When Praising Children Backfires

Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman, in their book NurtureShock, note that new studies indicate that certain kinds of praise of children can have an unintended consequence of making children risk averse 1. When a child is praised for their intelligence, there is a tendency for that child to steer away from difficult challenges. The avoidance suggests they fear that if they fail the difficult task, then their status as (innately) intelligent may be revoked, or disproved. If, however, the child is praised for their effort, the child becomes more willing to select more challenging problems; perhaps their confidence was buoyed, or perhaps they are seeking another compliment. Either way, it seems the type of praise makes a difference.
If I am seeking more praise, and I am praised for being smart, I may avoid situations that may disprove my smarts. If I am praised for putting in effort, I may seek out situations to get more of that praise.
Similarly, when kids had it explained to them that their brain is like a muscle, and that their smarts are not innate, but rather malleable, and they can improve their intelligence, they were also found to put in more effort, and their grades improved. Conversely, when the message of intelligence as innate was conveyed, kids put in less effort. The message they received seemed to be ‘either you’ve got brains or you don’t, so there’s no point to effort’.

  1. NurtureShock, Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman pp. 14-15[]