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reed magazine logoSeptember 2010

The Perils of Praise

Research by Reed psychology professor Jennifer Henderlong Corpus suggests that praising your children is more powerful—and potentially more dangerous—than most parents realize.

By Zach Dundas | photos by darryl james

Jennifer Henderlong Corpus

Associate professor Jennifer Henderlong Corpus studies how praise affects motivation and psychological resilience.

On a sunny spring morning, I am sitting in a bright but cluttered side room in the psychology building on the east end of campus, listening to the Kronos Quartet play Philip Glass, and looking at art. I suppose there must be worse ways to be subjected to psychological experimentation.

Every couple of minutes, recent grad Kyla Haimovitz ’10 hands me a piece of paper bearing several satirical portraits by the late artist Al Hirschfeld. I’ve always liked Hirschfeld’s mischievous, generous humor and exuberant vision of champagne society. Today, Kyla directs my attention to the artist’s most charming quirk. Hirschfeld craftily hid his daughter’s name, NINA, in most of his drawings, secreting those four angular letters in dense crosshatching or his subjects’ helpfully elaborate hair.

My task is to listen to short classical snippets and madly circle every NINA I can find. In some drawings, the girl’s name might as well be in flashing neon, all over the place. In others, I struggle to circle just a few. When the music stops, I hand my paper to Kyla. Standing behind me, out of sight, she evaluates my performance and hands back a little scoresheet that tells me how my search stacks up.

The first couple of rounds, I do well. My scoresheets return with corny, but positive, feedback: “Great! It seems like you put a lot of effort into this : )!”

It’s all very pleasant—a painless way, Kyla told me in her rehearsed introduction, to study “how music affects learning and task performance.” And then comes the final Hirschfeld selection. The music’s still nice, but I am suddenly adrift in an apparently NINA-free universe. I make a couple of circles around squiggles that may be NINAs. My final scoresheet returns a downbeat verdict: “You didn’t do so well on this one.”

In fact, this experiment has nothing to do with music. I have shared the fate of many a psychology subject and been misled about the nature of the research, which is to investigate how praise can help—or hinder—a person faced with a daunting task.

The experiment’s true aim was to discover how I responded to those inane but cheery encouragements and that dispiriting final assessment. Would easy success followed by abject failure turn me off Al Hirschfeld forever? Or could those simple, anodyne phrases inspire me to return to a difficult task despite the setback? By asking me how willing I would be to engage in another NINA hunt, Kyla was trying to gauge how her praise affected my motivation.

This simple experiment delves into the deceptively tricky concept of praise. We all like to receive praise—or do we? We know that praise acts as an incentive—or does it? Is it possible that different kinds of praise can inspire different results or whip up vastly different levels of enthusiasm? Is there a possibility—strange, but real—that praise can be harmful? 

Kyla’s adviser, associate psychology professor Jennifer Henderlong Corpus, is ultimately behind these questions. In a series of studies, Corpus has examined the potent and mysterious force that is verbal praise—how we give it, how we take it, and whether it actually works. Much of this research focuses on elementary-school-age children, who are bombarded by verbal feedback but who can react to it in ways that seem counterintuitive.

Corpus would be the first to point out that her research is a work in progress. To a nonpsychologist, however, her conclusions so far are striking—so striking that once you understand them, you may never say a simple Attaboy! again.

reed magazine logoSeptember 2010