Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Inflated praise for your children: an 'incredibly' bad idea?

When you’ve done something good, or performed a task well, it feels great to get some praise for it. And parents and teachers, especially in Western cultures, are encouraged to dole out praise to children in an increasingly generous manner. A drawing might not just be 'good', it might be 'incredible'. That song wasn’t just 'beautiful', it was 'epic'. Such praise is often given with the best intentions, particularly in the belief that positive feedback, especially for children who don’t have much faith in themselves, might help to raise their self-esteem. But does it work?

Recent research by Eddie Brummelman and colleagues has tried to shed light on this question. In three studies, they looked at how adults dish out praise to children in both an experimental and naturalistic setting, and how children with varying levels of self-esteem take it. Their results suggest that overly positive praise might not have the intended effect for children who have low self-esteem.

In the first experiment, Brummelman’s team asked a group of adults to read short descriptions of hypothetical children, described as either having high or low self-esteem. People were told about something that the child had done – say, solving a maths problem, or performing a song. After reading through the description, they were asked to write down any praise that they might give the child. Brummelman’s team found that about a quarter of the praise was overly positive (e.g. "that sounded magnificent!"), and that people were more likely to give more extremely positive praise to the children who had low self-esteem.

The researchers then tried to replicate these findings in a more naturalistic setting, by observing how parents interacted with their children when giving them a series of maths exercises at home. Brummelman and colleagues found a similar result to their laboratory experiment – about a quarter of the time, praise was overly inflated, and children who had lower self-esteem were given more inflated praise than those who had higher self-esteem.

'You made an incredibly beautiful painting!'

In order to figure out whether this actually mattered or not, in the final experiment Brummelman’s team looked at how being given praise impacted on one particular aspect of children’s behaviour – challenge seeking. Two hundred and forty children first completed a questionnaire to assess their level of self-esteem, and then were asked to draw a copy of van Gogh’s Wild Roses. The children were told that a professional painter would then assess their drawing, and tell them what he thought of it. In reality, the painter didn’t exist, and children were simply given inflated praise, non-inflated praise, or no praise at all. Afterwards, the children were shown four complex and four easy pictures, and asked to have a go at reproducing some of them. Critically, they were told that if they picked the difficult picture, they might make a lot of mistakes, but they might also learn lots. In other words, the number of difficult pictures the children chose to draw was taken as a measure of challenge seeking.

Brummelman’s team found that if children with lower self-esteem were given overly-inflated praise, they were less inclined to seek a challenge in the second task – they would go for easy drawings over the harder ones, and therefore miss out on the chance for a new learning experience. On the other hand, children with high self-esteem were more likely to seek a challenge after being given inflated praise. Interestingly, the only difference between the inflated and non-inflated praise was a single word – incredible (“you made an incredibly beautiful drawing!” versus “you made a beautiful drawing!”).

What the study doesn’t tell us is why children with low-esteem might avoid challenges in these circumstances. The authors suggest that inflated praise might set the bar very high for children in the future, and so inadvertently activates a self-protection mechanism in those with low self-esteem – although they acknowledge that they didn’t actually measure this in the study.

At any rate, the finding builds on a number of experiments conducted in recent years showing that positive praise isn’t necessarily good for all children in all circumstances. For children with low self-esteem, although we might feel the need to shower them in adulation, this might end up having precisely the opposite effect. Even words like incredible can end up having a huge unintended impact – so when you’re telling children they’ve done a great job, choose your words wisely.

- Post written by guest host Dr Pete Etchells, Lecturer in Psychology at Bath Spa University and Science Blog Co-ordinator for The Guardian. Brummelman, E., Thomaes, S., Orobio de Castro, B., Overbeek, G., & Bushman, B. (2014). "That's Not Just Beautiful--That's Incredibly Beautiful!": The Adverse Impact of Inflated Praise on Children With Low Self-Esteem Psychological Science, 25 (3), 728-735 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613514251


Anonymous said...

Also, many of the clients I work with who grew up with too much praise developed very high expectations, that often can't be met, of self and others. It's a about a right balance!

Anonymous said...

Some 'low self esteem' may also be realistic appraisals of skills for some things - it depends on whether 'esteem' has been assessed as meaning 'beats themselves up for things' or 'they think they are useless as a person', or if we just mean 'I don't think I'm good at X or Y' - so overly inflated praise may just be unhelpful because it's so obviously not true! I notice that lots of people, especially women, seem to quickly try to reassure people if someone says they're not good at something, as if they must have an unhappy wrong impression of themselves. But why might they not just have a realistic appraisal of themselves? And even more than that, perhaps THIS IS OK! Reassurance or overly praising has a 'hidden story' within it that other people can't bear the idea of not being good at something or assuming someone must feel so bad if they can't do something, so perhaps some people are put off by the over praise because they are responding to this hidden message and it has little validity for them as they now doubt the judgement of the person giving it?

Fiona C said...

The praise in the study seems to be chiefly aimed at the paintings, the end product of the process. I wonder how children react if praise is aimed at the child who painted it. eg I like how you painted those flowers?

Orchid64 said...

I'd like to read the actual research to see how kids who had low self-esteem and were given no or moderate praise responded, but the link takes one to the blogger home page rather than to the original research.

I'm wondering if kids with low self-esteem might be more state-oriented rather than action-oriented on the whole and are worried about their emotional response if they try something difficult. This all feels a lot like correlation than causation, but without the original research (and some related studies), it's hard to make an educated guess.

Anonymous said...

I saw this happen first hand. We always over praised our grandaughter because we wanted her to have confidence. We told her she was a princess. She did go through a period in her late teens were she could do anything without fear. But, she is a very self centered person. It is all about her. She expect the world to treat her the way we did. Kids need to learn everything they do is not epic. they need to learn life has ups and downs. Some times you are the windshield sometimes you are the bug. If they learn this, then failing at something won't cause so much trauma. As it is now, if she fails at something she is devastated and can't recover. She has so much talent but has lost her confidence. We don't know how to help her,

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent point. It is OK to be not so good at some things and not have your personal self-worth decreased by your inability to master this or that skills.

Anonymous said...

Mindset - Carol Dweck
A book on how this works and what works instead.

Archer Harry said...

I think that drawing is the great process to grow up a kids. kids counseling

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