Praising the Outcome, not the Trait

by F.

The Mouse Trap gives a nice summary of this paper, the take-away of which is that we should not praise “traits” of children, but rather should praise outcomes:

A recent study indicates that giving generic trait-based feedback to children ( in the form of “you are a good drawer”) increases feeling of helplessness on subsequent mistakes/failures and reduces their resilience in the face of failure in comparison to the condition in which they are given specific outcome-based feedback (of the form ” you drew a good drawing”). It is thus apparent that when generic praise is given, then this results in a stable inborn talent-like view of the self abilities, while a specific praise enforces more a concept of skill-based self ability that may be affected by circumstances and can be worked on and acquired.

Generic praise implies there is a stable ability that underlies performance; subsequent mistakes reflect on this ability and can therefore be demoralizing. When criticized, children who had been told they were “good drawers” were more likely to denigrate their skill, feel sad, avoid the unsuccessful drawings and even drawing in general, and fail to generate strategies to repair their mistake. When asked what he would do after the teacher’s criticism, one child said, “Cry. I would do it for both of them. Yeah, for the wheels and the ears.” In contrast, children who were told they had done “a good job drawing” had less extreme emotional reactions and better strategies for correcting their mistakes.

Trait-based thinking is natural and gives rise to the fundamental attribution error. But here we can see another pernicious effect of it, a little like the myth of talent, which discounts practice.