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The Inverse Power of Praise

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Joined: 24 Aug 2005
Posts: 260
The Inverse Power of Praise [#permalink]

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New post 22 Mar 2007, 12:20
From the New Yorker (sorry, no link). It's long, but I found it super interesting. (I chose the cash over the prestige for undergrad, and I've been wondering how the student dynamic at some of these top MBA programs is going to be.)

The Inverse Power of Praise
Thomas is not alone. 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.


Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade
classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom
for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy
enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished
the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a
single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for
their intelligence. They were told, "You must be smart at this." Other
students were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard."

Why just a single line of praise? "We wanted to see how sensitive children
were," Dweck explained. "We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see
an effect."

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One
choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the
researchers told the kids that they'd learn a lot from attempting the
puzzles. The other choice, Dweck's team explained, was an easy test, just
like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the
harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority
chose the easy test. The "smart" kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? "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

In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was
difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level.
Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided
at random at the study's start, responded differently. 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

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

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.


Dweck's research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image
maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more
interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies
illustrate this.

In one, students are given two puzzle tests. Between the first and the
second, they are offered a choice between learning a new puzzle strategy for
the second test or finding out how they did compared with other students on
the first test: They have only enough time to do one or the other. Students
praised for intelligence choose to find out their class rank, rather than
use the time to prepare.

In another, students get a do-it-yourself report card and are told these
forms will be mailed to students at another school—they'll never meet these
students and don't know their names. Of the kids praised for their
intelligence, 40 percent lie, inflating their scores. Of the kids praised
for effort, few lie.


Students turn to cheating because they haven't developed a strategy for
handling failure. The problem is compounded when a parent ignores a child's
failures and insists he'll do better next time. Michigan scholar Jennifer
Crocker studies this exact scenario and explains that the child may come to
believe failure is something so terrible, the family can't acknowledge its
existence. A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can't
learn from them.
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Joined: 28 Jun 2006
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New post 22 Mar 2007, 13:07
That was really interesting.

Funny how they talk about "image maintenance." It's like some people who are asked about how long they studied for the GMAT, some people are proud to talk about their struggles and how they overcame difficulties by working really hard, while other people like to make it sound like they didn't try very hard. I'm probably guilty of doing both of these things based on who asks me, (i.e. if some arrogant pr*ck asks me I'm more inclined to be like, "Oh I didn't bother studying too much," just as a way of preemptively telling them to go F themselves).
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Joined: 28 Jun 2006
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New post 23 Mar 2007, 11:26
And by the way I just want to congratulate everyone here for how hard they worked on the GMAT, you have all obviously worked very hard.
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Joined: 09 Aug 2005
Posts: 72
Absolutely fascinating! [#permalink]

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New post 26 Mar 2007, 16:48
Story of my life!! Hoping that now am going to turn it around with effort this time round.

Very, very nice, and useful.

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Joined: 05 Apr 2006
Posts: 5926
Schools: Chicago (Booth) - Class of 2009
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New post 26 Mar 2007, 17:31
I just finished reading that. Very interesting.
  [#permalink] 26 Mar 2007, 17:31
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