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Praise: does it help or hinder?

(The variable effects of praise on motivation, resilience, and self-esteem.)

"Praise is like sunlight to the human spirit: we cannot flower and grow without it"

Dr. Jess Lair


Intuition tells us contrasting things regarding praise. The saying 'spare the rod, spoil the child' indirectly suggests that praise may not always be good for development. In more recent years, however, Western society has tended to think of praise as positive, even essential, for children's healthy development, and in promoting high performance. It may seem obvious what is meant by praise, however there are different types of praise that must not be confused. Examples of types of praise include praise for ability, and praise for effort.

Not only do different types of praise exist but research highlights that some types of praise may be more useful than others, especially when it comes to promoting self-esteem, motivation, and resilience. Praise provides us with feedback about which behaviours are effective, thus the type of praise we use has important implications for motivating children along with enhancing their self-esteem, and resilience.

Along with these complications, there are also issues regarding the variation in effectiveness of praise in different cultures. It has been suggested that collectivist cultures focus more on mastery, and consider effort a reward in itself. Individualistic cultures, such as Western cultures, are thought to focus more on achievement, and a belief in fixed traits. There are also concerns that the research is limited as it invariably is concerned with the effect of praise on children. This page provides an overview of the many issues and theories regarding praise, and its variable effects.


1) What is praise?
2) History
3) If you only read one paper
4) Three more papers
5) Motivation & Resilience
6) Self-esteem
7) Applications
8) Cultural variation
9) Uncritical claims
10) Critical points
11) Future research
12) Key points/Conclusion
13) Further reading
14) References

(click on section headings to return to Contents)

1) What is praise?

Kanouse, Gumpert, and Canavan-Gumpert defined praise as, "positive evaluations made by a person of another's products, performances, or attributes, where the evaluator presumes the validity of the standards on which the evaluation is based" (1981, pg. 98). It may seem obvious what is meant by praise but it is important to recognise that praise may not always serve a reinforcing function, and is actually a form of social communication. The characteristics of the person being praised, the context in which it takes place, and the nature of the relationship of the people involved are all influential, but variable. Additionally, praise needs to be distinguished from encouragement (e.g., "I believe you can do it"), recognition (e.g., "That's the correct answer"), and indirect attributional statements (e.g., "You seem like a good student"). It is therefore, important to think carefully about what constitutes praise in any given situation.

Trait Praise Process Praise
Impact on how the child views intelligence Child views intelligence as fixed: either you are good at something or you're not Child views intelligence as developable: achievement is a matter of effort and finding effective strategies
Enjoyment after success High High
Resilience to challenges Avoidance Enthusiastic
Enjoyment after failure Low High
Persistence after failure Low High
Defensiveness after failure High Low
Performance after failure Impaired Improved


2) History

Cultural perspective
The idea that children should be praised for their effort and not their ability level does not appear to be a new concept as many children's books and fables seem to convey this message for example in Ancient Greek times, Aesop wrote numerous fables which are still a popular choice for moral education of children today. The tale of "The Grasshopper and the Ant", in particular, tells the story of an ant who spends the summer months doggedly storing food and therefore survives the winter, whereas the grasshopper spends summer playing music and relaxing and when winter arrives he has no food. This moral story emphasises hard work, effort and preparation. In addition Aesop's fable "The Tortoise and The Hare" again highlights the notion that effort rather than high ability ultimately leads to success, as the slow but persistent tortoise beats the fast hare in the race. Finally, the popular children's book "The Little Engine" undoubtedly conveys the message that effort rather than ability leads to success. In this story a little engine which is ridiculed by the larger engines manages to carry a large cargo over a mountain by employing the mantra "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can." This 'can do' attitude is often included in applications of the theory that praising effort rather than ability is beneficial for children. Overall, various children's stories and ancient fables metaphorically teach children the importance of hard work, persistence and optimism. (Haynes et al, 2009)

Positive Psychology

Before the Second World War, psychology had three distinct strands. These were curing illness, making lives more productive or fulfilling, and nurturing high talent. After the war, the focus seemed to be treating pathology or mental illness. Despite this shift, there was a movement with differing objectives that emerged, known as humanism. One proponent of this school was Abraham Maslow, who originally used the term ‘positive psychology’ (Maslow, 1954). Although only related to what is now known as positive psychology, many humanistic psychologist’s aims and ideas share emphases with current thinking. Positive psychology (as it now stands) is generally considered to have started with Martin Seligman in the late 1990s. His main issue was that psychology spent too much time focussed on pathology and like the humanistics wanted to look at how psychology can enrich lives, not just treat illness. A forerunner of current praise research was in cognitive evaluation theory. This suggested an undermining of motivation through a switch from internal to an external locus of causality (Deci & Ryan, 1985). This idea informs much of the subsequent work by Dweck, and others.


William James (1842-1910)

The Scottish Enlightenment thinker, David Hume, described the importance of self-esteem in the 18th century. The actual term itself, in a psychological context, was first proposed by William James (Gable & Haidt, 2005). He claimed that to raise self-esteem, we must either lower our expectations, or increase our achievements. Seligman has used this idea as the basis for his concept of self-esteem being a balance of feeling good and doing well. Studies of self-esteem became more widespread in the 1960s. Nathaniel Branden wrote many books on self-esteem and had a great impact on the earlier ideas.

This led to a notion that self-esteem was the root of many pro-social and antisocial behaviours and enhancing it was of great importance. In the late 1990s however, Roy Baumeister claimed that self-esteem was not as important or influential as had been believed. Achievement does not always require high self-esteem and not every antisocial person’s behaviour was due to low self-esteem (Baumeister, 1998). He specifically claimed that links between high self-esteem and academic achievement were at best weak, and perhaps non-existent. Nicholas Emler added support to Baumeister’s ideas and, for instance, claimed that antisocial males actually often have problematically high self-esteem as opposed to low (Elmer, 2001). While he accepted that low self-esteem could contribute to problems arising, he emphasized that high self-esteem may pose more problems for society. Research continues in this area and much research on praise has claimed that praise can raise (or sometimes lower) self-esteem and raising self-esteem can have some positive effects (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003) . Clearly, it remains debatable whether raising self-esteem is required or should be specifically encouraged. This complicates the utility of much research on the effects of praise.


Some of the earliest research on resilience was carried out by Norman Garmenzy (Garmenzy, 1973). He investigated the factors involved that cause some people to get ill where others don’t, and tried to identify the factors that help foster resilience in the face of threats. Further significant research was carried out by Emmy Werner, who identified individuals who seemed to be more resilient in the face of social and psychological problems than others (Werner & Smith, 1982). The 1980's saw more work that investigated children and their varying reactions to adversity, particularly in the context of parents having some form of mental illness. This has led to a development of the research from investigating factors associated with individuals coping with adversity to studying the processes involved. Many factors have been considered, including family, friends, and authority figures (such as teachers). The research on praise has led to the idea that resilience is undermined if achievement potential is believed to be a fixed state. If someone (specifically a young person) thinks that they are either, for example, intelligent or not then this can cause them to react much more strongly (in a negative way) to failure.

3) If you only read one paper

This paper is one of the most recent papers in the field and this is primarily the reason for suggesting it. Moreover not only does this paper highlight key past research but it is also interesting, and easy to understand. In addition the results of this paper are important as they are probably more directly linked to what occurs in everyday life - that is people don't hear just one kind of praise they receive and give 'inconsistent praise.'

‘Good Job, You’re So Smart’- The effects of inconsistency of praise type on young children’s motivation (S. R. Zentall & Bradley J. Morris, 2010) <click titles to view article text>

‘Children face frustration and failure daily, yet some are able to cope well and are less frustrated by a failure. These children are motivated to carry on despite failure, however some children are not. ‘ Children who persist after a failure or setback are described as having a mastery orientation , whereas children who give up in frustration are described as having a helpless orientation (e.g., Diener & Dweck, 1978, 1980 ).

One reason highlighted by researchers for different levels of motivation amongst children after a setback is the type of praise that they receives (Cimpian, Arce, Markman, & Dweck, 2007; Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998; White, 1959). The reason for this is that the type of praise received conveys what is important in order to complete a task and thus leads to motivational outcomes. Two types of praise have been linked to motivational orientations: generic and non-generic.

Generic praise implies that there are stable traits that are associated with the individuals ability to achieve their goal, whereas non-generic praise is linked to unstable factors such as effort. Therefore the individual should see non-generic praise as controllable and thus suggests that failure can be changed (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002)

Indeed experiments have shown that when children were asked to rate themselves after a task the result was dependent on the type of praise they received during the task. Those who received generic praise gave low self evaluations and lower persistence following failure and thus had lower resilence, whereas the results were opposite for those who received non-generic praise. However most research has focused on how receiving consistent praise of one type affects motivation. This paper investigates how receiving a mixture of the two types impacts on children. This research is important as this is probably more representative of real life settings. The researchers refer to this type of praise as inconsistent praise. Results from previous research also suggests that the different kinds of praise may be unequally weighted, that is hearing a small amount of one kind of praise may be more positive or detrimental than hearing another kind (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002)

Their findings are consistent with previous results showing that generic praise promotes helpless behaviours whereas non-generic praise induces mastery behaviours. The results also show that there is indeed a difference between the two types of praise in terms of weighting – the more non-generic praise a child hears, the more likely the child is to display mastery behaviours and thus persistence after failures highlighting resilience. Moreover findings suggest that children need only a small amount of non-generic praise to increase their positive self-evaluations. On the other hand only a small amount of generic praise can have the opposite effect and increase ones belief that success is the result of an underlying trait and therefore not adaptable.

4) Three more papers

"Ability vs Effort Attributional Feedback: Differential Effects on Self Efficacy and Achievement" (D.H. Schunk, 1983)

The most common and natural response to a job well done is to praise an individual for their ability. It has been argued that praising a child for their ability will turn on their 'go power' and motivate them to work and learn (Briggs, 1970). Furthermore, 85% of parents believe that praising children for their ability when they have performed well in a task, is important in making them feel smart (Mueller & Dweck, 1996). This theory proposes that praising a child's ability or intelligence will make them feel smart and feeling smart essentially produces more motivation to learn. Schunk (1983) investigated this hypothesis on 44 third graders. All participants were having problems with subtraction skills and received training on these skills and engaged in problem solving. During this, different groups received different types of feedback - ability feedback, effort feedback, ability and effort feedback, or no feedback. The group who received the ability feedback only, demonstrated the highest subtraction skills and self efficacy. In addition, the effort feedback only group and the ability and effort feedback group both performed better than the no feedback group. These results demonstrate support for the theory that praise for ability is an effective form of praise for motivating children to learn. Furthermore, the results also suggested that any form of praise appears to be better than no praise at all. Nevertheless, this study only considered the effects of ability praise in a success situation. The effects of ability praise in a failure situation may be different.

"Subtle linguistic cues affect children's motivation" (A. Cimpian, H.-M. C. Arce, E. M. Markman & Carol S. Dweck, 2007)

A short study that deals with the impact of generic vs. non-generic praise when the phrases used differ only slightly. It may be the best starting point to get familiar with the study design used by most experimenters. Subjects were 4-year old children who were tested one at a time.

The experiment was conducted in six scenarios. In each a puppet handled by the experimenter ('teacher-puppet') asked a puppet that was handled by the child ('child-puppet') to draw an object. After the child had executed the act of drawing (without producing a picture) the teacher-puppet commented on the fictitious picture. In the first four scenarios he praised the puppet in a generic or non-generic way, in the last two he pointed out that the puppet had failed to draw an important and obvious aspect of the object.

The results showed that after the failure scenarios children who had received generic praise before, showed significantly more helpless behaviour, a worse self-evaluation and less persistence. Additionally, generic praise led to more emotional reactions and worse strategies for coping with failure.

"Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance" (C. M. Müller & C. S. Dweck, 1998)

The authors of the study are concerned with behavioural and cognitive consequences that praise for ability, and praise for effort given after a positive performance can have. They survey the effects of praise on the concept of the ability that underlies the praised performance, on the way the praised person copes with failure in a following similar task and on expectations about future performance. Additionally, they study if praise can influence the kind of information that is searched for after the accomplishment of a task - especially if information about the performance of others is preferred over information about the solution of the problem.

The main hypothesis of the authors is that praise for ability will lead children to think of intelligence as a stable quality, what in turn leads them to prefer appearance over real behaviour, and information of comparison over information related to problem solution. They should tend to see test outcomes as a direct measure of the tested abilities. In contrast, praise for effort should provide the impression of intelligence as a changeable feature, and lead to preference of information about problems solution over information of the performance of others.

To survey their hypotheses the authors conducted several experiments. All except one began with the conduction of a matrices test and positive feedback afterwards. This feedback included praise of effort, of ability or just a positive feedback, depending on the group the participants were assigned to. Depending on the question addressed, the participants were then given a similar, but more difficult task to induce the event of failure. The third task had the same level of difficulty as the first one and was given after the children had received the comments on their performance on the second task. Measurements of preference of difficulty, enjoyment of task, persistence etc. were taken during the experiment. In all experiments the participants were fifth-grade children of different schools, the number of participants ranged from 46 to 128.

The experiments seemed to confirm the authors' hypotheses regarding the effect of praise for effort. However the hypotheses about the impact of praise for ability could not be confirmed in every case, as no differences between the control group with no specified praise and the effort-group could be found in some experiments. The authors suggest further research on the relationship between praise and self-worth, achievement motivation and the interaction of praise and intrinsic motivation.

5) Motivation & Resilience

"There are three things to remember about education. The first one is motivation. The second one is motivation. The third one is motivation."

(Quote by Terrell H. Bell in Ames, 1990)

Motivation can be extrinsic, where outside pressures, or rewards are causing the behaviour. While this type of motivation can be influential, and perhaps override intrinsic (internal) motivations, it is not thought to affect resillience is the same way as intrinsic motivation. How someone reacts to failure seems to be more affected by these internally driven motivations.

What is Resilience? Here is a short video defining the term and how positive emotions foster it.

Factors affecting Intrinsic Motivation & Resilience

  • Sincerity
  • Perceived Autonomy
  • Competence and Self-Efficacy
  • Standards and Expectations
  • Performance Attributions

Praise is clearly not always given for genuinely praiseworthy achievement. This is especially relevant when considering techniques that involve frequent praise giving. Perceived sincerity is probably the most influential single factor of praise that moderates intrinsic motivation and resilience. If a child does not believe they are being genuinely praised then it seems inevitable that any potentially positive effects will cease to be effective. Overly effusive or generalized praise may be perceived as insincere and subsequently have negative or neutral effects (Lepper, Woolverton, Mumme, & Gurtner, 1993). More realistic and specific forms of praise that emphasize particular aspects of performance are preferable. It is also important that the praise given is parsimonious with the praised person's knowledge, such as being praised for working hard when hard work was indeed performed. Similarly, the evaluator must have some feasible way of knowing the details being praised, and it should be variable over time (Kohn, 1993). These issues become less problematic when dealing with younger children who are unlikely to be able to detect insincerity due to a tendency to accept things at face value (Winner, 1988). Damon (1995), however, suggests that children can and do question the intentions of praise they receive and if they perceive it as insincere it will be harmful to their resilience. Alongside being used sparingly, it is also important that there is a respect and rapport within the relationship of praised and praising persons. It seems reasonable to suggest that praise must be perceived as sincere in order to be effective, such that the other factors that can influence intrinsic motivation and resilience initially require a perception of sincerity.

Table 1: Factors of praise that enhance or undermine Intrinsic Motivation & Resilience (providing the praise is perceived as sincere).

Intrinsic Motivation & Resilience

Perceived Autonomy
Minimising perceptions of external control

Controlling or overjustified praise
Competence & Self-efficacy
Individual competence positively praised
Competence praised using social comparison alone

Standards & Expectations
Descriptive praise that guides and regulates
Conveying low expectations or setting unrealistically high standards

Performance Attributions
Praising controllable factors or processes

Ability focussed or unwarranted praise
(Adapted from Henderlong & Lepper, 2002)

Perceived Autonomy
If a child perceives praise as controlling, they may attribute performance to external causes, as opposed to internal (Deci & Ryan, 1985). This will undermine intrinsic motivation, and cause them to believe they cannot improve their performance when faced with failure. It is crucial that children believe they are being praised for something they deserve to be praised for and that they will be responsible for future outcomes. Deci and Ryan (1985) suggest that controlling praise will undermine intrinsic motivation due to the shift to outside causes, but praise that is informational (provides personal attribution) will enhance intrinsic motivation. There is also some evidence that suggests girls focus more on controlling praise than boys due to a higher tendency for interpersonal concerns (Kast & Connor, 1988). Boys were shown to focus more on informational praise due to a tendency for independence, achievement and socialization.

Competence and Self-Efficacy
This refers to a belief in personal ability and potential. Intrinsic motivation can be enhanced if the feedback praises a child in a way that highlights the child's personal competence at a task (Sansone, 1989). Although it is not yet widely researched, there is also evidence that it is important to avoid the praise being perceived purely in terms of social comparison (Kohn, 1986). A focus on personal mastery can prevent children always focussing on tasks that show off their ability, or believing a lack of ability has caused a negative outcome (Dweck, 1986). Focussing on social comparison can also lead to a lack of resilience when challenged.

Standards and Expectations
If the standards that are demanded, and the expectations therein are prohibitively high then motivation and resilience could be undermined. Kanouse, Gumpert, and Canavan-Gumpert (1981) suggest that if the child is given a clear idea of what is expected, they will feel more deserving of praise and feel more confident in how to improve. This is particularly helpful if the praise makes it clear what specific aspects of performance were good and what aspects are important. If expectations are set too high, however, the child may feel under pressure to continue to perform well (Kohn, 1993). Alternatively, if the expectations are too low, then this could undermine motivation. These issues could also undermine resilience, as can the disruption to task focus that attempting to meet specified standards can cause (Kluger & De Nisi, 1996). The types of standards and expectations that are often set for each gender can vary. Dweck, Davidson, Nelson, and Enna (1978) suggested that praise for girls includes many factors not associated with ability (such as handwriting), whereas boys were more typically given praise for ability based attributes. It is not clear, however, what underlying effect these tendencies are likely to have on gender differences in motivation, or resilience.

Performance Attributions
Kamins and Dweck (1999) suggested that children who are praised for the processes they used rather than the type of person they are, will be more intrinsically motivated and more resilient when challenged. Henderlong and Lepper (2002) claim a similar finding but also added that both forms of praise may be better than no praise and both still enhance intrinsic motivation. Mueller and Dweck (1998) have also shown that resilience is enhanced if praise is given for effort, as opposed to ability. There may also be gender differences, with boys intrinsic motivation unaffected by person focussed praise, where girls intrinsic motivation is undermined (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002). There are also suggestions that boys perceptions of intrinsic motivation and competence are enhanced when receiving ability based praise (Koestner, Zuckerman, & Koestner, 1989). These factors were shown to be enhanced with effort based praise for girls.

6) Self-esteem

Self-esteem can be defined as either the evaluation that a person makes about their capabilities or the emotional feeling that one has about their self-worth. When considering the effect that praise has on self-esteem, it is a general assumption of many that giving praise to others will raise self-esteem which in turn will increase performance, however this does not seem to be the case. The question at hand then is whether or not in today's society we should be trying to boost people's self-esteem? It seems that doing so has positive effects such as an increase in happiness and initiative plus a production of resilience, however these effects are not long-term. Another criticism of boosting self-esteem (giving unconditional praise) is that it will end up fostering narcissism which is classed as a socially undesirable form of self-esteem. Neff et al agree with this statement and have suggested an alternative method which they claim has all the benefits of boosting self-esteem but none of the side effects. This method is called self-kindness/self-compassion. In comparison to self-esteem, self-kindness doesn't require that we feel superior to others. Self-kindness is not an evaluation of ourselves at all, but is an attitude we adopt toward our own failure and suffering. There are 3 components to self-kindness which are:

  1. Self-compassion instead of self-judgement: People who are kind to themselves are tolerant and loving toward themselves when faced with pain or failure. Self-judging people are tough and intolerant toward themselves.
  2. Common humanity instead of isolation: Common humanity is a perspective that views our own failings and feelings of inadequacy as part of the human condition shared by nearly everyone. In contrast, people who isolate tend to feel alone in their failure.
  3. Emotional regulation instead of over-identification: People who can regulate their emotions take a balanced view and keep their emotions in perspective. They neither ignore nor ruminate on elements of their lives that they dislike. In contrast, over-identified people tend to obsess and fixate on failure and view it as evidence of personal inadequacy.
The practice of self-compassion has been associated with the following psychological benefits:
  • Feelings of happiness, optimism and curiosity
  • Decreased anxiety, depression, and rumination
  • Fewer feelings of failure and inferiority
  • More resilient feelings of self-worth over time
  • Less self-criticism and perfectionism
  • Stronger buffers against negative social comparison and public self-consciousness
  • Social connectedness
  • Less anger and close-mindedness
  • Emotional intelligence and wisdom
  • Greater initiative and mastery of goals

Self-kindness is comparatively easy to practice. Unlike self-esteem, it is not affected by social approval or the attainment of particular outcomes. It is best practiced when we need a boost in our self-image, such as when we fail or are humiliated. Most of us are already good at being kind to others. Self-kindness turns this practice inward, so that we treat ourselves as kindly as we would treat a good friend.
If you would like to increase your self-esteem in a healthy fashion here are some practical exercises that you could carry out.

Exercise1: Exploring self-compassion through writing

Try writing about an issue you have that tends to make you feel inadequate or bad about yourself.

- How does this aspect of yourself make you feel inside?

- What emotions come up for you when you think about this aspect of yourself?

Try to be as emotionally honest as possible and to avoid repressing any feelings, while at the same time not being overly melodramatic.

Think about an imaginary friend who is unconditionally loving, accepting, kind and compassionate. Reflect upon what this friend feels towards you, and keep in mind how your particular inadequacy is connected to so many things you didn’t necessarily choose.

Now write a letter to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend focusing on the perceived inadequacy you tend to judge yourself for. How would this friend convey the deep compassion he/she feels for you, especially for the pain you feel when you judge yourself so harshly? What would this friend write in order to remind you that you are only human, that all people have both strengths and weaknesses? And if you think this friend would suggest possible changes you should make, how would these suggestions embody feelings of unconditional understanding and compassion?

As you write to yourself from the perspective of this imaginary friend, try to infuse your letter with a strong sense of his/her acceptance, kindness, caring, and desire for your health and happiness.

After writing the letter, put it down for a little while. Then come back and read it again, really letting the words sink in.

Exercise 2: The criticizer, the criticized, and thecompassionate observer

This exercise is modeled on the two-chair dialogue studied by Gestalt therapist Leslie Greenberg. In this exercise, clients sit in different chairs to help get in touch with different, often conflicting parts of their selves, experiencing how each aspect feels in the present moment. To begin, put out three empty chairs, preferably in a triangular arrangement. Next, think about an issue that often troubles you, and that often elicits harsh self-criticism. Designate one chair as the voice of your inner self-critic, one chair as the voice of the part of you that feels judged and criticized, and one chair as the voice of a wise, compassionate observer. You are going to be role-playing all three parts of yourself - you, you, and you.

1) Think about your “issue,” and then sit in the chair of the self-critic. As you take your seat, express outloud what the self-critical part of you is thinking and feeling. For example “I hate that fact that you’re such a coward and aren’t self-assertive.” Notice the words and tone of voice the self-critical part of you uses, and also how it is feeling. Worried, angry, self-righteous, exasperated? Note what your body posture is like. Strong, rigid, upright? What emotions are coming up for you right now?

2) Take the chair of the criticized aspect of yourself. Try to get in touch with how you feel being criticized in this manner. Then verbalize how you feel, responding directly to your inner critic. For example, “I feel so hurt by you” or “I feel so unsupported.” Just speak whatever comes into your mind. Again, notice the tone of your voice? Is it sad, discouraged, childlike, scared, helpless? What is your body posture like? Are you slumped, downward facing, frowning?

3) Conduct a dialogue between these two parts of yourself for a while, switching back and forth between the chair of the criticizer and the criticized. Really try to experience each aspect of yourself so each knows how the other feels. Allow each to fully express its views and be heard.

4) Now occupy the chair of the compassionate observer and address both the critic and the criticized. What does your compassionate self say to the critic, what insight does it have? For example, “You sound very much like your mother” or, “I see that you’re reallys cared, and you’re trying to help me so I don’t mess up.” What does your compassionate self say to the criticized part of yourself? For example, “It must be incredibly difficult to hear such harsh judgment day after day. I see that you’re really hurting” or “All you want is to be accepted for who you are.” Try to relax, letting your heart soften and open. What words of compassion naturally spring forth? What is the tone of your voice? Tender, gentle, warm? What is your body posture like - balanced, centered, relaxed?

5) After the dialogue finishes (stop whenever it feels right), reflect upon what just happened. Do you have any new insights into how you treat yourself, where your patterns come from, new ways of thinking about the situation that are more productive and supportive? As you think about what you have learned, set your intention to relate to yourself in a kinder, healthier way in the future.

7) Applications

"People are, to a large extent, in charge of their own intelligence. Being smart - and staying smart - is not just a gift, not just a product of their genetic good fortune. It is very much a product of what they put into it."

(Carol Dweck, 2002)

Dweck (2007) - The Secret to Raising Smart Kids - Don't tell them that they are!

Carol S. Dweck - pioneer of praise research

More than 30 years of research has demonstrated that emphasising effort over intelligence or ability is essential for succeeding in both school and life. Highlighting effort over ability creates a growth mind set which allows the individual to view intelligence as malleable and that with effort and hard work it can be improved. Conversely, highlighting ability produces a fixed mind set that intelligence is innate and can not be changed. This fixed mind set produces individuals who are less willing to admit mistakes or to attempt to find solutions to their errors. Within the academic setting teachers and parents can encourage a growth mind set, firstly, through success stories that promote hard work and a love of learning. Secondly, they can teach children about the brain as a learning machine that can be improved with effort and hard work.

Fixed Mind Set Growth Mind Set
What does the student want to achieve? To look smart even at the cost of sacrificing intelligence by avoiding challenging tasks To learn new things even if difficult or risky
How is failure seen? Failure is seen as an indication of low intelligence Failure is seen as indication of low effort
How is effort seen? Effort is seen as an indication of low intelligence Effort activates and uses intelligence
Typical response after difficulty Less effort More effort
Self-defeating defensiveness High: not willing to face ignorance and to risk mistakes Low: eager to learn and open to feedback about mistakes
Performance after difficulty Impaired Equal or improved


Mind Set Workshops

91 students with declining maths grades were given an 8 session workshop in an attempt to foster a growth mind set to aid them academically. The first group were given lessons in study skills alone. The second group received a combination of study skills lessons and additional lessons on the growth mind set and how best to apply it to their work. This second group soon began to feel more control over their learning capabilities and their maths grades began to increase back to the level they had originally been. On the other hand, the first group who received no instruction about the growth mind set continued to decline. In addition, the teacher noted motivational changes in 27% of group 2 and only a 9% change within group 1 (Dweck, Blackwell & Trzesniewski, 2007).



This is an online, interactive and challenging computer programme designed by Dweck and Blackwell (Dweck, 2007). It contains 6 modules teaching children about the brain, what it does and how you can improve it. The programme emphasises effort and hard work and encourages children to view their ability as largely within their control. A group of New York 7th graders who participated in a brain-ology pilot study claimed that the programme had altered their view of intelligence and how best to improve it (Dweck, 2007).

Student and Teacher Testimonials :


Everyone differs in their levels of intelligence, ability and talent. However, even great intelligence and achievement is possible through passion, hard work, effort and determination. People like Einstein, Darwin and Mozart were not born with raw talent, instead they developed their talent over time with incredible and constant effort (Dweck, 2007). This is the key point that needs to be expressed by teachers and parents to children rather than simply telling them how clever they are.

The following clip shows interviews with Will Smith on how effort is the key to success:

"If there is no dark and dogged will, there will be no shining accomplishment. If there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement."

(Chinese saying in Kline & Ivanhoe, 2000)

Attribution Retraining

The main issue with praising a child for their intelligence rather than effort is the fixed mind set it creates, which can hinder their future academic performance. One method to remedy this, is known as attribution retraining and focuses on changing how an individual views success and failure and what they attribute as the cause of these achievements or mistakes. Attribution retraining is based on the ideas proposed in Weiner's attributional theory (1985). This motivational method teaches the individual to take responsibility for their learning and to adopt a 'can do' attitude. The main aim of attribution retraining is to replace the maladaptive self defeating attributions with more self helping attributions (Haynes et al., 2009).

Failure Syndrome Students

These are children who approach their work with very low expectations and tend to give up at any sign of difficulty. They do not fail due to a lack of ability but due to a lack of effort. Failure syndrome students again highlight effort as the vital factor for success. Attribution retraining is often adopted to aid failure syndrome students. The three main concepts these children are taught are:

1. Concentrate on the current task rather than worry about failing.

2. Cope with any failures by going back over work to find the mistake.

3. Attribute any failures to a lack of effort, lack of information or use of ineffective strategies rather than to a lack of ability.

In addition, teacher behaviours that encourage motivation in failure syndrome students are:

1. Acting more as a resource than a judge.

2. Focusing students more on learning than on outcomes.

3. Reacting to errors as natural and helpful parts of of learning rather than evidence of failure.

4.Emphasising effort over ability when giving praise.

5. Attempting to create achievement efforts through primarily intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivational strategies.

(Brophy, 1996)

Applications in Other Areas of Life

Many of the lessons learned about praising an individual for effort rather than ability and encouraging growth rather than fixed mind sets is not just restricted to an academic setting or children. Mind sets in particular can affect individuals in the work place and even in relationships. It is possible that the mind sets we develop as children due to the type of praise we receive can project into other areas of later life. For example a fixed mind set within the workplace can cause managers and employees to discourage or ignore constructive criticism and advice as they believe their ability is fixed and largely unchangeable (Dweck, 2007). Heslin, Vande Walle & Latham (2006) found that managers with a fixed mind set were less likely to seek or welcome any feedback from their employees. Furthermore, holding this fixed view that people are unable to change appears to make managers less likely to help or coach their employees. Nevertheless, after receiving tutorials on the growth mind set and its advantages, managers were more likely to help their employees and give good advice. Finally, fixed mind sets can cause problems within relationships as these individuals are less willing to deal with problems as they see them as fixed (Kammrath & Dweck, 2006). This highlights that the importance of growth mind sets is not restricted to the classroom but can be applied in various areas of life. It would be interesting to investigate whether the type of praise received as a child is what causes adults to have a certain mind set in the work place or in relationships. Longitudinal studies from childhood to adulthood could provide some answers regarding this and is a possible focus for future research in this area.

8) Cultural Variation

Zinacantec weaver at work: praise is not used in this society

The vast majority of research has been carried out in the United States or other Western countries. This is potentially a major weakness. Indeed, some cultures rarely if ever use praise, such as the Zinacantec Maya in Mexico, who only give criticism for poor performance (Maynard, 2002). In a broader sense, it is believed that Western cultures praise far more often than many Eastern cultures. This may be that collectivist cultures (like in China or Japan) place more emphasis on effort when considering achievement (Salili, 1996). Stevenson and Stigler (1992) showed that American mothers considered ability more important in explaining achievement than Chinese or Japanese mothers. In collectivist cultures, effort is of specific significance and this leads to varying attitudes to receiving praise. Sometimes praise can cause offence if the task itself is considered particularly easy, but this tendency is believed to be less prominent in collectivist cultures due to intrinsic value placed on effort (Miller & Hom, 1997).

American children were shown video footage of two students solving a problem, where only one student was praised, there was a tendency to attribute higher effort to the praised student (Barker & Graham, 1987). Older children also inferred that the praised student had a lower ability level whereas the younger children equated receiving praise with high ability. This effect was consistent but very different results were found in a similar experiment using Chinese raters. Salili and Hau (1994) showed that the older Chinese raters did not conclude that the praised individual had less ability. They suggested this may be due to the fact that praise is rarely given in Chinese culture, as it can be interpreted in a negative way. They also suggested that Chinese people are more likely to view intelligence as a consequence of effort. This could mean that in Chinese culture, intelligence is seen as generally fluid, whereas in Western culture, intelligence is often considered a fixed trait. The effects of praise for intellectual achievement will therefore be very different in each cultural context.

One explanation for the differences found is that people in collectivist cultures are motivated by self-improvement, in contrast with a motivation for self-enhancement in individualistic cultures. An example is a study where students in Canada were shown to persist longer on a task after positive feedback, whereas Japanese students persisted longer after negative feedback (Heine, Kitayama, Lehman, Takata, & Ide, 1998). The cultural variation of praise has not been extensively researched and many questions remain. These include what effect global changes may have, such as the internet or cross-cultural initiatives. It would also be interesting to investigate the impact of growing up in one culture and then studying in a new culture. Can people learn to appreciate or cease to need praise? These issues and more await further investigation but it seems clear that it is very important to recognize the limited cultural specificity of current research. As such, any conclusions must be considered with caution and should not be interpreted out with the specific context.

9) Uncritical claims

  • Dale Carnegie (1964) in his famous book, "How to win friends and influence people", claimed that praise should be used often as this will get people on your side due to them feeling flattered. This is not supported empirically, rather it is a notion apparently based on intuition, and anecdotal evidence.
  • Mckay (1992) suggested praising children as much as possible. These claims are not properly grounded in the principles of varying types of praise, although sincerity is advised. This connects to some suggestions that praise necessarily makes children feel good which promotes self-esteem, and motivation. Clearly, this limited perspective misses key points covered throughout this wiki.
  • Carl Rogers (1959) invented the concept of "unconditional positive regard" which states that parents should constantly praise children to encourage healthy personal development. It seems that in recent research this claim is no longer supported as results suggest that "warranted praise" is more effective and that too much praise can cause unhealthy attitudes towards oneself and others.
  • Carol Craig from The Centre of Well-Being and Confidence ( provides a critique of mass psychological interventions and why she feels these aren't effective in education. Although she makes some valid points there are a few statements which could be argued against such as:

The centre was created as young people’s mental health and well-being is becoming an increasing cause for concern due to a rise in depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. This is a move away from positive psychology as it deals with a clinical sample.

Educators are beginning to pay more attention to self-esteem when as already stated previously it has no effect on children's performance.

The centre's aim is to improve education and pushes for a change in this area even though they claim that the main barrier in the UK to a child's well-being is family breakdown.

She claims that mass psychological interventions will cause a rise in mental health issues.

There are several comments about the negative effects of encouraging children to focus on how they feel however later in the critique it states that "emphasis should be on emotions, feelings and relationships".

She states that "SEAL inevitably will be delivered by under-trained staff" however has no evidence to support this claim.

10) Critical points

The presented theories do not consider the influence the way of attribution that was used before experiment onset can have on the way praise is perceived and the influence praise can have. But if praise of effort or ability has an influence on the way performance is attributed, the impact of the praise should be mediated by attribution that was developed before the experiment and therefore is able to have a stronger influence than the cues on how to attribute a performance that are given through praise. Hints that there actually is an interaction between the influence of praise and attribution style were found by Fanny George, Jean-Claude Croizet and Pascal Pansu. (see Further Reading for the article description).

Research in this area and thus evidence is focused on children. We have found no research on teenagers or adults and thus it is hard to determine the impact of types of praise in later life.

Additionally no research was conducted on the impact of different kinds of praise in groups. In groups, like a school class, praise underlies concepts such as social comparison, so that the interpretation of praise depends on whether other students receive praise on the same performance or not. This leads to conclusions of the way the person who delivers the praise perceives the ability of the praised person. If, for example, there were two students and only one received praise for the way they solved a given task, even though both students showed an equal performance, the praised one is likely to perceive himself as being less capable as the non-praised student. This conclusion is based on possible explanations like that the teacher praises him, because he expected him to perform worse than the other student and that might be because the praised student normally performs worse than the other. Here praise has a negative impact. Therefore attention should be paid to the question of how the influence of different kinds of praise change due to social comparison. (see for example Jens Möller (1999) or Barker & Graham (1987) for further research on this topic).

  • Research tends to focus on specific issues (e.g. ability vs effort) without attempting to bring diverse ideas together.
  • Some research focuses on success only, and some over-emphasizes a reaction to failure. These contrasting effects could be more consistently combined in investigations.
  • Much of the research takes place in experimental conditions when this necessarily misses much of the context in real world scenarios.
  • Most research involves children in controlled conditions, with research on adults tending to simply focus on performance.
  • Much of the research fails to include 'no praise' conditions, that have been shown to affect outcomes.
  • Some of the research uses self-report measures which has been argued to be unrepresentative as those with high self-esteem are more likely to exaggerate compared to those with lower self-esteem.

11) Further Research

  • While investigations that attempt to mix various ideas together would be useful, it is also important to ensure that if research is only investigating a particular factor, then only this factor is influential in the experimental design.
  • It is crucial that extrinsic factors do not contaminate the data by introducing potentially confounding influences on subjects.
  • Improved control conditions (e.g. no praise) would improve the validity of conclusions made.
  • Contextual variation should also be more thoroughly examined, and more studies involving a wider age range would provide interesting perspectives.
  • A distinction between the inter-relationship of success feedback and failure feedback could clarify potential contextual influences.
  • Various additional factors should be considered directly in future experiments. This could be the relationship of those involved, or gender differences. Cultural variations have also been investigated to only a limited extent, with a simplistic West/East distinction clearly insufficient to make any clear conclusions.

12) Key points / Conclusions

Key points:

  • Praise can have a variable influence on self esteem, motivation and resilience against negative reaction to failure.
  • There are different kinds of praise: effort vs ability, generic vs non-generic, person vs process.
  • Additionally praise can be perceived in different ways e.g. sincere vs. insincere.
  • Praise influences the attribution of performance and the way the underlying ability is perceived (e.g. stable vs changeable).
  • This leads to contrasting mindsets that shape perceptions of self, and therefore future prospects.
  • Some types of praise (e.g. effort focussed) can enhance motivation and resilience, but other types (e.g. ability focussed) can undermine these characteristics.
  • Praise can help but only in specific circumstances and with specific (matching) types of praise. If these are not optimal, praise can actually hinder performance and development.


Several articles (some of them presented here) stated, that praise is not as one dimensional as it appears. Praise in children has a long-term impact on their behaviour and this impact depends on how praise is given, and how it is verbalised. It seems that praise influences the further behaviour because it can implement a special way to look at performance outcomes. Praise for ability and generic praise can lead to a fixed mindset that ignores the possibility to enhance performance through practice and learning. Praise for effort and non-generic praise seems more likely to lead people to be aware that performance can be improved with more effort and improved methods and thus encourages resilence and motivation.

It therefore seems important not to fall for the assumption that praise is best used as often as possible, but that it is used consciously and that attention is paid to the way it is verbalised. There also seem to be many variables that could have a possible influence on the reaction to praise that past research has rarely attended to. Although praise seems to be necessary to keep people motivated because it tells them that they worked well and that their work is of value, however praise can have some negative impacts. It is important to acknowledge that different kinds of praise exist and the one used should be chosen carefully.

13) Further reading

"The Effects of Praise on Achievement Goals, Causal Attributions, Motivation and Performance: Do French Children Behave Like American Children?" by Fanny George, Jean-Claude Croizet and Pascal Pansu: A conference paper that gives some evidence for a possible the way the impact strength and way of impact of praise of ability and effort depends on attribution style.
The abstract can be found on

An article about social influences on the percievement of praise:
Barker, G. P. & Graham, S. (1987). Developmental study of praise and blame as attributional cues. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79, 62-66.

A journal giving evidence that self-compassion is a useful alternative to self-esteem: Neff, D.K. & Vonk, R. (2009). Self-Compassion Versus Global Self-Esteem: Two different ways of relating to oneself. Journal of Personality, 77:1.

A review documenting the various reasons why we need self-esteem: Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., and Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need Self-Esteem? A Theoretical and Empirical Review. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 435-468.

This article uses a meta-analysis to review a wide selection of researach on praise. Although long, it is worth reading and it has various sections that can be read in isolation: The effects of praise on children's intrinsic motivation: A review and synthesis. (Henderlong & Lepper, 2002)

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Image references

1) Praise your child...but carefully.

2) William James

3) Carol S. Dweck - pioneer of praise research

4) 'Can-do attitude' cartoon

5) Zinacantec weaver at work
praise is not used in this society