February 19th, 2007


Inverse relationship between praising a child's intelligence and how well they will do

If you're not familiar with it, there's a great article on psychologist Carol Dweck's research in New York Magazine, How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise.

“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.”

So then they don't risk failure, and get stressed out by a challenge more than they would otherwise. “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck wrote in her study summary, “we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”

Children who are taught that the brain develops and changes, and that intelligence can therefore increase through work, do better than children who are not given that lesson.

The article also discusses the work of other researchers, such as:

Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer, a pioneer in the field, conducted a series of studies where children watched other students receive praise. According to Meyer’s findings, by the age of 12, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign you did well—it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement. And teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

One key to praise may be intermittent reinforcement, in order to instill persistence. Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis located the circuit in a part of the brain called the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex. It monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.” His studies indicate the brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”