It’s tempting to admire a person’s ability and praise them for what seems like an innate talent. If your daughter does well on a test, you might say, “You’re so smart!” If your friend plays a great game of basketball, you might say, “You’re so athletic!” Research on the psychology of success by Carol Dweck, however, hints at a better strategy.
Praising people for their natural ability can be destructive. Once people start to think that skills and talents are things they either have or don’t have, what happens when they experience failure? They’ll probably be devastated. They’ll think they’re not so great after all!
Instead, though, what if you praised people for their hard work? What if you told your daughter, for example, “you worked really hard for that” or your friend, “you really put the effort in today”? Studies show that focusing on the effort and determination that people showed makes them better at overcoming future obstacles. (But it’s worth noting that empty praise about someone’s “hard work” isn’t what it’s all about, as Dweck herself recently emphasized.)
Praising Kids for “Ability” or “Effort”
This simple change in praise and reinforcement does wonders by creating a psychology of success. In 1998, Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller published their findings from a study on 5th graders and how they tackled difficult test questions.
One at a time, these fifth graders were taken out of their normal class and came into the test room. Each student worked on a set of problems that was designed to be moderately difficult. After four minutes, the student stopped working, and the researcher scored their answers. It was at this point that the real experiment began.
All of the students were told that they had done well on the problem set. In some cases, that was the only feedback they got. Other times, though, the researcher would tell the student that he or she did well and then offered praise for the student’s ability: “Wow. You must be smart at these problems. ”
Other times, the researcher would offer praise for the student’s effort: “Wow. You must have worked hard at these problems.” The only thing that was different in how these three sets of kids were treated was the feedback they received at this moment. For the rest of the session, the researcher treated everyone exactly the same.
Success and Failure: How Kids Reacted to a Setback
Next, the researchers gave all of the students a mild failure experience. Each kid got a new set of problems, which were much more difficult than the first set. When they finished, the researcher scored their work and told the child that they had done really poorly.
The real question now is: how did the fifth graders respond in the face of this setback? They could either lose confidence and internalize their misstep as a failure, or they could treat it as an opportunity to learn more about how to do better next time.
The kids who were praised for their ability were the ones who saw this second set of problems as a failure, but the kids who were praised from their effort took this as a learning opportunity and did better because of it.
First, when the researchers asked the students whether or not they’d like to take the challenging problems home to practice, the kids who had gotten praise for their effort were more likely to want to take the problems home than the kids who had been initially praised for their ability.
Second, when the students received a third set of problems to work on, the kids who had initially been praised for their effort got more questions right on the third test than the kids who had were praised for their ability.
Third, at the end of the study, all of the students were given a choice between reading about how to do better on the test and seeing their peers’ test scores. Because the effort praise focused those kids on actually learning from their mistakes, they were much more likely to choose the test improvement option. However, because the ability praise focused those kids on showing how gifted they were, they were much more likely to want to see how everyone else had done.
Check out a video lecture from me about this study!
The Psychology of Success
Across all of these important factors (and even more that Dweck and Mueller reported in their paper), it seems that praising people for their hard work inspires them to take risks, learn from mistakes, and move on from setbacks. Praising people for their natural ability, however, makes them feel like they need to prove their natural talent, and any setback seems like a failure.
If you have children of your own, the implications are obvious: get them to strive for working hard and learning rather than proving themselves as competent.
But this isn’t just about kids! These are lessons that can apply any time you want to foster a more effective, growth-oriented group. Managers, teachers, etc. Success comes from adopting the right mindset and seeing failure as an opportunity to grow. The lessons from this research point to one clear strategy.
So, forget about proving your abilities—it only makes failing more difficult to swallow. Instead, set growth goals for yourself, and reward yourself for working hard and moving through challenges…but only when you deserve it!