In 1999, Melissa Kamins and Carol Dweck made a striking discovery about the best way to praise children. When you are helping a child learn to read, saying “you are a smart girl” as opposed to “you did a good job reading” results in very different behavior when she has trouble reading in the future. Children who have received praise about their abilities (“you’re smart”) rather than specific praise about a task (“you did a good job ___”) are more likely to exhibit “helpless” behavior when they encounter problems. Even though they were praised in both cases, telling kids they are “smart” just didn’t motivate them the way specific praise did.
It’s hard to deny the child’s logic in this case. “I am a smart girl,” she may think. “But I can’t read this sentence. Therefore it must be impossible.” But if she believes that she was able to do a good job reading in the past, then maybe if she just tries a little harder, she will eventually be able to surmount the current problems.
The lesson seems to be that generic praise is less effective than specific praise. But how generic is too generic? A new study led by Andrei Cimpian makes a subtler distinction between the generic and specific praise to see if the effect persists.
Instead of praising kids with “you are good” or “you are smart,” they offered more specific generic praise. Children were given a pretend drawing task, and were praised either with “you are a good drawer” (generic) or “you did a good job drawing” (specific). What did they find? First, let’s take a closer look at what Cimpian’s team did.
Four-year-olds picked a puppet to represent themselves pretending to draw. The experimenter had a second “Teacher Debbie” puppet. Teacher Debbie told the child “draw” a tree using the puppet and a green pipe-cleaner “crayon.” Teacher Debbie then praised the child using either specific praise (“you did a good job drawing”) or generic praise (“you are a good drawer”). This was repeated with three different drawings.
Then the child was asked about her/his experiences with the third drawing — how they felt about the drawing, and about the activity in general.
Next there was one more positive drawing experience, followed by two negative experiences. First Teacher Debbie asked the child to draw a school bus. When the child had her/his puppet show the “drawing” to the teacher, she complained that it didn’t look like a bus because it had no wheels. Next the kids drew cats, again rated as unsatisfactory because they had no ears.
After these negative experiences, the kids were again asked how they felt about their drawings, and whether they’d like to try again. Here are the results:
After the positive drawing experiences, there was no difference in the responses. But after the negative experiences, kids responded better to each of these two questions when they had previously received specific praise. Responses to six other questions didn’t rise to the level of significance, but when all responses were combined, the effect of specific praise was dramatic. All the questions were designed to measure helpless behavior, and generic praise was associated with helpless behavior with prep = .953. (This means, roughly, that we’re about 95 percent certain that repeating this experiment will give the same results [see this post for more on prep].)
That’s quite an endorsement for specific praise. Even relatively focused generic praise appears to be associated with helpless behavior — and four-year-olds are quite responsive to a seemingly subtle difference in the language of praise.
For more on Dweck’s work with praise, see this nice cover article from New York magazine.
Cimpian, A., Arce, H.C., Markman, E.M., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Subtle linguistic cues affect children’s motivation. Psychological Science, 18(4), 314-316.