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Why certain types of praise can backfire

28 Aug 2018

Professor Paul O Keefe

Praising intelligence can hinder children’s intellectual development. Instead, embrace a growth mindset and praise hard work and evolving abilities, which can lead to greater success.

We all enjoy being praised. It’s a quick ego-boost and makes us feel good about ourselves.  So it’s only natural that we want our kids to feel the same way. We think that if they feel good about themselves, then results and performance will follow suit. But are all praises created equal?

When a child excels at something, should you say: “Wow, you’re really smart”? Or is it better to go with: “Wow, you must have worked really hard on this”? Do the subtle differences even matter?

According to Dr Paul O’Keefe, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale-NUS College, research shows they do. Not all praises are the same and it is useful for parents and teachers to know the difference.

“When we praise intelligence, what we’re saying is that the reason you did well is that you have a natural ability,” he said. “So it’s communicating to them that intelligence is an entity that you have or you don’t.”

Such compliments present pitfalls. When kids believe that they have a fixed level of intelligence, they can struggle to overcome setbacks and failures.

Dr O’Keefe referred to a seminal study from 1998, conducted by two researchers, Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck. Fifth-grade students were each given an easy task to complete, which they did successfully.

Half of them were then praised for their ability while the others were praised for their effort. When the children were asked to complete a second, highly challenging task, the results were startling.

“Those who were praised for their ability didn’t persist or perform well,” he explained. “The others who were praised for their effort did better, because they came to understand that their hard work would pay off on the second task as it did with the first.”

How a fixed mindset can be dangerous

This contrast in how children perform can be explained by “growth” versus “fixed” intelligence mindsets. When children are praised for their effort, they believe that they can become more capable with hard work, and is what psychologists call a growth mindset of intelligence.

However, praising children for intelligence leads them to believe that they excel due to innate qualities they possess. When they do not succeed, they tend to attribute it to not being smart enough. In other words, they develop a fixed mindset.

Dr O’Keefe shared that he was first exposed to the theory when he was a researcher at Yale University.

The theory gels with his personal experiences. “I had a fixed mindset when I was young. I was a defeatist,” he said. He explained that growing up, many people in his social environment had fixed mindsets too, and it influenced him to think that way, whether it was through what they said, or by observing how they responded to setbacks.

But after attending a lecture on this topic of mindsets, it set him thinking. “I thought to myself: what if I tried really hard? Let’s just see what happens. After that, I just started getting ‘A’s, and had one success after another, which reinforced the idea that intelligence was, in fact, developable” he said.

People also have mindsets about interest

In collaboration with Carol Dweck and Greg Walton of Stanford, Dr O’Keefe has examined fixed and growth mindsets in a different domain: people’s interests. Those with a fixed mindset tend to abandon budding interests when the tasks become difficult, he noted.

This is because people holding a fixed mindset of interest tend to believe that they possess an inherent interest that will make pursuing the new interest relatively easy once discovered. When they encounter challenges and setbacks, they may interpret it as a sign that it was not their true interest after all.

On the flipside, people with a growth mindset are more likely to persist. They believe that interests are developed over time rather than inherent, and therefore maintain interests when they become difficult to pursue.

“People with a growth mindset of interest maintain interests because they do not expect it to always be easy. They see interests as a developmental process, and every developmental process is going to have its ups and downs,” he said.

Developing a growth mindset in kids

How do you build a growth mindset in children?

First, when talking about intelligence, the manner in which parents offer feedback is critical. When kids fail or face setbacks, do not say: “You didn’t get it”. Instead, opt for a more positive one: “You haven’t gotten it yet”.

The latter phrasing could alter how children perceive the nature of their abilities. Rather than berating them for not being capable enough, suggest to them that they can improve and help them learn how to seek the right solutions. 

Feedback should gear children toward future improvement and not focus on past shortcomings, he added. This helps kids understand that every obstacle can be overcome with effort or the right strategy.

Second, when cultivating a child’s interests, do not maintain clear and strict delineation between subjects. Instead of saying a child is arts- or science-oriented, for example, keep the options open. Help children understand that different subjects are interconnected and that they can develop interests in many subjects; they do not have a predetermined set of interests.

“Why can’t you enjoy both the arts and sciences? Why can’t one area complement and enhance the other? Look at technology company Apple. It’s a perfect example of how the arts and technology can be integrated. You’ll often end up with more innovative ideas if you see connections among the disciplines rather than only within them,” said Dr O’Keefe, adding that the Yale-NUS Common Curriculum takes a multidisciplinary approach and combines both arts and science-related courses.

With regard to cultivating growth mindsets of intelligence and interest, parents also need to go beyond endorsing a growth mindset to living by example. When parents make an effort to pick up new skills and interests, they become role models to children who will better understand the concept of growth mindset where intelligence and interests are not fixed.

For example, parents could show their children—through their own actions—that they, too, believe their own interests are not fixed. They could pursue new interests and stick with them even when they get difficult, he shared. Parents may want to pursue a new subject, for instance. If you are trained in science, why not learn more about the arts, and try to pick up music, singing, or learn to play an instrument?

So it’s never too late to start developing another interest—or even another skill—today. When was the last time you learnt something new?