Kristina R. Olson, Ph.D.

Kristina R Olson Ph.D.

Developing Minds

When Praise Backfires

More positive praise isn't always better.

Posted Feb 08, 2014

You know that moment when you pick your kid up from school or a playdate and your child shows you his artwork declaring that what appears to be a collection of random scribbles is actually an elephant, or a turtle or, even better, a picture of you? If you’re like most other adults, you see this child’s picture and promptly supply effusive praise. “Wow, what an amazing artist you are! That is the most terrific elephant I’ve seen! Can I hang it up at my office?” Sometimes it feels the worse the artwork, or the more insecure the child is about its quality, the more over the top our praise. This response feels natural, like we’re supposed to do it. After all, we want to foster their self-esteem and make our children know we love them, right?

New findings out this month in Psychological Science suggest otherwise. These results say that precisely this type of over-the-top praise may not be so beneficial, at least not to the children we are most likely to direct it toward. Ironically, it appears, it’s the children who have the lowest self-esteem for whom such praise is most detrimental.

Eddie Brummelman and his colleagues used a range of methods—some naturalistic studies, some true experiments—to examine the use and impact of effusive praise. First the researchers established, through two different studies, that adults tend to give more inflated praise to children with lower self-esteem. This assured the researchers they were on the right track, exploring something that people actually do. But the more interesting question of course is what happens when such praise is given? Said differently, why not give inflated praise to children with low self-esteem?

The main study in this paper explored just this question. The study involved children aged 8-12 who were asked to make a drawing and then were supposedly given feedback by a professional painter (in actuality the researchers provided the feedback). The key conditions provided children with either positive feedback (“You made a beautiful drawing!”) or inflated positive feedback (“You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!”). The only difference of course was the presence or absence of the word “incredibly”. Then all children were given another drawing task in which they were told they could work on some drawings that were either easy or hard. They were told if they picked the easy ones “you won’t make many mistakes, but you won’t learn much either” and for the hard ones were told “You might make many mistakes, but you’ll definitely learn a lot too.” The researchers found that the lower a given child’s self-esteem, the more they chose the easy drawing task, but only after inflated praise. Interestingly, after the simpler positive praise children with lower self-esteem were actually more likely to take on the challenging drawing task. In sum, it wasn’t that the children with lower self-esteem always avoided the challenging task, they only did so after the inflated praise.

This study has clear implications for parents and teachers alike. In order to facilitate growth and a desire for challenge, we probably need to reign in our praise, at least for children who have lower self-esteem—a simple “nice drawing” will probably do the trick!