For almost as long as the self-esteem movement has been infiltrating America’s schools and homes, research has shown that it is counterproductive.
Children who are showered with empty praise and unearned rewards lose motivation, lose the ability to persist in the face of failure and ultimately do worse than those who are taught a work ethic.
Children who are told that they are brilliant do less well than do children who are praised for their effort.
The moral of the story is that the Tiger Mom was on to something. Our self-esteemist culture despised the Tiger Mom but she was following precepts that have been shown, by American researchers, to be far more effective than those prescribed by the empty praise movement.
The truth has been out there for years. I recently learned of an article that Po Bronson wrote about it in New York Magazine in 2007. My thanks to Dennis for the tip.
Bronson explained that the godfather of this movement was someone named Nathaniel Branden:
Since the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem, in which Nathaniel Branden opined that self-esteem was the single most important facet of a person, the belief that one must do whatever he can to achieve positive self-esteem has become a movement with broad societal effects. Anything potentially damaging to kids’ self-esteem was axed. Competitions were frowned upon. Soccer coaches stopped counting goals and handed out trophies to everyone. Teachers threw out their red pencils. Criticism was replaced with ubiquitous, even undeserved, praise.
Dr. Roy Baumeister had been a believer in the value of empty praise. When he studied the phenomenon he concluded that he had been wrong:
Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves, debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”
The empty praise movement taught parents and teachers to lie to children, systematically and shamelessly. Bronson reported ons what happened:
For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.
When parents praise their children’s intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.
Unfortunately, if a child’s parents tell him that he is smart, he will start underperforming. The most important research was performed by Prof. Carol Dweck. Bronson described it:
“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.” And that’s what the fifth-graders had done: They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.
Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn’t focused hard enough on this test. “They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles,” Dweck recalled. “Many of them remarked, unprovoked, ‘This is my favorite test.’ ” Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. “Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable.”
So, empty praise makes you dumber. A work ethic makes you smarter.
In Bronson’s words:
Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck’s researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who’d been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.
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.”
Children who are told that they are naturally talented and gifted conclude that they do not need to make an effort. They believe that their innate abilities will allow them to breeze through any task. If anything goes wrong they do not have a work ethic to allow them to soldier on:
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 will underscore here the potentially salutary effect of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule. Whatever you think of the rule, at the very lest it tells people that, besides your talent, you cannot succeed if you do not put in an enormous amount of effort over an extended period of time.
Short of becoming a Tiger Mom, one good way to motivate students, the researchers found, is to tell them that the brain is a muscle. The harder you work it the stronger it becomes.
The teachers—who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.
The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.
It should not be surprising that the more you lie to children the less they will believe anything that you say. If you offer too much empty praise children will eventually feel that all praise is empty.
In Bronson’s words:
Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.