The Type of Praise You Give Matters

Praising abilities may lead children to cheat.

Posted Jan 11, 2018

jhnri via FreeStockImages
Source: jhnri via FreeStockImages

For a long time, discussions about parenting focused on whether praise or punishment was better for children. However, more recent research suggests that categories like “praise” are too broad. After all, there are many different kinds of praise you can give a child. You can praise the child for an ability, effort, or outcome.

Why would the kind of praise matter?

For example, the mindset work of Carol Dweck distinguishes among different mindsets that children may have related to some ability. A fixed mindset assumes that performance is the result of some amount of talent. A growth mindset assumes that performance is the result of effort. So, praising a child’s ability (like “You’re smart!”) can lead them toward a fixed mindset, while praising a child’s effort (like “You worked hard!”) can lead them toward a growth mindset.

Praising ability can have another downside. Children may want to continue to prove that they deserve praise for that ability. As a result, they may deceive people in order to maintain their status.

This possibility was explored in a study by Li Zhao, Gail Heyman, Lulu Chen, and Kang Lee in a paper in the December 2017 issue of Psychological Science. They examined whether praising children for being smart (an ability) might lead them to cheat more than praising children for a positive outcome.

In this study, 3- and 5-year-old children were taught to play a guessing game in which the experimenter had a card hidden behind a screen with a number between 3 and 9 on it, and children had to guess whether the number was smaller or larger than 6. 

After learning the rules, children got a practice trial that was rigged so children were correct in their guess. After this trial, one group of children was praised for their ability (“You are so smart”) a second group was praised for the outcome (“You did very well”) and a third group received no praise at all.

After that, children were told that they would play the game six more times and that if they got at least three trials correct, they would win a prize. During these trials, children weren’t given any praise. The game was rigged so that children got the first two trials correct and the next three trials wrong. So, everything came down to the crucial sixth trial.

On this trial, the experimenter left the room for one minute and told the child not to peek at the card. The researchers were interested in whether children would cheat by looking over the barrier to see the card while the experimenter was out.

For both the 3- and 5-year-olds, children cheated more often when being praised for being smart (about 60 percent of the time) than they did when being praised for the outcome or not given praise (about 40 percent of the time for each condition).

This study suggests another reason to be careful with the kind of praise you give. Praising ability can lead children to want to maintain their status. As a result, an easy route to maintaining status (like cheating) becomes attractive. If you are interacting with a child, focus praise on effort or outcomes to avoid creating a temptation to cheat. 

References

Zhao, L., Heyman, G.D., Chen, L., & Lee, K. (2017). Praising young children for being smart promotes cheating. Psychological Science, 28(12), 1868-1870.