The Problem of Praise

The Cosmic Variance post that led to the Cult of Theory post earlier this week was really about a New York magazine article about the negative effects of praising kids for intelligence. It mostly concerns a study done by Carol Dweck, in which fifth-graders who were praised for being smart after an easy test were more risk-averse and scored lower on subsequent tests than students who were praised for working hard:

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. "Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control," she explains. "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."

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.

I don't really have a lot to add to this, other than to note that the article is well worth reading, but I do wonder about the deeper meaning of this. This seems like something that's more likely to be an effect contingent on particular cultural factors than a universal human truth.

I say this just because it seems like a fairly complicated chain of subconscious reasoning. The students in the study not only need to note that "You're really smart" is praise for their natural gifts, but they also need to make the connection between natural gifts and a lack of effort, and the importance of other people's opinion of you.

I'm sort of curious about whether the same sort of thing would happen in other countries. I'm not sure that valuing natural gifts over hard work is an exclusively American phenomenon, but my vague impression is that we have a bigger obsession with the idea than most other countries (for all that we natter on about "Protestant work ethic" and the like...).

I'm also a little curious about the degree to which this is a generational thing. The studies are being done now with young children, but we keep hearing about how the current generation of college students is very different than past generations. While I don't generally give a lot of credence to generation-level generalizations, I do wonder if the results would be different for adults from an earlier era.

A lot of this does sort of ring true, though, particularly the stuff about the relative status of hard work and natural intelligence. It's certainly true among college students, and has been at least since I was a student. When I was in college, a lot of people I knew would make a big show of bragging about how little work they put into various classes. I did it myself, from time to time, bragging about how I once wrote a ten-page paper in just under two and a half hours, and still got a decent grade on it.

Of course, the vast majority of us were lying, and were actually putting in a fair amount of intense work in order to get things done. But there was more status to be had by appearing to blow classes off than by admitting to working hard, in a lot of the campus. (Though in other contexts, it was more appropriate to exaggerate the amount of work you were putting in. Really, the only constant was that everybody lied about how much work they were doing...)

Anyway, it's an interesting read, and raises some important questions about education and child-rearing.


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I'm still trying to figure out why this is such big news. They did a cross-cultural study involving this type of thinking in the 80's. Are we really just NOW appreciating the implications?

My co-blogger posted about the study (in a somewhat less than reverent tone; link at bottom if I'm allowed to post links); he's a teacher, too (and has been for some time) but of the libertarian variety (I, recall, am of the blackhearted conservative variety - so long as I have poor people to shoot at from my SUV, on the way back from church, I'm as happy as a clam).

I recall reading about a study that showed that, say, Finnish kids had a lower opinion of their own abilities in Maths than American kids but nevertheless kicked American ass in evaluation of their mathematical ability. Not sure to what extent it was shown across the board, though, nor of whether self-appraisal was generally anti-correlated with standardised test results or this was just something that was reported on to pick out the American self-appraisal incongruity.


The study to which I refer was similar, in that it compared elementary school children from China, Japan, and the US. In general, it was found that cultures with a view of intelligence as being innate tended to perform poorly as a whole, relative to cultures with a view of intelligence as being something developed.

At work now, and can't remember off-hand the researchers' names. But this is very, very old news to me.

It certainly fits with my own experiences, although that doesn't mean much compared to the studies themselves. You could sometimes see the hard work going on and on and then, suddenly, significant improvement. I remember teaching one girl (9th grade by US reckoning) that I taught who went from middle of the yeargroup, but working hard, to top 5, in one semester; she just wouldn't give up and it paid off. I don't think that, had she not believed that she could improve herself by working at it, she'd have had the determination to work so hard nor do I think it likely that had she'd have improved had she not worked so hard. There were other cases too, but I just remember that one because she became genuinely exceptionally good.

There is an immense literature on this subject, all supporting the idea that extrinsic reward is damaging to intrinsic motivation. A good popular starting point to understanding that literature is Alfie Kohn's book, "Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes." It is about 7 years out of date now, but none of the subsequent literature has changed any of the points he makes. The study you cite here is just one more datum in a very large body of data.

One of the classic studies was even re-created on Oprah, with Kohn there to discuss it. They set up what was ostensibly a market research study for toys, and invited kids in to a monitored room to watch how they play with an assortment of toys. Half the kids were offered a reward (money, a few dollars) for playing with the toys, the other half were simply offered the opportunity to play. After the 15 minute or so 'market research' time, the child was told the study was over, but could s/he please wait 5 minutes and then answer some questions - and then (the point of the study) the kids were observed while they waited.
Less than 10% of the kids who were rewarded for playing continued to play with the toys during that 5 minutes. Nearly all of the kids who were not rewarded, continued to play.
Volumes of studies, operating on short term (like this study) or longer term motivations, have confirmed the same point. Extrinsic motivation kills intrinsic motivation.

There is an immense literature on this subject, all supporting the idea that extrinsic reward is damaging to intrinsic motivation. A good popular starting point to understanding that literature is Alfie Kohn's book, "Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes." It is about 7 years out of date now, but none of the subsequent literature has changed any of the points he makes. The study you cite here is just one more datum in a very large body of data.

This doesn't sound like the same sort of thing to me.
The difference here isn't one of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation, it's a difference in what sort of praise the students receive. The motivation is all extrinsic, as far as I can see, but it's a different emphasis.

Intelligence is the only observable that cannot be counterfeited. If you don't have the engine then it makes no difference how well the transmission is geared. If you want muscles, lift weights. Different folks have different endpoints. Arrival should be a place where you want to be.

If psychologists were any good they'd have better jobs.

I can see how getting a student to accept the label "Intelligent (therefore doesn't need to work)", but what about students who get called "Lazy"?

If a student does poorly on a test and is told they're just innately lazy (and therefore not capable of hard work), is the result any different from being called "Stupid". My guess is not.

When calling someone "hard working" or "lazy", it's sometimes unclear whether we're referring to a supposedly innate feature, or to something that the student can change by an effort of will. I think the distinction is quite fuzzy in the mind of both most teachers and most students.

As a current college student, I can say that this never happened to me (and I was praised in that manner occasionally). It's possible that it might have something to do with the ridiculous amounts of pressure that parents are starting to put on kids. It wasn't bad with me, but it is for some people. So I'm with you on betting that this isn't a universal truth.

Stuart #9: The study, presumably, only claims that it is a statistical truth, in any case.

Kapitano #8: I have never seen anyone suggest to a student that 'lazyness' is irredeemable and inherent. As teachers, we tend to encourage students not to be lazy but rather to be hardworking, the obvious implication being that such a transition is possible.

The best part of the article was the observation that kids cheat because they don't know how to deal with failure. It's interesting to consider all the stories I've read in the past few years about how common cheating has become in light of the fact the kids hitting college now were fully immersed self-esteem culture.

Quite a few of the comments at Cosmic Variance relayed a story similar to that laid out in the opening of the article: that they could complete most academic tasks without much effort throughout elementary school, high school, sometimes college, and even less sometimes graduate school, but eventually reached a point at which this method of winging it eventually failed, sometimes catastrophically.

So suppose a kid aces a math test that nobody else got an "A" on, and finished it 15 minutes before everyone else to boot. From the comments on CV, I'd say this is a reasonable thing to have occured for many of its readers. The article cautions against praising the kid for "being smart" but instead to praise his/her "hard work." But what if the kid didn't really work hard? What happens to the kid's notion of what it means to work hard when he finally comes up against something that requires hard work?

The article doesn't quite let on that there actually are "smart" kids out there, kids who can complete academic tasks with much less effort than their peers. The take home message seems to be that these kids need to be challenged and made to work hard, so then you can legitimately praise them for working hard.

There are all sorts of reasons to set differentiated tasks so that all the kids have something that requires them to work hard.

So far as praise is concerned, it seems to me that the important thing is that it's contextual; some people react well to praise, some don't.

Um, this is a very old recognized truth. Didn't you ever hear the story of the Tortoise and the Hare?

By Caledonian (not verified) on 28 Feb 2007 #permalink

Shouldn't we be encouraging productivity and not "working hard"? Working hard to me has come across as putting lots of hours into something. It is interesting to observe and listen to people in other labs. One of my classmates goes into lab on weekends and stays for x number of hours no matter what actually needs to get done, making sure to email his/her advisor a question when gets in and when she/he leaves. Why? The advisor rewards long hours in lab. Results are rewarded but not to the same extent as "working hard". In fact that was one of the main reasons that PI tried to recruit me to the lab after I rotated in it, because I was willing to "put the hours" in to get an assay to work and why I did not join. My advisor is very successful, the lab is incredibly productive much to the chagrin of younger PIs in our subfield. Do people usually spend long hours in lab? Yes but more on the 10 hour/day level with coming in on the weekends for a few hours (50-60 hours/week). At conferences, talking with our competitors in labs with PIs who reward "working hard" they tend to work in the 60 to 70 hours/week range, yet we still turn out more. One major reason I think is because our advisor encourages us to be productive more than anything else. His favorite story to tell people who join the lab is about his first two graduate students. One worked 40 hours/week but was highly organized, thought & planned his/her experiments out & prepared for the next day's work. The other was "hard working" would spend 60 + hours/week in lab but wasn't productive. The 40 hours/week student graduated in 4.5 years. The 60+hours/week student took 5.5 years. Each in the end producing about the same amount of results. Given they were doing lots of growths and running gels that took 12 hours to run, at certain point whether you worked 8 hours or 10+ hours per day in lab didn't really matter-the same results were going to be achieved.

Knowing when to put long hours in and when to call it day and sleep on things, I think is an essential skill that is not fostered enough in our society. Too many times people are encouraged to work long hours & rewarded accordingly. I am more with Adam's push to challenge students to go further and understand more by setting up tasks that require them to really think about something.

I've read that students who are praised for their hard work will subsequently choose to do more difficult tasks in order to pursue that same reward. Students praised for their intelligence assume that their success is inherent.