Thursday, March 01, 2007

More on Self-Efficacy and Praising Kids

(Update: Sally over at Empirical Question has a great, longer commentary on this article.)

Via Uncertain Principles, I discovered this New York Magazine article ("How Not to Talk to Your Kids" by Po Bronson, 2/19/07) about exactly what I was writing about the other day - praising kids for their efforts versus their intelligence.

The article is about a study by Carol Dweck and others from Columbia University, where they took a group of fifth graders and gave them an easy puzzle task (easy enough that everyone would do pretty well). After the test, each child was praised either for their smarts or for their effort, with a one-line remark. Being praised for smarts vs. effort had a variety of surprising negative effects on subsequent performance in the experiment. (Read the whole article if this is up your alley; it's pretty interesting.)

This type of research feels very meaningful to me, because I grew up as a smart kid who almost never worked hard at anything. ("Grew up as?" Try "still am.") I have, or used to have, a seemingly instinctive feeling of slight contempt for people who work hard, especially in an academic setting. (As the article says, "Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it’s public proof that you can’t cut it on your natural gifts.") Every bad effect described in that article (giving up on difficult tasks too soon; feeling unreasonably insecure about my abilities; unwillingness to work hard at something) is one I have observed in myself.

Contempt for effort is a really wrong value to hold. From a kind of touchy-feely moral perspective, people can't control their innate talents, while they can control how hard they work, so working hard is morally preferable to being talented. And, more importantly, working hard is what determines your results relative to your talent, and to some extent regardless of your talent. And out here in the "real world", almost anyone would (rightly) prefer to work with a diligent person of ordinary talents than with a lazy smarty-pants.

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