Praising Children May Encourage Them to Cheat

Distinguishing between ability praise and performance praise.

Posted Sep 20, 2017

Praise may be the cheapest form of reward, but we value it highly nonetheless. As adults, we’re elated by praise from our supervisors, co-workers, and significant others. Even young children appreciate hearing good things about themselves, and praise can be a powerful motivator.

But is it also possible for praise to backfire? Although we give people praise to encourage them to succeed, it may be the case that the words we use can have unintended consequences. And this may be especially true in the case of young children. In an article just published in the journal Psychological Science, a team of Chinese and North American researchers report on a study looking at the effect of giving praise. In particular, they asked the question: Does praising children encourage them to cheat?

More specifically, the researchers were looking at whether the wording of the praise had an influence on young children’s subsequent moral behavior. For this purpose, they distinguished two types of praise. On the one hand, ability praise comments on the person’s inherent ability to perform. Statements like “You’re so smart!” and “You’re really good!” are examples of ability praise. On the other hand, performance praise focuses on the person’s performance on a particular task. Comments like “You did a good job!” and “Well done!” are instances of performance praise.

Both ability praise and performance praise make people feel good about themselves. So perhaps the exact wording doesn’t really matter. Maybe people—and especially young children—don’t pay that much attention to the content of the praise but simply focus on the good feelings instead. However, plenty of research shows that even subtle changes in wording can lead to significant changes in behavior.

In the current study, the researchers suspected that ability praise sets up a reputation, which the person then feels compelled to uphold by any means necessary. After all, “You’re so smart!” means smart all the time, not just in this one instance. In contrast, performance praise simply comments on achievement in the current task and says nothing about future accomplishments. Thus, the researchers hypothesized that children who’d received ability praise would be more likely to cheat when given the chance than would those who’d received performance praise.

For the experiment, the researchers recruited 150 three-year-olds and 150 five-year-olds from preschools in eastern China. Each child was asked to play a guessing game with the experimenter, using a deck of cards. They were told that if they guessed correctly at least three out of six times, they’d win a prize.

First they started with a practice trial—which was rigged to insure the child would guess correctly. One third of the children were told, “You’re really smart!” This was the Ability Praise condition. Another third were told, “You did a good job!” This was the Performance Praise condition. The rest were given no praise. This was the No Praise condition.

The next five trials were rigged so that the child got two right and three wrong. In other words, whether the child got a prize hinged on their performance on the last trial. At this point, the experimenter stood up to leave the room. But before they left, they got the child to promise not to peek at the last card while they were gone. A hidden camera captured any acts of cheating.

About 60% of the children in the Ability Praise condition cheated, compared to about 40% of those in either the Performance Praise or the No Praise condition. These results support the hypothesis that ability praise encourages children to cheat more so than does performance praise. By the way, if you’re appalled that 40% of the kids cheated even in the baseline condition (no praise), you should know that this percentage is about the same as what we observe in adults when given an easy opportunity to cheat for a small gain.

The researchers also broke down the statistics by age and sex. They found no significant difference between the three-year-olds and the five-year-olds. However, the boys did cheat more often than the girls. (Make of that observation what you will.) Nevertheless, the overall pattern was the same in each group. Those who received ability praise were more likely to cheat, with no significant difference between those who got performance praise or no praise at all.

Although this particular piece of research only examined the short-term effect of ability praise versus performance praise on moral behavior, its findings are consistent with a burgeoning literature on the ways in which the praise and feedback we provide children can shape their personality and character in adulthood. For example, frequent use of comparative praise, such as “You’re better than everyone else,” can cultivate narcissistic tendencies in children, especially when compared with non-comparative praise, such as “You are good.” The current study suggests that we should also temper our praise by focusing on current achievements as opposed to enduring personal qualities.

Praise is emotional nourishment that we need to develop a healthy sense of self-worth. And there’s no question that withholding praise from children will stunt their emotional growth. However, just as some foods are more nutritious than others, the same can be said for praise. After all, statements like “You’re so smart!” or “You’re really good!” are essentially empty emotional calories—they feel good in the moment but provide little substance for building healthy self-esteem. In contrast, comments like “You did a good job!” or “Well done!” point to substantive accomplishments, the real building blocks of emotional health and well-being.

Furthermore, the current study shows that even children as young as three understand the difference between ability as an enduring quality and performance as a specific accomplishment. So even when our children are at this tender age, we still need to pay attention to the way we praise them. If we want to raise children who are confident in their ability to meet novel challenges in life, we need to help them build up a “resume” of past accomplishments by praising them for their performance when they do well.

References

Zhao, L., Heyman, G. D., Chen, L., & Lee, K. (2017). Praising young children for being smart promotes cheating. Psychological Science, first published September 12, 2017.

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