Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Empty Praise Movement

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.

And also:

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 werent 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.

Bronson wrote:

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.


Anonymous said...

I read the Psychology of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Branden more than once. I do not recall any advice on giving "empty praise." In fact, Branden says the only choice a person has is to think or not think about his or her own personal experience. An abused child, for example, cannot change the fact of abuse or choose not to feel pain in that context, if pain is the natural response to social abuse. Then the only effort a person can make is to think or not think about the causes of his or her feelings.

Who should I blame when I am in pain? You (parent/adult/society) or me (child)? Am I not stuck with praising self and others or blaming self and others due to the need to form an idea about a cause of pleasure or pain? Branden is saying that after childhood one can make an effort to think more accurately and that such thoughts always involve feelings and moral judgments passed on self and others. This is accurate with regard to how my mind actually works.

Self esteem, then, is the idea that I am fit and worthy to live because I have the ability to think about my own feelings, to improve my ability to identify cause and effect by mental efforts, and to use my own cognitive abilities to care for myself and others.

Branden also discovered, while playing with his dog Mitnik, that admiration is central to the capacity to think accurately. Branden discovered that his ability to reason accurately about the causes of life and vitality increased due to the pleasure of interacting with and observing other successful examples of life, and of course, the adults in society are necessary examples of life to keep children alive, so it is humans with which we must interact with admiration to develop cognitive talents and skill.

A child who does not experience admiration as the general case is being abandoned in one way or another even if a myopic moralist cannot "see" this truth due to his or her own emotional filters set in the past. Perhaps she was only praised for effort and criticized by a moralist and has internalized this lack of admiration for self and others, to my detriment and hers.

I agree that empty praise is or can be a form of abandonment that harms self esteem rather than aids in the development of vitality.
But criticism is often painful and destructive. Guidance in the context of admiration will do more for a person than criticism and contempt or neglect due to the way we are "wired" for emotions and improving our thoughts over time.

Sam L. said...

Lying to kids does them no good. They learn to distrust adults, losing respect for them.

Anonymous said...

Is this the same Nathaniel Branden who was with Ayn Rand and later fell out with her? In any event, the self-esteem movement does not sound very Randian.

Sam L. said...

Speaking of Rand:

Dennis said...

One has to give great credit to Dr. Baumeister for the wherewithal to recognize that, as an adherent of the "self esteem" movement, he was in error and the data did not demonstrate the efficacy of prior thinking in the field. It takes a true scientist or practitioner of a discipline to go where the data takes them and not be so wedded to an idea that the idea takes on a life of its own and becomes a religion.
We see far too many people who will believe anything if it is in a book or is stated by some "supposed" expert. It does amaze me that many will challenge what is in the Bible, but believe Marx or any of the leading lights of the Enlightenment. There is no idea so dumb that will not find a expert, academician or adherent that will believe it There is this idea that these people actually did the exhaustive research requisite in truly understanding any subject.
I not sure about anyone else, but I have never met a true expert. I have,before I retired, been called and expert. I loathe the term for I was conversant with that field of endeavor. I have come to believe that anyone who will allow themselves to be called and expert and believes it are fools who should be immediately discounted.
Again kudos to a researcher who goes where the information takes him no matter the expected outcome. Too bad more people did not have an open mind when addressing any idea or issue especially when one is dealing with a social science vice a physical science.

Anonymous said...

This is a link to an essay by Nathaniel Branden on fostering self esteem in young people: