Praise: Wouldn't honest feedback be better?

Seattle likes to encourage its young people with unstinting praise. A Stanford psychologist's work suggests that we aren't encouraging young people that way.

Crosscut archive image.

Carol Dweck's book "Mindset" has influenced thinking about how to give praise.

Seattle likes to encourage its young people with unstinting praise. A Stanford psychologist's work suggests that we aren't encouraging young people that way.

Praise feels good. In a place like Seattle, where it seems that so many of us are well-meaning and want to be positive, we may be especially given to effusive praise, “You’re so great! You’re awesome!” and “You’re the best!” Praise, no doubt about it, feels good.

But is it good for you?

Maybe not, at least if the work of Stanford social psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck is to be believed.

After numerous studies with hundreds of children, Dweck, had clear findings: "Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.” (from, Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success).

But how can this be? Isn’t praise a good thing? Shouldn’t we be praising not only children, but all sorts of people? Standing on the sidelines at a typical kids soccer game in Seattle, you hear lots of shouted praise from parents who are resolved to not be the demanding, hyper-competitive sports parent: “Great game!” “You played so well!” (even if players didn’t play so well). Or looking at the art display at a Seattle elementary school, we tend toward the effusive. “That’s wonderful,” “That’s so beautiful,” “You’re so talented.” If Dweck is right, this may be wrong.

In one of Dweck’s most famous studies, with fifth graders, her researchers gave students a set of nonverbal puzzles designed at only a moderate level of difficulty. All students completed the puzzles satisfactorily and were told their scores, but there were variations in what happened next. A control group heard only their scores. In a second group, students were praised for their intelligence, being told, “You must be smart at this.” A third group were not praised for their intelligence, but for their effort. They were told, “You must have really worked hard at this.”

Students in all three groups were then offered a choice for what to do in the remaining time. They could work on additional puzzles that weren’t too hard, thus ensuring they wouldn’t get many wrong. Or they could work on harder puzzles from which they would learn a lot. But they might not look so smart.

Their choices were revealing. Far more students who had been praised for their intelligence chose to work on the easy puzzles than those who had been praised for their effort. Of the fifth graders who had been told, “You must have worked really hard,” 90 percent asked to work on the difficult puzzles, from which they would be more likely to learn more.

Dweck theorized that some types of praise gives rise to what she calls a “fixed mindset” while other types of praise, or feedback, give rise to “a growth mindset.” Praise may foster a fixed mindset that believes you are smart or intelligent or you’re not. It’s fixed, a given. Feedback that focuses on the effort made tends to foster a growth mindset, the belief that excellence is less something you just have (or you don’t), but rather that its something that can be cultivated. Or as one school teacher I know puts it, “Smart is not something you are. It’s something you work at.”

Commenting on Dweck’s findings, author Barbara Blodgett, in Becoming the Pastor You Hope to Be, says, “Yes, children love praise. And they especially love to be praised for their intelligence and talent. It really does give them a boost, a special glow — but only for a moment. The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb.”

The point, with kids, but not just kids, really all of us, is that blanket praise is really not that helpful, while thoughtful feedback can be much more conducive to growth.

What’s the difference between praise and feedback? It’s not that one is positive and the other negative. Feedback can be positive or challenging. The difference is that praise tends to be “person-focused,” while “feedback” tends to be “action-focused.” “You are the world’s best friend!” might be an example of the former, while something like, “I really appreciated the way you just listened without giving me advice or trying to fix things for me. A good friend, to me, is someone who lets a person, ‘think out loud’ without having to worry about what they are saying.” That would be feedback.

I work more with adults than children and find myself thinking about the implications of Dweck’s work for the adults I work with most, those who lead religious congregations. Often clergy get either blanket praise, “You’re the best rabbi,” or they get blanket criticism, “You’re a lousy minister.” What they tend not to get as much is thoughtful feedback that focuses on their actions. But that’s what many need.

Moreover, clergy tend often to be co-conspirators in the blanket praise game. Many seem to think their job as pastor or priest is to be “Mr. or Ms. Upbeat and Positive.” Such clergy frequently tell people, “You’re wonderful! You’re the best! You’re awesome!” But at least sometimes such words don’t really ring true. They may be a way of covering up or avoiding harder truth, even a way of manipulating people. Giving good feedback, instead of just slathering on the praise, is work. It means you have to observe carefully and think about what you’re saying.

But my hunch is that the too frequent recourse to broadbrush praise, whether for children or adults, is sloppy thinking. It may create a short-term glow. It sounds as if it fosters a so-called “positive atmosphere.” But is it really what we need? Aren’t we better off to focus, as Dweck suggests, on the effort people make and thus to encourage growth?

Dweck believes that success of many kinds, whether in sports, business, or school, is ultimately aided not by boosting people’s sense of natural abilities or attributes but rather by boosting their engagement in and passion for their endeavors. As Blodgett sums up, “When it comes to academic achievement, for example, a student is better off believing in their effort than their intelligence.” The extrapolation to sports, including big-time sports and the rise and fall of some pro athletes, is obvious.

According to “the growth mindset,” people can change and grow through application and experience and “no one’s potential can be known with certainty ahead of time.” I find that to be a more realistic and hopeful message in my work with religious leaders, and suspect it is true for others as well.

Broadsides of praise may be a short-time high both for the giver and the receiver. But honest, thoughtful, and constructive feedback is better for us all in the long run.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.