“Growth mindset” theory doesn’t translate directly from kids to adults – telling an adult they are a “hard worker” can backfire

GettyImages-502856475.jpgBy Emma Young

The way parents and teachers praise children is known to influence not only their future performance, but how they feel about the malleability of intelligence. If a child has done well, focusing positive comments on their efforts, actions and strategies (saying, for example, “good job” or “you must have tried really hard”) is preferable to saying “you’re so smart”, in part because process-centred praise is thought to encourage kids to interpret setbacks as opportunities to grow, rather than as threats to their self-concept. In contrast, a kid who’s led to believe she succeeds because she’s “intelligent” may not attempt a difficult challenge, in case she fails.

Now – and somewhat remarkably, given all the praise and growth mindset research conducted on children – a new study, led by Rachael Reavis at Earlham College, Indiana, US, published the Journal of Genetic Psychology, claims to be the first to test the effects of different types of praise on how adults feel after failure. 

The researchers recruited 156 adults via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. After completing a set of six easy visual pattern problems, which they were given up to two minutes to solve, they were all informed: “You did better than the majority of adults!” But then the feedback varied.

About a third were told that, based on the pattern of their results, they had been classified as “in the high intelligence group” (person-focused ability feedback); about a third were told they had been classified as “the kind of person who works hard” (person-focused effort feedback – they were a “hard worker”) and about a third were told they had been classified as “working hard on these questions” (process-focused effort feedback – they had worked hard).

All participants were then given a set of 12 difficult problems (which timed out after 3.5 minutes), and no matter how well they did, all were told that their performance was “worse than most adults”. The researchers were interested in how the earlier feedback would affect the participants’ performance and enjoyment on the tasks, and especially how they would interpret their apparent failure at the final set of difficult problems. 

Based partly on previous findings involving children, the researchers expected that being told you’re a “hard worker” would be the most beneficial kind of praise or feedback, as it implies that the person typically puts in a lot of effort. (And while this form of praise is person-centred, it focuses on behaviour, rather than on intrinsic ability.)

In fact, the type of feedback participants received after the easy task did not affect their performance on the difficult problems, relative to their performance on the first. Meanwhile, it was the “hard worker” group who said they enjoyed the difficult set of problems the least (the other two groups did not differ from each other on this); they also believed they had been less successful on the tasks than those in the other groups.

Finally, when the participants indicated, on a scale of 0 to 10, to what extent they attributed their poor performance at the final task to lack of effort or to lack of intelligence (as well as to eight other factors that were included to obscure the true purpose of the study), there were no group differences for effort, but as expected, those in the “worked hard” group were significantly less likely to attribute their failure to their level of intelligence than those in the “high intelligence group”. However, against expectations, the “hard worker” group actually blamed their low intelligence just as much as the “high intelligence” participants. 

As the researchers note, “Few of the results demonstrated with children were replicated.”

Why might this be? 

It’s possible that adults believe that telling someone they’re a hard worker is something positive to say when you can’t plausibly say that they’re smart or gifted. When I think back to my own childhood, there were awards at school for “good work” and also for “hard work”, and, among the kids, a “good work” award was seen as being the bigger achievement. In contrast, at my children’s primary school, in the light of the findings on process-focused praise, rewards are focused entirely on effort. However, it’s also standard for a child who typically puts in a lot of effort to be called a “hard worker”. 

For children today, this may perhaps still be beneficial. For adults, who grew up in a different time, “being told one is a ‘hard worker’ may elicit feelings of inadequacy, which undermine positive perceptions of the task,” the researchers write. “Future work should investigate how both children and adults interpret these types of praise.”

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

Effort as Person-Focused Praise: “Hard Worker” Has Negative Effects for Adults After a Failure

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