Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Praising Effort vs Ability

Carol Dweck is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading researchers in the fields of personality, social psychology and developmental psychology. Her research has differentiated between two kinds of praise. Praising the child for their intelligence – “You must be smart at this” and praising the child for their effort – “You must have worked really hard”. In a study that Dweck conducted multiple times (because the results were almost unbelievable) two groups of students were given a task. One group was praised for their ability while the other was praised for their effort. Before being given any praise, the two groups were indistinguishable; however, after the praise was applied the two groups began to differ. When given another opportunity, the students who were praised for their ability seemed intimidated by a challenging task and overwhelmingly preferred an easier second task; whereas ninety percent of the students who were praised for their effort wanted the challenging, more difficult second task so they could advance their learning. “When we praise children for their intelligence,” Dweck explained, “we tell them that’s the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.”
When given a third opportunity to perform a challenging task, the two groups showed some similarities and some differences. Both groups performed poorly at the challenging task, but their response to this setback differed greatly. The praised-for-effort group proved to be far more resilient in their attitude towards the challenge. Despite their lack of success and frustration with the task, they proved to be far more willing to try different solutions and give it a go. However, Dweck explained “But the group praised for its intelligence hated the harder test. They took it as proof they weren’t smart.”

As if the results from this experiment weren’t enough to make us question our use of praise, Dweck had both groups do a task similar to the difficulty level of the initial test. The praised-for-effort group showed a 30 percent improvement, while the praised-for-ability group’s score actually plunged 20 percent. When both groups were asked to share their scores with others, “almost 40 percent of the ability-praised students lied about their scores. And always in one direction.” Dweck concluded, “What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.”

Dweck’s book Mindset goes on to show the difference between students who have a growth mindset versus those who are stuck in a fixed mindset. People who have a growth mindset see their intelligence as something that is always growing slowly over time, and mistakes are opportunities to grow one’s intelligence. However, people who have a fixed mindset see their intelligence as a prefixed quantity and if you are smart enough, mistakes and failures just shouldn’t happen.

For an extensive look at this research read Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck

This is an excerpt from a larger article I wrote:

Pondering Praise


  1. Thanks for the great post. It seems strange that telling students they're smart could be harmful, but it's true. Dan Willingham's "Why Don't Students Like School?" also talks about this idea and 8 others from cognitive psychology that he feels all educators should be aware of. I'd definitely recommend it.

  2. Fascinating research to support what I already believed in my heart. I appreciate the way you clearly shared this important message. It reminds me of a chapter from Alfie Kohn's book "Punished By Rewards."


  3. I remember last year I was failing classes (much to my parents dissatisfaction and not really mine) and pretty much having a crappy time doing anything. I don't know if it made anything worse for me, but I swear at least 3-4 different teachers/facility and sometimes my parents, each on different occasions always tried to encourage me with "You can do it, you're smart." What I hated about that was that sometimes I didnt really see the problem as one to do with intelligence (it wasn't always classwork that was the problem) and I was sick of hearing "You are smart". I think it made me feel like more was expected of me, I mean they basically said "Oh, you can't/should do that l, you're smart enough". Does being smart suddenly mean I'm less of a kid?

  4. brilliant and fascinating. affirms alfie kohn's work for me too!


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