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reed magazine logoSeptember 2010

The Perils of Praise continued

finding NINA

Finding “NINA” in the drawings of Al Herschfeld.

Let us consider three hypothetical scenarios, all of which take place on the sideline of a soccer field where two teams composed of scurrying, frantic nine-year-olds tussle over the ball. In time-honored fashion, the young players’ parents look on, gripped by a combination of rabid partisanship and visceral terror. After the game, each parent zeroes in on the performance of his or her own offspring and tries to say the right thing to the little warrior.

Imagine the proud father of a girl from the winning team. Soccer Dad says: “Samantha, you were awesome. You played so well, we’re going to get ice cream!”

A frosty reward—what could be wrong with that? But to Corpus, there are plenty of reasons to worry about what Soccer Dad is doing. In fact, a considerable body of research suggests that he may unwittingly kill her interest in soccer altogether.

“People who love to do something, do it for its own sake,” she says. “As soon as you tie an extrinsic reward to an activity, there’s a chance that the person you’re trying to reward will perceive you as controlling their actions, controlling their participation in the activity. If we perceive that our actions are controlled, we stop wanting to do them. If you take an activity that someone already enjoys and tie a specific reward to it, you can kill their enjoyment.”

In a classic study published in 1973, psychologists at Stanford University told preschool children who had already shown an interest in drawing with magic markers that they would receive fancy certificates stamped with gold seals and ribbons in return for drawing pictures for the experimenters. Children who received the certificates actually grew substantially less interested in drawing, and produced pictures of significantly poorer quality, than children who received no certificate. The rewards actually drained the children’s previous enthusiasm for drawing.

Corpus, 37, earned her PhD from Stanford and came to Reed in 2001. One of the key insights of her work is that praise can function as a reward—with both positive and negative consequences. “There has long been some suggestion in the literature that verbal praise might work in ways similar to concrete rewards,” she explains. “One important thing to know is that praise and reward, no matter how well-intended, can backfire.”

In other words, she’s trying to figure out whether some forms of praise are the verbal equivalent of that nefarious ice cream cone.

Let’s imagine two other scenarios. Instead of dangling Dairy Queen before his daughter, Soccer Dad says something like this: “Samantha, you were awesome. You were the fastest, most talented player on that field—way better than the other kids.”

Meanwhile, on the losing side of the field, a mother puts a hand on her dejected son’s shoulder. “Kevin,” she says, “I noticed that your defending has really improved. You’re not the fastest or strongest player on the field, but you’re really figuring out some great strategies.”

Which of these imaginary parents is doing the right thing? Corpus’ work suggests that our proud fictional father may not be doing his daughter many favors. By focusing his praise on the girl’s intrinsic, personal qualities and by comparing her directly with her peers, Soccer Dad might be setting her up for future failure. By tying such unsubtle, personal praise to success, he is giving her a verbal ice cream cone—and, eventually, a reason to stop playing altogether. Worst of all, he might, Corpus believes, be training his young soccer star to reach the wrong subconscious conclusions about why she played well.

reed magazine logoSeptember 2010