An international team of researchers reports that when children are praised for being smart not only are they quicker to give up in the face of obstacles they are also more likely to be dishonest and cheat. Kids as young as age 3 appear to behave differently when told "You are so smart" vs "You did very well this time."
The study, published in Psychological Science, is co-authored by Gail Heyman of the University of California San Diego, Kang Lee of the University of Toronto, and Lulu Chen and Li Zhao of Hangzhou Normal University in China.
The research builds on well-known work by Stanford's 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 present study shows there's also a moral dimension to different kinds of praise and 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.
"It's common and natural to tell children how smart they are," said co-author Gail Heyman, a development psychologist at UC 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 researchers asked 300 children in Eastern China to play a guessing game using number cards. In total, there were 150 3-year-olds and 150 5-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 3- and 5-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 recently in Developmental Science, the same co-authors show that the consequences are similar even when children are not directly praised for their smarts but are merely told that they have a reputation for being smart.
Why? 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, said co-author Li Zhao of Hangzhou Normal University, "they feel pressure to perform well in order to live up to others' expectations, even if they need to cheat to do so."
Co-author Kang Lee, of the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, emphasized the take-away 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."