There's a fine line between motivation and intimidation: A study suggests that a woman's performance may hinge on the phrasing or type of positive feedback she receives. Indeed, praise that indicates much is expected might render women more anxious and less equipped to perform the task a second time, according to Rebecca Shulak, B.A., who conducted the research as a psychology student at Sonoma State University in California.
Shulak administered word-search tests to 40 college women. One group was verbally praised and told that their performance indicated probable academic and professional success. A second group received rewards such as candy and chips. This group demonstrated no anxiety when repeating the test. However, they did not score as well as those who received verbal feedback.
Shulak explains that women interpret encouragement in a controlling manner, which means they feel pressured to perform even better next time. This leads to increased anxiety and a lower sense of self-efficacy. The catch: Women who received praise reported higher self-esteem and had better scores than those given snacks. Shulak concludes that phrasing is key, so praise should focus on the task at hand, rather than linking performance to future success, as was done in the study. The findings were presented at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting.