Peter A. Ubel M.D.


Telling Kids They Are Smart Could Increase Cheating

The downside of praise.

Posted Dec 06, 2018

Source: Getty

I am not one of those parents who believes kids should win trophies just for showing up for their t-ball games. But I'm also not stingy in praising my children when they do well. When my kids got hundreds on their grade school spelling tests, I told them how proud I was of their accomplishment.

But could praise like this turn our children into cheaters?

I'm thinking specifically about praise for ability rather than for effort. When children do well and we tell them how smart they are, are we making them feel pressure to cut corners to hold on to their "smart" identity?

study of three and five-year-olds in China showed that praise for being smart increased the odds that kids would cheat on a presumed test of their intelligence. Researchers gave children the task of saying whether a hidden playing card has a number greater or less than 6. The cards were numbered either 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, or 9. The researchers placed the card in question behind a barrier, and then told the child they had to leave the room for sixty seconds. A hidden camera then recorded whether children peeked at the card while the experimenter was out of the room.

Here's the twist: sometimes, after practicing the hidden card trick, the experimenters would praise children's abilities, saying they were smart. Other times, they told children they did well on the task, but not in a way that created an identity that kids would want to protect. And finally, other times the researchers didn't say anything to the children after the practice trials.

After being told they were smart, kids were significantly more likely to cheat – the dark bars in the picture below. This increase in cheating happened for boys and girls; for three-year-olds and five-year-olds.

Psychological Science
Percentage of participants who cheated in each age group, within each gender, and overall, broken down by condition.
Source: Psychological Science

It's probably okay to praise children for a job well done, but we might need to be stingier about praising them in ways--"You're so smart"--that cause them to break rules in order to hold on to that identity.

Previously published in Forbes