An international team of researchers reports that when children are praised for being smart not only are they quicker to give up in the face of obstacles they are also more likely to be dishonest and cheat. Kids as young as age 3 appear to behave differently when told “You are so smart” vs “You did very well this time.”
The study, published in Psychological Science, is co-authored by Gail Heyman of the University of California San Diego, Kang Lee of the University of Toronto, and Lulu Chen and Li Zhao of Hangzhou Normal University in China.
The research builds on well-known work by Stanford’s Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset,” who has shown that praising a child’s innate ability instead of the child’s effort or a specific behavior has the unintended consequence of reducing their motivation to learn and their ability to deal with setbacks.
The present study shows there’s also a moral dimension to different kinds of praise and that it affects children at younger ages than previously known. Even the kindergarten and preschool set seem to be sensitive to subtle differences in praise.
“It’s common and natural to tell children how smart they are,” said co-author Gail Heyman, a development psychologist at UC San Diego. “Even when parents and educators know that it harms kids’ achievement motivation, it’s still easy to do. What our study shows is that the harm can go beyond motivation and extend to the moral domain. It makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well.”