Praise the Effort Not the Result!

Earlier this week, I read an immensely readable book called “:59 Seconds” by Richard Wiseman, Professor for the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.

The book elegantly exposes the often-heard modern-day myths promoted by the self-help industry by looking at the actual scientific evidence behind buzzwords like positive thinking, visualization, or brainstorming.

As you may imagine, although such notions often sound like good ideas, there is often little or pretty iffy science to show that these ideas actually work. In fact, it turns out that when tested in scientific experiments, many of these “great ideas” simply don’t hold up.

In one chapter, Wiseman deals with the oft-propagated power of praise, suggested by some self-help gurus as the “single best thing you can do for your child to build up their self-confidence”.

The idea is indeed appealing: “Always tell the little ones they are wonderful, and surely they will grow up into confident happy people”. Celebrate every little victory, every goal, every grade they bring home – burst into exuberant praise over even the smallest success.

While this idea certainly has great appeal, when put to the test in a rigorous large-scale scientific study, surprising results emerge: praise can actually be a major disincentive for performance and is actually far more likely to promote failure!

In support, he recounts a series of studies by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck from Columbia University, New York, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1989.

The experiments, involving around 400 fifth graders from a variety of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, essentially showed that when kids given an intellectual task were subsequently praised for achieving high marks because they were so smart (praise for intelligence), they were far more likely to care about performance goals (i.e. getting high scores) than children who were only praised for trying hard (praise for effort).

Perhaps more importantly, after being exposed to failure (worked into the experimental design of the study), the kids who had been praised for being so smart displayed substantially less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low-ability attributions, and worse task performance than children simply praised for their effort.

The children praised for intelligence were more likely to describe their level of smartness as a fixed trait compared to the children praised for hard work, who believed their effort to be subject to improvement and simply resorted to trying harder when faced with failure or more difficult tasks.

From their studies, Mueller and Dweck concluded:

“…our studies illustrate the important, and often unsuspected, role that praise after success can play in children’s later achievement motivation.

Well-meant praise for intelligence, which is intended to boost children’s enjoyment, persistence, and performance during achievement, does not prepare them for coping with setbacks. In fact, we have demonstrated that this type of ability feedback can undermine children’s motivation when they are later confronted with challenge.

Indeed, researchers, educators, and parents alike might be well advised to borrow a guideline from the literature on criticism when they decide to praise children. That is, as with criticism, it is better to separate “the deed from the doer” by applying praise to children’s strategies and work habits rather than to any particular trait.

Because children cannot be insulated from failure throughout their lives, great care should be taken to send them motivationally beneficial messages after success.”

I believe that these findings in kids have important implications for weight management (probably both in kids and adults).

If the focus and praise is on achieving a weight goal or target, success is far less likely to persist than if the focus and praise is about the process or effort.

Someone who is praised simply for achieving a weight goal is likely to be far more vulnerable to setbacks and unable to cope with weight regain than someone who is praised for the effort.

In practice this would mean that rather than congratulating patients on the amount of weight they lose, they should be congratulated and praised for religiously keeping their food diaries, for working hard on improving their meal pattern and nutritional hygiene, for persistently eating more fruits and vegetables, for drinking fewer high-calorie beverages, and even just for coming back to their appointments.

This “praise for the effort” becomes even more important as patients approach their weight loss plateau, where persisting with these behaviours no longer leads to continuing weight loss (but certainly to continuing improvements in health). This is when “praise for (continuing) effort” becomes invaluable.

Patients who measure their success in pounds see themselves as failing when they do not fully achieve their (often unrealistic) goals or stop losing weight.

In contrast, patients, who measure their success by the effort they are putting into maintaining a healthier diet and the work they are putting into being more active, continue to experience success as long as they continue their efforts (irrespective of the numbers on the scale).

Furthermore, the natural tendency of people on achieving a goal is to celebrate and relax, in weight management, a surefire recipe for relapse.

In contrast, when the focus is on the effort – the only goal is to continue with the effort.

This is why I always discourage my patients from setting weight loss goals and am far more interested in hearing about and seeing what they are actually doing than worrying about any numbers on the scale.

This is why I care more about whether they are actually keeping a food diary, having breakfast, eating out less often, wearing a pedometer and walking additional steps, than I care about how close they are to their “dream weight”.

When behaviours change, health follows!

Edmonton, Alberta

Mueller CM, & Dweck CS (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75 (1), 33-52 PMID: 9686450