Children who are praised for being smart not only are quicker to give up in the face of obstacles, they also are more likely to be dishonest and cheat, according to a new study.
Researchers found that kids as young as three appear to behave differently when told “You are so smart” versus “You did very well this time.”
The study, published in Psychological Science, builds on work by Stanford’s Dr. Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset,” who has shown that praising a child’s innate ability instead of the child’s effort or a specific behavior has the unintended consequence of reducing their motivation to learn and their ability to deal with setbacks.
The new study shows there’s also a moral dimension to different kinds of praise. Additionally, it found that it affects children at younger ages than previously known. Even the kindergarten and preschool set seem to be sensitive to subtle differences in praise, according to the researchers.
“It’s common and natural to tell children how smart they are,” said co-author Dr. Gail Heyman, a development psychologist at the University of California San Diego. “Even when parents and educators know that it harms kids’ achievement motivation, it’s still easy to do. What our study shows is that the harm can go beyond motivation and extend to the moral domain. It makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well.”
For their study the international team of researchers asked 300 children in Eastern China to play a guessing game using number cards. There were 150 three year-olds and 150 five year-olds.
The children were either praised for being smart or for their performance. A control group got no praise at all.
After praising the children and getting them to promise not to cheat, the researcher left the room for a minute in the middle of the game. The kids’ subsequent behavior was monitored by a hidden camera, which recorded who got out of their seat or leaned over to get a peek at the numbers.
Results suggest that both the three and five year-olds who’d been praised for being smart were more likely to act dishonestly than the ones praised for how well they did or those who got no praise at all. The results were the same for boys and girls.
In another study, published in Developmental Science, the same team of researchers show that the consequences are similar even when children are not directly praised for being smart, but are merely told that they have a reputation for being smart.
The researchers believe that praising ability is tied to performance pressure in a way that praising behavior isn’t.
“When children are praised for being smart or are told that they have reputation for it, they feel pressure to perform well in order to live up to others’ expectations, even if they need to cheat to do so,” said co-author Li Zhao of Hangzhou Normal University.
Co-author Dr. Kang Lee, of the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, emphasized the takeaway for the adults in kids’ lives: “We want to encourage children. We want them to feel good about themselves. But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kinds of praise, such as praising specific behavior. Only in this way will praise have the intended positive outcomes.”