Praise Effort, Not Ability

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In an earlier post, we explored the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. Amazingly, the kind of praise provided to individuals can have a dramatic effect on which mindset they embrace.

The psychologist Carol Dweck writes about an experiment in which adolescents were given a difficult non-verbal IQ test. Some of the kids were praised based on their ability: “Wow, you got eight right! You must be really smart.” The other kids were praised for their effort: “Wow, you got eight right! You must have worked really hard.”

Although the groups of children started off scoring the same on the test, the ability-praise group immediately separated from the effort-praise group. The group praised for ability rejected challenging tasks out of a fear of failure; the effort-praise group embraced the challenge as an opportunity to learn. The ability-praise group felt less intelligent after they did poorly on new, harder problems. By contrast, the group praised for effort simply worked harder. When asked how they felt about the problems, the ability-praise group complained that the harder problems were no longer fun, while the effort-praise group enjoyed the hard problems the most. The effort-praise group even scored better than the ability-praise group in future tests, and—shockingly—almost 40 percent of the ability-praise group lied about their scores.

An anecdotal account of how praising ability instead of effort can be detrimental comes from the world of table tennis. In 2002, a young boy in Britain named Darius Knight practiced in a shed for hours at a time. When the press began to praise his skill, he was invited to the High Performance Centre in Nottingham. Even though Knight was now training in state-of-the-art facilities, the ability-based praise undermined his achievements. Table tennis pro and author Matthew Syed explains in his book Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success (Amazon affiliate link),

His training lacked intensity (Why train hard if I am so talented that things should come effortlessly?); he began to duck big matches (Why should I risk losing the talent label by losing to inferior opponents?); he even began to become deceptive about his results (Why be upfront when it might compromise all that gushing praise?).

When Knight’s backwards progress was noted, the director of English table tennis intervened with Knight’s coaches and told them to praise Knight’s effort rather than ability. The result? Knight is near the top of his age group rankings in Europe.

The lesson is clear. Praise effort instead of ability.

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