way of playing catch-up for all the hours she wasn't with him during the day. HE didn't need the praise as much as she needed to give it.

This article just reminded me AGAIN of the real power of words. When Katie first started doing puzzles, I would say 'WOW! You're really clever!' when she'd figure out something that I thought was beyond her age. Of course, since I'm her mom and she's the first, I naturally think she's a genius to begin with - there is just a small amount of inherent bias here. Then I ended up with a two year old running around saying 'I sure am a clever girl.' Not that she isn't, but it's something she needs to figure out and know for herself.

The original article that sent me to the NY Mag article also has gotten my noodle cooking a ton, more in terms of the Beehives I teach. Girls/women are often told that they are 'special' and that they are 'naturally more in tune with the Spirit.' Never mind right now why that is, or whether or not that is true, but it has far-reaching consequences. A few - like probably 10 by now - years ago, a RS teacher made some statement to the effect of: 'RS is just more touchy-feely than Elder's Quorum' - with the implication being that RS is 'doctrinally light.' My friend Kari and I - sitting on opposite sides of the chapel (where the lesson was being taught) - in the same instant yelled out 'NO!' I think that silly attitude is used by a lot of girls as an excuse for not studying/figuring things out for themselves. Just as telling your child that she's smart is well-intentioned, I think that telling girls that they are naturally more spiritual - equally well-intentioned - can actually be an obstacle for them in learning how God talks to them individually. If an answer to a prayer doesn't come readily, then it must be because there is something wrong with them. How do you help someone understand patience and persistence and WORK if they think that they are just magically supposed to succeed? How do I in 30 minutes (max!) of class time a week help pound home the need for constant, consistant effort to figure things out for themselves? And sometimes it's going to be HARD!

So today, we ended up talking about how to stand up for others - including ourselves - by saying NO to things that are not OK for us. That being assertive is not the same as being rude. And in the background of my head I've been trying to figure out how to help a 12 year old understand that having a boyfriend 'because he's hot' is not the greatest reason in the world . . .


MiaKatia said...

I read this article a while back (How not to talk to your children). It was really interesting to me as well. Since then I have made more of an effort to praise my kids for their effort. I am not sure it is having any lasting effects on their desire to work or to learn but I hope it does.

I always love it when your noodle gets cooking. I think that you may not be able to convey all you want to these girls in the very short 30 minutes you have allotted to you. But over time you will be able to teach them so many important things. They do need to learn that even though they are endowed with special traits that make them special as women they do have to work at their spirituality and their relationship with Heavenly Father. Lessons I wish I had learned earlier in life. Because it is going to be hard and it is going to be even harder if they don't have the tools and the spiritual strength to see them through.

The Brainology Team said...

Hi Dr. Kat. We enjoyed your post, thank you. We also wanted to let you and your readers know that Dr. Carol Dweck (the author of the studies you quoted) has a book that talks about the effects of praise and other things related to the same topic, the growth mindset, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (available from She also has an online program to help middle school students cultivate a growth mindset and understand the link between effort and brain development. The program is available at We're glad to hear that you found her research helpful and look forward to continuing to help cultivate lifelong learners. Best wishes!