Praising Children May Encourage Them to Cheat
Praise may be the cheapest form of reward, but we value it highly nonetheless. As adults, we’re elated by praise from our supervisors, co-workers, and significant others. Even young children appreciate hearing good things about themselves, and praise can be a powerful motivator.
But is it also possible for praise to backfire? Although we give people praise to encourage them to succeed, it may be the case that the words we use can have unintended consequences. And this may be especially true in the case of young children. In an article just published in the journal Psychological Science, a team of Chinese and North American researchers report on a study looking at the effect of giving praise. In particular, they asked the question: Does praising children encourage them to cheat?
More specifically, the researchers were looking at whether the wording of the praise had an influence on young children’s subsequent moral behavior. For this purpose, they distinguished two types of praise. On the one hand, ability praise comments on the person’s inherent ability to perform. Statements like “You’re so smart!” and “You’re really good!” are examples of ability praise. On the other hand, performance praise focuses on the person’s performance on a particular task. Comments like “You did a good job!” and “Well done!” are instances of performance praise.
Both ability praise and performance praise make people feel good about themselves. So perhaps the exact wording doesn’t really matter. Maybe people—and especially young children—don’t pay that much attention to the content of the praise but simply focus on the good feelings instead. However, plenty of research shows that even subtle changes in wording can lead to significant changes in behavior.
In the current study, the researchers suspected that ability praise sets up a reputation, which the person then feels compelled to uphold by any means necessary. After all, “You’re so smart!” means smart all the time, not just in this one instance. In contrast, performance praise simply comments on achievement in the current task and says nothing about future accomplishments. Thus, the researchers hypothesized that children who’d received ability praise would be more likely to cheat when given the chance than would those who’d received performance praise.
For the experiment, the researchers recruited 150 three-year-olds and 150 five-year-olds from preschools in eastern China. Each child was asked to play a guessing game with the experimenter, using a deck of cards. They were told that if they guessed correctly at least three out of six times, they’d win a prize.