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reed magazine logoSeptember 2010

The Perils of Praise continued

In her various studies, Corpus has employed various measures to gauge how these different groups of kids feel about the tangram challenge after it’s done. In all the studies, the puzzles are easy at first, then grow progressively harder; the children’s performance naturally declines. How do they respond to this frustrating situation—and can certain kinds of praise help them bounce back?

So far, Corpus’ findings suggest that praise that focuses on process—on those concrete strategies and specific achievements, rather than how “smart” a kid might be—seems to leave kids more enthusiastic about the puzzles, even after failure. Kids who receive praise for their process are more likely to want to take a tangram set home with them when given a choice among several prizes; they tend to spend more time playing with the puzzles during free time. Those who receive praise for their person—for their innate intelligence, for example—are far less likely to keep playing with tangrams. Interestingly, girls seem particularly allergic to praise that weighs them directly against their peers—girls who receive this kind of feedback tend to avoid choosing to learn any more about how they stack up against others.

“It’s pretty clear to us that kids who receive praise for their mastery of the task, and how they process the puzzles, have much more motivation to pursue the task in the future,” she says. “That’s very strongly reflected by the data. Girls seem to be very concerned after being told they are ‘the best’—for some reason, that seems to have negative implications later on.”

(It should be noted, for the sake of humanism, that all the participants are told that they did well, and that the puzzles that baffled them were designed for much older kids.)

What does Corpus take away from these expeditions into the childhood mind? She is the first to say that her work is as laden with subtlety as any inquiry in the social sciences. And she points out that nothing in her data supports any kind of extreme new approach to parenting, business management, or life in general. You are not going to ruin your child’s life or smash a coworker’s ability to handle adversity by telling them that they’re smart or handsome. Neither will you create the next Pelé by telling a budding soccer player that he or she is doing a good job decoding the offside rule.

However, Corpus does feel fairly certain that she knows what kind of praise is most effective: the very kind that is the most difficult to deliver.

“I think it’s best, when we’re offering someone praise, to really talk about what is good,” she says. “Why or how someone did a good job at a task is a much more important, and of course much more challenging, thing to describe than the innate qualities they may possess. But I think our work suggests that praise that emphasizes growth, mastery, and the improvement of skills is much more valuable and nourishing to people than praise for the level of talent or unchangeable personal qualities they bring to a task. It’s better to tell someone they put together a stylish outfit than that they’re beautiful.”

It may feel natural, when someone does an impressive job or really exceeds expectations, to tell them that they are among the best and brightest. “But if you’re told that you’re the best in one instance,” Corpus says, “you may unduly suffer in the future, when you’re not the best. On the other hand, if you’ve been given a sense that you have a great ability to figure things out and cope with challenges, you can adapt when you’re not the best . . .

“One reason I’m so interested in this field is that intrinsic motivation is obviously what is sustaining,” she continues. “If you’re driven by being better than others, if you are completely motivated by some kind of external competitive structure, then as soon as that structure goes away, so does your motivation. Not everyone can be the best. But everyone can grow. Love of learning is what nourishes and sustains people’s efforts over long periods of time. We can shape that and instill that by what we tell people. Praise is powerful. Rewards are powerful. We need to use them carefully.”

In the end, these findings, while they may run counter to our most reflexive impulses, have the feel of common wisdom about them. When you think about it, the approach to praise her work suggests is almost Zen: one should pay specific attention to the real achievements of others; one should give most weight to what people do and attempt rather than who they appear to be. We should observe. If we give people feedback based on their personal growth and the evolution of their talents, we are giving them a potential lifeline in future adversity.

Zach Dundas is a Portland writer and author of The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead Books, 2010).

Further Reading

For more about the Children’s Motivation Project at Reed, see

  • Corpus, J. H., & Lepper, M. R. (2007).  The effects of person versus performance praise on children’s motivation: Gender and age as moderating factors.  Educational Psychology, 27, 1-22.
  • Corpus, J. H., Ogle, C. M., & Love-Geiger, K. E. (2006). The effects of social-comparison versus mastery praise on children’s intrinsic motivation. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 335–345.
  • Covington, M. (1998). The will to learn. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
  • Grolnick, W. S. (2003). The psychology of parental control: How well-meant parenting backfires. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Haimovitz, K. (2010). Effects of person versus process praise on student motivation: Stability and change in emerging adulthood. Senior thesis, Reed College.
  • Henderlong, J., & Lepper, M. R. (2002). The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 774–795.
  • Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129–137.
  • Stipek, D., & Seal, K. (2001). Motivated minds: Raising children to love learning. New York: Holt.
reed magazine logoSeptember 2010