Praising Ability vs. Effort

27.06.2016 |

Episode #9 of the course A quick introduction to social psychology by Andy Luttrell


The Psychology

It’s tempting to admire a person’s ability and praise them for what seems like an innate talent. We make a big deal about people’s intelligence, athleticism, etc. But maybe that type of praise is destructive. Once people start to think that skills and talents are things they either have or don’t have, they’re at risk for reacting negatively to setbacks.

Instead, what if you praised people for their hard work and effort?

Research shows that this simple change in praise and reinforcement does wonders. When you acknowledge someone’s effort, you encourage them to do their best and keep working hard. When you acknowledge someone’s ability, you can make it hard for them to keep going if they face challenges in the future.


The Evidence

In 1998, Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller published their findings from a study on fifth graders’ academic skills. They gave these students four minutes to work on a set of moderately difficult problems.

All of the students were told that they had done well on the problem set, and sometimes this was the only feedback they received. Other times, however, the researcher would tell the students that they did well and praised the students’ ability: “Wow. You must be smart at these problems!” Still other times, the researcher praised the students’ effort: “Wow. You must have worked hard at these problems!” For the rest of the session, the researcher treated everyone exactly the same.

Then came a critical moment—the students experienced a bit of failure. Each child had to do a new set of problems that were much more difficult than the first set, and when they got their scores, it wasn’t good news.

The question now was: how did the fifth graders respond in the face of this setback? Did they lose confidence in themselves, or did they use it as motivation to do better next time?

The kids who had been first praised for their ability were the ones who saw this second set of problems as a failure. But the kids who were praised from their effort took it as a learning opportunity and did better on the next test because of it. These kids were more likely to take the problems home to practice and read about how to master them.

This study showed that praising people for their hard work inspires them to take risks, learn from mistakes, and move on from setbacks. Praising people for their natural ability, though, makes them feel like they need to prove their natural talent, and any setback seems like a failure.

In your own life, try focusing on other people’s hard work instead of their natural ability. You can even reward yourself for effort rather than your natural talents. It could make challenges easier to overcome in the future.

For more, check out this great interview: “Carol Dweck on the Growth Mindset, Embracing Failure, and Middle East Peace – Inside Quest.”


Recommended book

“The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil” by Philip Zimbardo


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