“You did a good job.”
“You did an incredibly job!”
Which of these statements is most helpful to children? It depends. Recent research by Eddie Brummelman and colleagues (including my amazing friend Brad Bushman) suggests that inflated praise can backfire in the children who may receive it most. What’s inflated praise? The differences between non-inflated and inflated praise are subtle—as simple as adding a word like “incredibly” or “perfect.”
In a series of studies, Brummelman and colleagues found that adults gave twice as much inflated praise to children with low self-esteem. It makes intuitive sense. Wouldn’t children with lower self-esteem need that extra boost? This is when I remember that one of the important functions of research is helping us know when our intuition is wrong. In these studies, inflated praise appears to be damaging rather than helpful—and particularly to students with low self-esteem.
I was particularly struck by the ties between inflated praise and risk-taking–an essential element in creativity. In one study, children were asked to copy a painting by van Gogh, then given no praise, praise, or inflated praise from a supposed professional painter. Afterwards, children were given the chance to choose their next drawing task—a simpler task, or one that was more difficult but would help them learn more. Children with low self-esteem were more likely to choose the easier task—to avoid risk taking—if they had received inflated praise. In contrast, students who already had high self-esteem were more likely to take a risk after inflated praise.
This relationship reminds me a bit of the complex relationships among intrinsic motivation, reward, and creativity. Reward can be damaging—but less so in people who are already intrinsically motivated.
So what’s a teacher (or a parent) to do—particularly if we want to encourage the type of atmosphere in which young people take creative risks? First, it would seem, we need to fight against our instinct to think praise is the answer, particularly over-the-top inflated praise. Children know when we are telling the truth. If we say something is fantastic and they know it is not, the praise is not helpful. It may present undue pressure to be “fantastic” again, or it may simply convince them we don’t know the difference. Neither option is a good one.
Reading this research gave me one more reason to be more thoughtful about my feedback, and to consider how giving information and be much more helpful than giving praise—particularly of the inflated kind. As we help students gain a sense of competence by actually becoming more competent, it may be the best reward of all.
PS If you’d like more information on the research cited above, here’s a new piece from Psychology Today.