Landing : Athabascau University

Highly praised children are more inclined to cheat

The title of this Alphr article is a little misleading because the point the article rightly makes is that it all depends on the type of praise given. It reports on research from the University of Toronto that confirms (yet again) what should be obvious: praising learners for who they are ('you're so smart') is a really bad idea, while praising what they do ('you did that well') is not normally a bad idea. The issue, though, is essentially one of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. By praising the person for being a particular way you are positioning that as the purpose, rather than a side-effect, of the activity, and positioning yourself as the arbiter, so disempowering the learner. By praising the behaviour, you are offering useful feedback on performance that empowers the recipient to choose whether and how to do such things again, as well as supporting needs for relatedness (it shows you care) and competence (it helps them improve). Both forms of praise contribute to feelings of self-esteem, but only one supports intrinsic motivation. 

The nice twist in these particular studies (here and here) is that the researchers were looking at effects on morality. They found that ability praise (teling them they are smart) is very strongly correlated with a propensity to cheat. Exactly as theory would predict, kids who have been told that they are smart are significantly more likely to respond to the extrinsic motivation (the need to live up to expectations when given ability praise) by cheating, when given the opportunity. Interestingly, praising the behaviour (performance praise) has little or no effect on likelihood of cheating when compared with those given no praise at all: it is only when an expectation is set that the children are perceived as smart that cheating behaviour increases. It is also interesting, if tangential, that boys appeared to be way more likely to cheat than girls under all the conditions though, once primed by ability praise, girls were more likely to cheat than boys that had received no praise or performance praise.

The lesson is nothing like as simple as remembering to just praise the action, not the person. Praising behaviours can, when used badly, be just as disempowering as praising the person. For instance, while in some senses it might be possible to view grades as a kind of abbreviated praise (or punishment, which amounts to much the same thing) for a behaviour, there's a critical difference: the fact that it will be graded is known in advance by the learner. This is compounded by the fact that the grade matters to them, often more than the performance of the activity itself. Thus, achieving the grade becomes the goal, not the consequence of the behaviour, and it reinforces the power of the grader to determine the behaviour of the learner, with a consequent loss of learner autonomy. That shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation is the big issue here, not the praise itself. There are lots of ways to give both performance praise and ability praise that are not coercive. They are only harmful when used to manipulate behaviour.


  • This post was interesting to me as I consider my use of praise multiple times a day as parent and teacher. Jon Dron's comments bring attention to the differences in praising who a child is vs. what they do, in extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation.

    The value of teaching mindset, our beliefs about success, is becoming more understood in and out of school systems. Fixed mindset is the belief that success is based on innate ability whereas with growth mindset success is based on hard work, learning, and training.

    As kids, we tend to grow up with fixed mindsets labelling ourselves  'good' or 'bad' at things. Carol Dweck has contributed to social psychology with theories of intelligence and has devoted her life to studying fixed and growth mindset.

    I wonder if we can begin to shift the next generation of thinkers, if, as young parents and educators, we focus our efforts on specific behaviour - directed feedback.


    Jehane Johnson September 16, 2017 - 1:21am

  • Jon,

    I found this really interesting as well, particularly given my recent forays into Self Determination Theory. I also just shared the article, and your comments with my students in a Learning Environments course I am teaching this semester.


    Gerald Ardito September 18, 2017 - 9:12am

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