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Flattery vs. Self-Esteem

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By Gus Van Horn from Gus Van Horn,cross-posted by MetaBlog

Via Arts and Letters Daily is an article by Po Bronson that makes quite a few excellent points about how confusion about the nature of self-esteem is leading many parents and educators to work against the cognitive and psychological development of children despite their best intentions. How? By giving them empty praise for their "intelligence" rather than earned praise for hard work.

It is worth noting that the way most people use the terms "intelligent" and "smart" implies innate ability, which is not under one's control, while the amount of effort one puts in to a problem is well within his control. In addition, effort can improve one's intellect through use and one's (genuine) self-esteem by providing repeated experiences of conquering difficult problems.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles -- puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, "You must be smart at this." Other students were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard."

Why just a single line of praise? "We wanted to see how sensitive children were," Dweck explained. "We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect."

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they'd learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck's team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The "smart" kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? "When we praise children for their intelligence," Dweck wrote in her study summary, "we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don't risk making mistakes." And that's what the fifth-graders had done: They'd chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.


Scholars from Reed College and Stanford reviewed over 150 praise studies. Their meta-analysis determined that praised students become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy. The scholars found consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students' "shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions." [bold added]

The article is invaluable for making arguments along these lines, but it does suffer from the widespread confusion about the term "self-esteem". For example, Bronson specifically (and rightly) blames the pervasive notion that a child's self-esteem can be bolstered by false praise for these problems, but sounds at points like he is in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water: "Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves [Do they really? --ed], debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem."

Nevertheless, the article does more than once make the connection between effort and the kind of increased self-confidence indicative of high (genuine) self-esteem: "Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem -- it robs [one's child] of the chance to make the [conclusion that he is smart] himself."

At this point, two other related articles are worth bringing up.

First is Edwin Locke's article in The Objective Standard on "The Educational, Psychological, and Philosophical Assault on Self-Esteem", which further discusses further how the educational establishment has been undercutting genuine self-esteem by pushing the false, second-hand variety described by Bronson. Especially valuable in this context is this paragraph, which cuts through the fog and makes Bronson's article, as good as it is, even more intelligible.

Self-esteem is recognized at some level, even by those who fail to understand its actual nature, as a critical psychological need. It is generally viewed as "feeling good about yourself." This is superficially true: Self-esteem is a positive subconscious estimate of oneself. More accurately, however, self-esteem is the conviction that one is fundamentally worthy of success and capable of dealing with life's challenges. Self-esteem is not a causeless feeling or appraisal. It has to be earned by means of specific actions, especially mental actions, but most people have never been taught what these actions consist of. Consider the field of education. [bold added]

Viewed in this light, it is clear that any attempt to grant a child "self-esteem" by such measures as the repeated incantation of "You're smart," will fail -- while teaching a child how to earn the real thing, by encouraging him to try harder, will at least have the strong possibility of success.

Second, this article reminds me of another from about five years ago by Mark Goldblatt of the Fashion Institute of Technology, which brings up another dimension of the problem caused by our educators' fetish for pseudo-self-esteem.

nlike in the past, ignorance is no longer tempered with humility. Rather, after years of psychotherapy disguised as pedagogy, ignorance is now buoyed by self-esteem -- which, in turn, makes students more resistant to remediation since they don't believe there's a problem. This resistance, indeed, is part and parcel of a wholly misplaced intellectual confidence that is the most serious obstacle to their higher education. For the last two decades, I've taught freshman courses at CUNY and SUNY colleges in the city; the majority of my students have been products of the city's public schools. I am saddened, therefore, to report that more and more of them are arriving in my classes with the impression that their opinions, regardless of their acquaintance with a particular subject, are instantly valid -- indeed, as valid as anyone's. Pertinent knowledge, to them, is not required to render judgment. [bold added]

In other words, if praise is divorced from a child's effort of focusing on reality by teaching him from early on that social approval is more important than hard work, then that child's ability to evaluate how effective his mind really is -- or whether what he thinks corresponds to reality -- will become severely impaired through disuse. Furthermore, children who are not confident enough to spend time studying difficult problems in order to form their own opinions will opt for the easy way out -- praise for parroting whatever indoctrination they receive. They will appear to be confident, but that will only be because they are now oriented to the task of earning praise, at which they will have learned to excel by the point they get to Goldblatt. And as for doing anything that requires mental effort, why should they? What they did before was always good enough.

It is encouraging that the concept of "self-esteem" is being examined critically today, but confusion about the concept risks lowering the value of much of this work. The goal of education is to help children become rational, efficacious adults. The emotional component of this goal is, in fact, self-esteem, which will be an effect of a good education. By knowing the true nature of self-esteem (rather than dismissing it completely because it is so widely misunderstood), we understand better the errors of current theories of education and can more quickly correct them.

-- CAV


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I heard a related study described on NPR a couple of days ago, but do not remember the names. This paraphrase might be slightly off, but here goes:

Two experiments were conducted, both long term (I gather a year or more).

In one, researchers interviewed kids, asking them questions about human brains: e.g. do brains grow if we use them more? can people work toward making themselves more intelligent? and so on. And they classified kids as those who thought intelligence was fairly static and those who thought it was under control. When they returned at a later date, they found that kids with the "innate ability" beliefs had progressed less than the ones who thought ability was under one's control.

In a second experiment, they created two randomly-selected groups of kids so that the groups had similar distributions of achievement levels in Math. Both groups were sent to special lectures. One set was given tips on how to practice and learn Math; the other group was given lectures about the brain, and told how neurons grow when people think and use their brains, etc. When the researchers came back later, they found that the group that had been given scientific lectures about the brain had improved more than the group that had been given specific tips.

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Here's a study idea. Take two random groups of high school students and have one learn Objectivist epistemology, the other pragmatism/progressive education. I have a hunch about the results...

Edited by Spano
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Most people in the west today are careful about telling kids things like: "You're a bad boy", preferring the approach "What you did was a bad thing to do". However, people don't generally see the problem with saying: "You're a good boy". The books co-authored by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish address this issue, with lots of examples. They draw on the work of Dr. Haim Ginott.

I'd summarize their advice thus... The essence of the right approach is to imagine oneself as having a state of mind where the reasoning by which someone reaches a conclusion is not obvious. This is the state of younger children. When a child is told "you're good", it can often be the case that he does not really understand why. Essentially, he does not know what one is talking about. He might make a guess, and he might be right or wrong. Worse still, in a few cases he may not be able to figure out why, and could ends up guiltily wondering if the praise is not deserved. So, it's best to be as explicit as one can, particularly when the child is young. Fpr instance, after the child has done some activity (say painted something) -- "you're good", should not simply become, "you're good at painting", but something fact-based, for instance: "you've drawn the scales of the figures just like they are in real life", or "I like the bright colors you've used", or whatever... basically not jumping to the conclusion, but stating its basis.

It's true that, even if not told, over time a child will figure out many of the reasons for the evaluations for himself, simply by the pattern of praise and rebuke. However, making it explicit (not as some sin if one doesn't, but merely as a good habit most of the time) makes that process easier, and also reduces the chances of error. The analogy I think of is in teaching reading. One can do it by the phonetic method, or one can do it by a whole-word method and let the kid induce the rules over time. With the latter, many kids will still have a decent grasp of reading, but you're not exactly helping.

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