Praising Intelligence: Costs to Children's Self-Esteem and Motivation

Bing Nursery School


Professor Carol Dweck, Bing Distinguished Lecture Series

By Christine VanDeVelde

“You’re such a great artist!”

“You’re so smart!”

Who would ever imagine that praising a child could be bad? After all, we love our children and want them to have high self-esteem. We want them to go out into the world thinking well of themselves, trusting their abilities, succeeding.

But it turns out even well-intended praise for children’s talents and abilities can backfire. In May, developmental and social psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck addressed the Bing community in the 2007 Distinguished Lecture to explain why and how praise can drain a child’s self-esteem and sap motivation.

One of the world’s experts in the study of motivation, Dr. Dweck has spent the last forty years looking at why and how people achieve their potential—or don’t. Her research has, in fact, led to the creation of a new field in educational psychology—achievement goal theory. The results of her work have been used around the world with children, athletes, businessmen and others. And as you will see, the role of praise is integral.

But before the role of praise can be understood, it’s necessary to grasp the fundamental models that underlie Dweck’s work—the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. This is one of Dweck’s most important findings—that there are two different mindsets that children (and adults) can have about their intelligence and abilities.

Some individuals have a fixed mindset. They think their abilities, talents, and intelligence are fixed traits. “They have only a certain amount, and that’s that,” says Dweck. Those with fixed mindsets might believe, for example, that intelligence is determined at birth.

Other individuals have a growth mindset. They think intelligence and abilities are things that can be developed and cultivated throughout life. “People with a growth mindset don’t think everybody’s the same,” cautions Dweck, “but they believe that everyone—through effort, dedication, schooling, experience—can grow.”

How do researchers measure the mindsets of children? By asking them to agree or disagree with statements like the following: “Everyone has a certain amount of intelligence, and they can’t really do much to change it.” Or… “To be honest, people can’t change how intelligent they are.” Children who disagree with statements like these have a growth mindset; those who agree have a fixed mindset.

In study after study, Dweck has found that individuals build an entire psychology of motivation around the mindset they hold. In one such study, Dweck and her researchers set out to measure and define the mindsets of 400 students making the transition to junior high school. (While Dweck’s studies have included preschoolers, most of the research she discussed involved older children. While she noted that these mindsets are found in children as young as three or four, older children have more articulated ideas about intelligence and are starting to show different motivational patterns.)

In this particular study, students with growth mindsets cited learning as the most important goal. They agreed with statements such as, “It’s much more important for me to learn things in my classes than it is to get the best grades.” They cared about grades, but their first priority was learning. “In other words, if you think your intelligence can be developed,” says Dweck, “that’s what you want to do.”

But for students with fixed mindsets, looking smart and being judged smart were the most important goals. They agreed with statements such as, “The main thing I want when I do my schoolwork is to show how good I am at it.” Notes Dweck, “If you think it’s a fixed trait, you’ve got to have it, and you’ve got to have other people thinking you have it, too.”

Further, Dweck found that children with fixed and growth mindsets have completely different and even opposite beliefs about effort. Individuals with growth mindsets believe effort is one of the most important things in life for achievement. They say the harder you work at something, the better you’ll be at it. They appreciate that no creative genius has contributed anything of note without years of dedication and work.

But individuals with a fixed mindset think effort is negative. They believe that if you have ability, you shouldn’t need effort. And if you need effort, you’re not very smart. They believe that things come easily to people who are true geniuses. “And that’s false,” says Dweck. “It may come a little more easily to geniuses han it does to other people, but it doesn’t come easily.”

Dweck believes this is among the most destructive beliefs a person can hold: that hard work means you’re incapable. And it gets students in a fixed mindset into a trap. They want to look smart, but they think effort makes them look dumb. She characterizes this as a paralyzing conjunction of goals and beliefs.

Another building block in the psychology that develops around a particular mindset is the individual’s reaction to setbacks. As part of the same study, students were given a hypothetical scenario: “Imagine you’re in a new class. You like the class. You like the teacher. You studied a medium amount for the first test, but when you got it back, you got a 54, and that’s an F. How would you feel? What would you think? What would you do?”

Those with a growth mindset had explanations that were effort and strategy-oriented, resilient explanations. They said, “Maybe I didn’t study hard enough, or maybe I didn’t go about studying in the right way.” After all, they were told they only studied a “medium” amount.

But those with the fixed mindset had explanations of resignation. They said, “I guess I wasn’t smart enough.” Or… “I’m just not good at this subject.” “Why would they conclude this after one ‘medium’ session of study for a test?” says Dweck. “Well, remember, if you have ability, you shouldn’t need more than medium studying. So from one outcome, they inferred their ability.”

Students were then asked what they would do. Those with a growth mindset said things such as, “I’d work harder in this class from now on.” Or… “I would spend more time studying for tests.” That makes sense: a medium amount of studying didn’t work, so the response is to get help, to study more. But those with a fixed mindset said, “I would spend less time on this subject from now on.” Or... “I would try not to take this subject ever again.” Told they liked the teacher and the subject, the students with fixed mindsets still didn’t change their response. Their motivation was gone.

Further, students with a fixed mindset responded that they would try to cheat on the next test. “It makes sense within that framework,” says Dweck. “If they don’t have ability, if effort is aversive and ineffective, what courses of action are left to these students?” So the fixed mindset is a system in which you have ability or you don’t. If you have ability, you shouldn’t have to work hard. If you don’t have ability, anything goes.

Parents, grandparents, educators—everyone sends messages to children, whether they’re aware of it or not. So what made Dweck think about the message that praising intelligence sends and why did she intuit that it could have drawbacks?

Her studies had shown that students who worried about their intelligence were vulnerable. “Am I going to look smart on this test?” “Should I take this risk?” So if parents or teachers praised children’s intelligence, Dweck hypothesized, didn’t that tell the child that intelligence is the most important thing in the world, that this is what parents and teachers cared about? And would it put such a child in a fixed mindset where they worried about being judged, shied away from challenges, and lost their motivation when things got rough? Dweck wanted to find out.

In a series of studies of both kindergarten-age students and 5th graders, children were given a non-verbal IQ test that consisted of ten moderately challenging but doable problems.

Most of the children performed well on the first ten problems. One third were given intelligence praise. They were told, “Wow, you got eight right; that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this!” Another third were given effort praise: “Wow, you got eight right; that’s a really good score. You must have tried really hard!” The control group was given results praise and told, “Wow, that’s a really good score.” And sure enough, when intelligence alone was praised, it put students in a fixed mindset.

The students were then asked, “What do you want to work on now? I have some easier things here that you could work on, or I have some challenging problems. They’re hard, and you’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn some important things.” Most of the students who were praised for intelligence chose the easy task. “They’re not fools!” says Dweck. “They wanted to keep on looking smart. They wanted to keep that label.”

But the vast majority of the students praised for their effort wanted the challenging task. They wanted something they could learn from, and they weren’t worried about making mistakes. So right away the study had created one of the hallmarks of a fixed mindset by praising intelligence. “They said, ‘Don’t give me a challenge; give me something I can look smart on,’” says Dweck.

When the students were then given a series of more difficult problems, these results were magnified. Students who had been told they were smart now thought that having to struggle meant they weren’t smart at all. They thought they had low ability at the task. So their confidence in their ability, which is like self-esteem, plummeted. Because again, if success meant they were smart, failure or difficulty meant they were not. “They were being taught to measure themselves by the outcome,” says Dweck. “We’d say, ‘Hey, you did it; you must be smart.’ They said, ‘Hey, I didn’t do it; I must not be smart.’”

But those who had been praised for their effort thought, “I need more effort. These problems are harder. You succeed through effort. I need more of it.” This group remained very engaged with the task. They tried different strategies, and their motivation remained high. At the end, asked to rate how much they enjoyed the problems, those who were praised for their intelligence showed a sharp drop-off in their enjoyment once they hit the hard problems. Those who had been praised for effort showed no drop-off and many of them said that the harder problems were their favorites.

The students were also asked if they would like to take the problems home to practice. Among those who were praised for effort, most were eager to take the problems home, and had responses such as, “Could you write down the name so when they run out my mom can buy me more?” But those who had been praised for their ability had responses such as, “No thanks, I already have these at home.” As soon as they had to struggle, those who had been praised for their ability lost faith in that ability and any enjoyment in the task.

Over three sets of tests, this same group—those who had been praised for intelligence—also showed a significant decline in their performance. So praising intelligence had made these students less intelligent. Those who had been praised for effort, however, showed a significant increase in their performance on the IQ tests over the trials. (The control group was right in the middle.)

But there was a further finding that was both more distressing and interesting. When asked to write anonymously about their experience, the students were also asked to report the scores that they had earned. Almost 40% of the intelligence-praised children lied, reporting a higher score. “They lied in one direction, and one direction only!” says Dweck. “And what this meant to me was that when children were praised for their intelligence, it became such an important part of who they are, it was so fundamental to their self-esteem that they couldn’t even tell the truth on an anonymous piece of paper to someone they would never meet.”

The results were clear: praising intelligence made students avoid challenge. In the face of difficulty, it made them lose any pleasure in a task they had originally enjoyed. They lost faith in themselves and their performance plummeted. Finally, it led them to lie. “These were children who were randomly assigned to that condition. They were no different from anyone else to begin with,” notes Dweck. “And yet one sentence of intelligence praise put them in the fixed mindset where what they cared most about was looking smart, and where they couldn’t cope with challenges.”

Dweck says they were so surprised by these findings and how dramatic they were that they repeated the study five more times, in many different locations, from the inner city of New York to Iowa. They had the same findings in all studies, including a further praise study conducted at Bing Nursery School.

So which mindset do most people actually hold—a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? According to Dweck, it’s about 40-40. About 40% of children and adults believe intelligence is fixed, and about 40% agree it’s something that can be changed. About 20% in the middle don’t take sides.

As to who is right, well, the subject has been fiercely debated within psychology. But more and more, cognitive psychologists are coming to understand that very important components of intelligence can be developed. Neuroscience is showing a greater plasticity of the brain than was ever imagined, reports Dweck.

So does that mean mindsets can be changed? “The answer to that is yes, they can be changed,” says Dweck, who of course had already set out to prove it. A few years ago, she had begun to wonder whether children could be taught a growth mindset and whether this would enhance their school achievements. In a study with 100 7th graders, she looked at whether teaching students a growth mindset would help their plummeting achievement.

Two random groups were given eight study skills sessions. The growth-mindset group got six sessions of study skills and two sessions on the growth mindset and how to apply it to their schoolwork. These students were given an article to read that said, “You can grow your intelligence. New research shows the brain can be developed like a muscle.” They were taught that the more you exercise your brain, the stronger it gets, and that every time they learned something new their brain was forming new connections, and over time becoming stronger and smarter.

“This riveted the students! They loved learning about the brain,” says Dweck. “They’d never thought about it, how it worked. They never realized that what they did had a direct impact on their brain and the connections it made. And a lot of the students who had no interest in the workshop suddenly participated vigorously.” These students showed a significant rebound in their math grades.

But the students who got only study skills in their eight sessions and no growth-mindset skills continued on their downward plunge. They didn’t have the motivation to put the study skills into practice.

Dweck and her team are now working on developing a computer-based growth-mindset intervention similar to the model used in this study. Called Brainology, it’s currently being tested in 20 New York City schools. In it, the two main characters, Chris and Dahlia, are guided through the program by the Brain Orb. Visiting state-of-the-art brain labs, they are instructed by a mad brain scientist, conduct virtual experiments on brains and watch brain cells create connections simulating what happens when learning takes place—a condition also known as growth.