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reed magazine logoSeptember 2010

The Perils of Praise continued

Why? Here it is important to understand the psychological concept of “attribution.” When things happen, humans—charming, flawed creatures that we are—try to figure out why. Most people try to weigh actual evidence when making these attributions, but almost all of us screw this up one way or another. Your lawnmower breaks down and you blame the charlatan who sold it to you, not the watery gas you put in the tank. You crash your bike on an unpaved road on Friday the 13th and conclude that 13 is unlucky, not that gravel is treacherous.

“We all do this,” Corpus says. “We attribute effects to causes, and we attribute outcomes to certain factors that may or may not have a solid basis in fact. What we are finding is that verbal praise plays a strong role in shaping those attributions—what we think caused a certain outcome—which in turn can shape our future performance.” 


A fifth-grader puzzles over tangrams in Corpus’ laboratory at Reed.

When Soccer Dad tells his daughter that she was the best player on the field, he may be shaping her attributions in an unhelpful way. He is praising her intrinsic personal qualities—qualities she cannot control and therefore cannot improve. And when she finally loses a big game, she may conclude that her father was mistaken, and that her intrinsic personal qualities have fallen short—in other words, that she’s just not good enough.

Consider, in contrast, what Soccer Mom told her defeated son. She specifically identified an aspect of his game, his defensive skills, she felt had improved with time and effort. She noted that he faced some difficulties—he was not the strongest or fastest player, and his team wasn’t all that great—but that he was in the process of developing effective strategies for working around these shortcomings. In other words, the kid is figuring it out. By focusing on these highly specific, subtle, and evolutionary achievements, Soccer Mom is instilling a strong sense of self-reliance in her boy. She is very possibly also giving him subtle encouragement to keep playing soccer.

“Sometimes people attribute their achievements to stable, uncontrollable factors,” Corpus says. “In situations of success, this works reasonably well. However, it also makes us vulnerable when we face setbacks because there’s no clear path toward improvement. But if we learn to attribute our outcomes to factors we can control—our own effort or learning, rather than our innate ability—we tend to be able to adapt much better and overcome setbacks.”

Her experiments essentially lead their subjects to engineered failure—like my adventure with the NINA drawings, participants perform an initially simple task that becomes harder and harder. Corpus is interested in their response to that growing adversity, and whether the right kind of praise can help the struggling child (or, in my case, the struggling 35-year-old) develop resilience.

A polite fifth-grade boy who wears glasses and an orange shirt sits at a table, grappling with some pattern-recognition puzzles. When he finishes, he expectantly hands his work over to the adult seated across the table. “That’s great work,” the woman tells him. “You seem to be getting the hang of it.”

We are no longer dealing with hypotheticals here. Corpus and I are watching videos of very real kids, shot during one of her studies. In this project, participating kids tackle a series of tangrams, Chinese shape puzzles. After they complete each one, their adult proctor takes a look—and then offers a different form of praise.

Some kids, the control group, simply receive information: they’re told they got a good score. Others receive highly personal praise reminiscent of that offered by our hapless Soccer Dad: “You must be smart!” Sometimes, kids are told that they are much better at the puzzles than their peers. Finally, some are praised for how well they engage in the puzzle-solving process: “You chose a good strategy!”

reed magazine logoSeptember 2010