Published March 21, 2008 · Estimated reading time: 7 minutes · Filed under , , ,

Evolutionary mechanisms have made organisms dependent on feedback from their environment as a way of coping and adapting to their surroundings. Similarly, human beings depend on feedback, in the form of positive or negative reinforcement, as a way of coping in their social environments and maintaining psychological homeostasis.

Preschool children
Photo by Anissa Thompson

Maslow’s A Theory of Human Motivation established self-esteem, or the internal perception of self-worth, as fundamental to self-actualization [1]. Later, Nathaniel Brandon’s A Psychology of Self Esteem made a strong association between self-esteem and psychological well-being. He recognized positive reinforcement as necessary to promoting self-esteem in children [2].

Consequently, parents and educators began placing greater emphasis on praise as a way of boosting self-esteem and greater achievement. The advocates of positive behavioral reinforcement consider praise to be an effective means by which to strengthen a behavior, and provide external support and validation to children [3].

However, in the mid-80s critics began to suggest that praise was in fact harmful to children. One of the strong proponents of this movement, Alfie Kohn, has argued that praise can make “praise junkies” out of children and lead to reduced achievements [4].

While positive reinforcement is a necessary feedback mechanism for children, generic praise can undermine self-esteem and be detrimental to achievement. Such praise can disseminate the false notion that achievement is based on immutable internal parameters; reduce mastery and autonomy in achievements; and promote the internalization of failure and avoidance of challenges.

Cimpian et al. highlight the difference between specific and generic praise [5]. While the former acknowledges effort, “You worked diligently on this problem!”; the latter praises an intrinsic ability, “You are a genius!”. The generic type of positive reinforcement perpetuates the idea that achievement is determined by inherent and largely immutable parameters [6].

Dweck has conducted extensive investigations of effort and motive among New York city public school student. She has found that those who believed in abilities to be responsible for achievement “had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well.” [7]

A group of longitudal studies examining “experts” has countered this deterministic view. These comparison studies were drawn between individuals in the highest echelon of achievement in their respective fields, and individuals who showed great “potential” as children, for example a high IQ, but achieved mediocrity as adults. The studies have conclude that achievement is almost exclusively a function of effort and not intrinsic abilities. [8,9,10]

Dobbs notes, “It seems the ability we’re so fond of calling talent or even genius arises not from innate gifts but from an interplay of fair (but not extraordinary) natural ability, quality instruction and a mountain of work.” This suggests that generic praise, which instills in children a belief that natural talents account for achievement does not only discourage effort, but may be entirely false.

Henderlong and Lepper argue that in the event of achievement, praise that is non-specific or controlling, given simply as a verdict or behavioral reinforcement tool, can lead children to question their internal motivations. This can lead to a compromised sense of perceived autonomy, or motive “for engaging in various activities or tasks”. The authors give the example of an internal thought process, “Why did I do that? Was I interested, or did I do it only for the rewards?” [11]. In this process, decreased perceived autonomy can translate to decreased motivation in the future.

In literature, learning behavior is divided into two classes: “helpless” versus “mastery-oriented”. Kamins and Dweck suggest that mastery-oriented children “think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work.” [12]. Generic praise, which implicates intrinsic ability as the source of success and failure, can lead to a decreased of personal mastery.

Lawrence Diller describes a similar case in children who are prescribed ADHD drugs such as Ritalin. These children’s positive performance is often attributed to “drugs” and if “the child [performs] sub-optimally [he or she is asked] ‘Did you take your pill today?’” [13]. The children are led to believe they are inherently faulty, and their drugs are the source of their achievements. This helplessness can undermine the child’s sense of mastery, as poor performance and achievement are both perceived as external to his or her locus of control.

The detrimental effects of generic praise are perhaps best highlighted when children are faced with failure. Ability-based praise, long employed as the basis for building self-esteem in children, can create a false sense of security.

Children that perceive achievement to be due to intrinsic abilities also attribute failure to a lack of those abilities. While such individuals may do well in circumstances where they succeed, in the face of failure, the basis of their self-esteem will no longer be true. In such circumstances, these children defer to a “helpless” response, entailing “lowered expectations”, “negative affect”, “lowered persistence”, and “decreased performance” [12].

Furthermore, intrinsic associations can cause children to internalize failure as a part of their identity. In contrast, children who are given specific, effort-based praise do not internalize their failures. The basis on which their self-esteem is built, “you’ve worked hard”, holds true even in the face of failure. “Confronted by a setback” Dweck describes, “[such] students said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.” [7].

Generic praise can induce great pressure and lead to avoidance behavior in children. All organisms avoid threatening stimuli. In humans this includes factors that may threaten one’s self-perception and identity. Therefore, a child that views intrinsic traits as the basis of his or her self-esteem will avoid any aversive stimuli for the fear of “becoming a failure” [5].

This kind of behavior is detrimental to psychological well-being in three ways. First, these individuals often avoid challenges, fearing failure. Second, an individual who does not experience set-backs is unable to develop appropriate to deal with set-backs. Third, when set-backs inevitably occur, quipped with low self-esteem and poor coping-skills, these individuals are unable to cope and often become completely demoralized [11].

Developing self-esteem is an important and necessary part of growth in children. Reports have revealed that “countries in which families and schools emphasize self-esteem for students lag behind cultures where self-esteem isn’t a major focus.” [14] Rather than dismissing the importance of self-esteem, such emerging studies highlight the importance of allowing children to independently foster a sense of self-esteem.

In cases where positive reinforcement, in the form praise, is used to promote greater self-esteem in children, studies suggest that responsibility must be assigned to effort and manifestation of abilities rather than perceived innate abilities. Dweck points out that “In addition to encouraging a growth mind-set through praise for effort, parents and teachers can help children by providing explicit instruction regarding the mind as a learning machine.” [7]

Studies have established that success is largely a matter of effort. Generic praise, in turn, falsely emphasizes intrinsic abilities as responsible for achievement. This form of reinforcement can cause children to view their success and failures as a part of their identity, and create an environment where the child feels “helpless”.

Specific praise, on the other hand, praises effort. Such reinforcement can empower children, promoting the desire for challenges, for self-improvement, and other factors that can propagate self-esteem and achievement to the highest degree.

1 Maslov, A., A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 1943. 50: p. 370-96.
2 Branden, N., The psychology of self-esteem. 1969, New York: Bantam.
3 Strain, P.S. and G.E. Joseph, A not so good job with ‘good job’: A response to Kohn 2001. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 2004. 6(4).
4 Kohn, A., Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” Young Children, 2001.
5 Cimpian, A., et al., Subtle linguistic cues affect children’s motivation. Psychological Science, 2007. 18(4): p. 314-316(3).
6 Bronson, P. (2007) How not to talk to your kids. New York Magazine Volume,
7 Dweck, C.S. (2007) The secret to raising smart kids. Scientific American Mind Volume,
8 Dobbs, D., How to be a genius. New Scientist, 2006(2569): p. 40-43.
9 Ross, P.E., The expert mind, in Scientific American. 2006. p. 64-71.
10 Ericsson, K.A., The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance 1ed. 2006.
11 Henderlong, J. and M.R. Lepper, The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation. American Psychological Association, 2002. 128(5): p. 774-795.
12 Kamins, M.L. and C.S. Dweck, Person Versus Process Praise and Criticism. American Psychological Association, 1999. 35(3): p. 835-847.
13 Diller, L., The Run on Ritalin. Hastings Center Report, 1996. 26(2).
14 Parker-Pope, T., Are Kids Getting Too Much Praise?, in The New York Times. 2007.

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