According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart. To a parent looking to help a child reach his/her potential and feel confident, this seems both a natural and a surefire confidence boost. However, research in the New York public-school system by psychologist Carol Dweck strongly suggests it may be the other way around. Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.
For the past ten years, Dweck and her team at Columbia (she’s now at Stanford) studied the effect of praise on 400 fifth grade students in a dozen New York schools.
Dweck sent four female research assistants into NY fifth-grade classrooms. Researchers took a 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 student finished, researchers told each his score, then offered a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence and told, “You must be smart at this.” Others 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.