The Halo Effect: How Beauty Affects The Way You Treat Others

The topic of beauty is prevalent among all cultures and all throughout human history, a mysterious and seductive force on the psyche that consistently reveals its influence in stories of politics, marriage, power, and social status. The old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” simply means that what we consider beautiful is based on the stories we tell ourselves—a subjective experience that is colored by the unconscious and culture at large.

You’ve probably heard these stories before: a beautiful girl not getting a speeding ticket because, you know, she’s beautiful. Or a handsome guy getting away with more than he should. Physical attractiveness creates a powerful first impression on the mind, so powerful that we may go beyond looks and start creating impressions on success, status, parenting, and intelligence, even if it isn’t true.

To understand mankind’s weakness to all things beautiful, we need to acknowledge the power of first impressions.

First impressions linger in the mind and influence the way we see and treat others. Once that impression is rooted, it takes a lot to change our attitude. If you go to a party and the host is generous and kind, you’ll forgive him when he does a keg stand or spills cranberry juice on your white shirt. This comes from our adaptive and evolutionary behavior.

As David McRaney says in You Are Not So Smart:

“To speed up processing, your brain tends first to apply very simple labels to the things you encounter minute by minute. You can thank your ancestors for paying attention to these labels for millions of years, because some of the things you are most likely to encounter in life are now hardwired into your mind as being good or bad, desirable or undesirable.
When you make decisions and kindle beliefs based on innate sensations, psychologists say you are using the affect heuristic. An affect, in psychological terms, is a feeling that needs no further analysis. It isn’t a coherent thought with words and symbols attached, but rather, a raw emotional state, a twinge or a jolt or just a general sensation that sets a tone or a mood.”

This heuristic influences what psychologists call the halo effect. The halo effect causes one trait (e.g. beauty) to drastically color your perception of all other traits. If you think someone is beautiful, you are likely to assume they’re also smart, ambitious, interesting, etc. We’ve all made these assumptions before, for good or ill. McRaney states:

“In the last one hundred years of research, beauty seems to be the one thing that most reliably produces the halo effect. Beauty is shorthand, a placeholder term for an invisible mental process in which you are privy only to the final output. Like the words delicious and disgusting, it describes a distinct variation of the affect heuristic. To see and judge a face as beautiful is to experience a tempest of brain activity informed by your culture, your experiences, and the influences of your deep evolutionary inheritance.”

Let’s take a look at some of these studies.

Why Beauty Is The Most Powerful First Impression

In 1972, psychologists Karen Dion, Ellen Berscheid, and Elaine Walster conducted a study to see just how beauty elicits the halo effect. The subjects, however, were told that the study was focused on first impressions. Each person received three envelopes containing three photographs thats the researchers rated on a scale of attractiveness—highly attractive, average, and not so attractive. The subjects had to look at the photographs and then judge 27 different personality traits. They had to determine which person in the photograph possessed these traits, like altruism, stability, etc. Then they had to judge whether these people were happy, along with other pursuits like marriage, parenting, and career.

The results? With nothing but a picture to base their judgements, highly attractive people possessed most of the traits and more strongly than others. They were also happier and more successful, were greater parents and had better jobs.

Wow. All of these assumptions were determined by one picture. But it makes sense when we hear stories like this because humans are always predicting, always going beyond what’s at face value. This is like seeing someone wearing black-framed glasses and thinking they’re sophisticated or smart or nerdy, when all they’re doing is just wearing glasses. If they happen to be smart or nerdy, this impacts our memory and in turn how we begin to label others wearing those glasses.

In another study done in 1974, researchers gave essays to the subjects with a photo attached to it. Some received an essay with a photo of an attractive woman, and others received a photo with an unattractive woman. The participants had to rate the quality of the writing, and researchers didn’t mention the photo.

The result? Attractive woman = better writing, more in-depth and creative.

The catch? The essays were identical.

As David McRaney concludes:

“When the scientists ran the study with essays purposely written to be awful, the disparity between the ratings was magnified. As Landy and Sigall wrote, you expect better performances from attractive people, but when they fail, you are also more likely to forgive them.
In short, as Landy and Sigall pointed out, you expect more from pretty people well before you know anything else about them, and when they fall short of your expectations, you give them more of a chance to prove themselves than you do people less symmetrical or slender or muscle-bound or bosom-heaving or whatever cultural or era-appropriate norms of attractiveness are woven into your perception.”

The halo effect isn’t limited to physical attractiveness. That 5-star reviewed vacuum cleaner, the New York Times Bestseller stamped on the cover, Oprah’s Book Club, the Pulitzer Prize—all of these labels have profound influences on whether we give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down, whether we pull out the credit card or not. It’s a mental shortcut to allow us to make quick decisions instead of sitting there weighing all the different variables.

We Are Our Own Worst Critic

Although beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so much of our self-esteem and what we believe to be beautiful is diluted by the media. Without self-awareness, we can be pulled left and right in search of what’s beautiful and acceptable. The ideal thin woman or a guy with a chiseled jawline with abs is ruthlessly and inaccurately portrayed. People are becoming more aware of the effects of Photoshop and other tools, but it proves to be equally difficult to set aside artificial standards of beauty and to be more compassionate towards ourselves and others.

Dove did a wonderful campaign and study on this showcasing how we’re our own worst critic, and when others describe us, they celebrate and appreciate, whereas we criticize and condemn.

The danger in all of this is ignorance of the halo effect, being blinded by the luster of a good hair day or a popular cultural label. To overcome this, a scientific and psychological understanding of beauty and its effects are helpful. It’s difficult to not put things on a pedestal, to not view items or people in a hierarchy. With careful consider of what we’re viewing and telling ourselves, perhaps we can achieve a level of objectivity that allows us to not be blinded by the halo above one’s head, and so we may ultimately learn to appreciate beauty in all of its forms.

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[Source: Dion, Karen, Ellen Berscheid, and Elain Walster. “What is Beautiful Is Good.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 24, no. 3 (1972): 285-90.

Landy, D., & Sigall, H. (1974). Beauty is talent: Task evaluation as a function of the performer's physical attractiveness. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology29(3), 299-304. doi:10.1037/h0036018

You Are Not So Smart By David McRaney]



Why Self-Delusions Are Part of Human Nature and How They Keep Us Alive

We believe we’re rational, logical, fair people. We believe we see the world as it is, and that we understand the source of our feelings, thoughts, and decisions. We also believe, it turns out, that we’re better looking than average, more skilled, intelligent, and capable than the person next to us (more on this soon). This is why, in the words David McRaney, author of You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, And All The Ways To Outsmart Yourself, we’re completely delusion but essentially why it’s okay.

Our mind has many tools and tricks that influence us to deceive ourselves for the sake of survival. For millions of years, our ancestors had to deal with unimaginable adversity, and what kept them alive was our predisposition to find meaning, to alter reality, to identify the good in the bad. Sort of like a Defense Against The Dark Arts, the self-enhancement bias is the mind’s natural tendency to enhance the view of ourselves so that we may not be pummeled by the harshness of reality, and so that we may keep moving forward. As McRaney says:

“The positive illusions and their helpers form a supercluster of delusion that thumps in the psyche of every human. Together, illusory superiority bias, the illusion of control, optimism bias, confirmation bias, hindsight bias, and self-serving bias combine like Voltron into a mental chimera called self-enhancement bias. It works just as the name suggests—it enhances your view of yourself.
“These illusions serve as a system of checks and balances running in the background at all times. Taken together, they form your self-enhancement bias—the rosy glasses through which you see yourself” ”

We maintain our happiness under three positive illusions:

  1. The illusory superiority bias: This bias allows us to judge ourselves in a warmer light than we do for others. This is what makes us feel unique in a crowded space.
  2. The illusion of control: Exactly the way it sounds, without hope and the belief that our actions are doing something, putting a dent in the universe, we would otherwise wither and die.
  3. Optimism bias: Hope is the lifeblood of the human condition. In the words of McRaney, “The third great positive illusion is optimism bias, the mental construct that provides smokers the belief they’ll be among those who escape cancer, motorists the confidence they can speed during rainstorms, couples the certainty they will die hand in hand behind a white picket fence, and immigrants the beamish tenacity to open a new business in a down economy.”

And what supplements these 3 positive illusions are 3 supporting delusions, which in turn, form the goliath of the self-enhancement bias:

  1. Confirmation bias: This is the tendency to seek information that confirm your beliefs, and it makes it that much more difficult to embrace differing perspectives. Conspiracy theorists are a perfect example of this: they are likely to find information that confirm the illuminati controls the quality of their life and will shun anything that proves otherwise.
  2. Hindsight bias: The belief that our predictions about the future are accurate, when in fact, we’re usually wrong.
  3. Self-serving bias: When things go our way, when we believe that the universe has somehow responded to our email, we attribute the success to our abilities and hard work. But when things don’t go our way, we’re quick to realize the obstructions and faults that hindered us, like bad luck or a bad teacher.

But why are we so irrationally delusional other than the fact that it helped our ancestors pass on their genes? Why is it so difficult to just be “realistic”? It turns out that this kind of hardcore realism is actually unfavorable and incredibly difficult to maintain. McRaney writes [emphasis by me]:

“The idea that people would be happier if they maintained a constant state of realism is a beautiful sentiment, but Taylor and Brown found just the opposite. They presented a new theory that suggested that well-being came from unrealistic views of reality. They said you reduce the stress of terminal illness or a high-pressured job or unexpected tragedy by resorting to optimism and delusion. Your wildly inaccurate self-evaluations get you through rough times and help motivate you when times are good. Indeed, later research backed up their claims, showing that people who are brutally honest with themselves are not as happy day to day as people with unrealistic assumptions about their abilities.”

Going back to our unrealistic beliefs about being better than average in just about every aspect of our lives, McRaney shares a study that exemplifies just how prevalent these delusions are when it comes to our appearance:

“In 2010, UCLA researchers conducted a survey of more than 25,000 people ages 18-75 and found that the majority rated their own attractiveness as about a seven out of ten. This suggests that the average person thinks he is a little better looking than the average person. About a third of the people under 30 rated themselves as somewhere around a nine. That sort of confidence is fun to think about considering that it is impossible for everyone to be better looking than half the population.”

What all of this essentially boils down to is our deep-seated need to tell stories, especially to ourselves. Narrative, after all, is perhaps the most powerful force in human nature. Finding meaning in all that we do is what separates us from our smaller brained allies. McRaney states:

“Narrative is so important to survival that it is literally the last thing you give up before becoming a sack of meat. It is the framework of your conscious experience. Without it, there would be nothing but noise. Better still, after the pilot regains consciousness they go through the same sort of explanatory routines as patients in emergency rooms who have technically died and returned to life. After the psychedelic wonder of prolonged loss of oxygen, many people see that light and tunnel as the passage to the afterlife. The stories differ, depending on the belief system, but there is always a story.
According to Ramachandran, as an organism, you desire ‘stability of behavior.’ The last thing all the various agencies of your mind want is the whole system going off in random directions, out of control. When your brain senses trouble, senses that something out of the ordinary is going down, the first instinct is to create a narrative as a sort of defense mechanism against chaotic and risky behavior.”

Although it was probably evident for most, a major realization clicked in my mind when reading McRaney’s two books on self-delusions: so many of our mind’s tricks, so much of our irrational nature, is quintessentially for survival. Our overconfidence, often times unrealistic attitudes about ourselves and place in the world, serve as a survival mechanism to help us thrive and move forward. Without it, we would lose hope, and in turn, perish.

My favorite point in this book is when McRaney acknowledges the importance of mindfulness and learning to pause, with a brief explanation of how we became this way, and why our self-delusions aren’t necessarily awful flaws [emphasis by me]:

“As with most biases, all it took was a pause for reflection to trump the default settings of the mind.

So, why is it, then, that you so rarely pause to reflect? What keeps the self-enhancement bias and all its positive illusions thriving in your mind? Why would such an obviously impossible set of beliefs persist in the heads of just about every conscious person?

Scientists can’t say for sure why these biases and illusions about how awesome you are exist, but most speculation on the issue suggests that for something like this to be so ubiquitous among human minds, it must have served an adaptive purpose in your ancestors. As your ability to think and reason evolved, you also developed the power to obfuscate the truth lest you see through the illusions of life and became despondent. Your ancestors slept on dirt and were pummeled like Rocky Balboa minute by minute with a steady flow of harassment from an unforgiving and indifferent world. Nature never gave up, and it makes sense that your species developed mechanisms to ensure you couldn’t be kept down.

Some researchers have posited that the overconfident invaders of the jungles and savannah may have been so bold and intimidating that when they charged into camps of their enemies, they tended to do better than more timid and shy among them. There are psychologists who believe that morale is nothing more than a cluster of positive illusions; and morale is generally considered more important in combat than anything else.”

So when we are faced with information that does indeed challenge our beliefs, perhaps we can be aware of the power of confirmation bias and learn to view differing perspectives not in the sake of being right, but to simply develop a greater understand of ourselves and the subject. Or when we’re walking with our chin held high throughout the mall, we can consider the effects of the illusory superiority bias and not harshly judge the person who just tripped up the escalator. Or when we try to predict the future and assume that we’ve done so successfully in the past, we can remember what hindsight bias does to our minds, but ultimately to recognize that it’s in our nature to create these predictions to possibly create hope and motivation.

You Are Now Less Dumb—as well as You Are Not So Smart—are now my favorite books on psychology. David McRaney is the psychology professor I sadly never had, but his two books are wonderful starting points to understand our mind’s arsenal of tricks. The books further explore cognitive fallacies, heuristics, as well as a plethora of scientific and psychological studies showcasing the different faults of the mind. As McRaney concluded in the introduction of the book, “consider this a humility shock-and-awe campaign designed to help you feel more connected with the community of humanity. We’re all in this together, and these are our shared mental stumbling blocks. Use what you learn here to be kinder to others and more honest with yourself. You are not so smart, but there are some concrete, counter-intuitive, and fascinating ways to become less dumb.”

Indeed, after reading these two books, a much more comprehensive understanding of human nature and the mind are always in mind when I catch myself being a bit too harsh on others.

You Don’t Have A Bad Memory, Just Bad Tactics For Remembering

Why can’t you remember the date of your best friend’s birthday or where you left your keys? For most of us, memory is a mystery. It’s easy to view it as something that really smart people have, a source of getting good grades and scoring high on the SATs and not forgetting to turn off the stove so your house doesn’t burn down, whereas we can’t remember our own mother’s birthday.

It all started when I attempted to tell a friend about a book that I was reading. I was telling him how intriguing it was, how well the author presented their stories, but what really shocked me was the grim realization that I couldn’t even remember most of what I read two hours ago, only a fragment. I remember trying to recall a study and their findings, only to face an empty void in my mind’s eye. What a waste, I thought. Here I was claiming that a book was amazing, only to remember a mere glimpse. My explanation of the book sounded like a phone conversation where my listener was losing service and only heard bits and pieces of my instruction.

This shortcoming and lack of understanding on a profoundly important and undervalued aspect of our minds lead me to the book called Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer. Foer, while researching an article on the USA Memory Championship, was immediately intrigued when one of the contestants claimed that with proper training he could compete in the games and win. Under the tutelage of previous champs and the utilization of ancient memory practices that are still relevant today, Foer went from curious journalist to a USA Memory Championship within a year. What he unearths in this book is practical not just to compete in the games, but to utilize in our lives.

First, what is a Memory Championship? The contestants are called mental athletes, and they’re put through trials where they have to remember decks of cards in a short time frame, entire poems, random digits, faces and names, and more. In short, it seems like something we may never be able to accomplish, much less remember our new credit card number. This says a lot about human’s capacity for memory, especially if these experts claim that any average person can do it with proper training. What is that training? What is the strategy? These questions are what Foer strives to answer with science, research, personal experience, and history.

So to begin understanding memory, let’s look at the metaphor that Foer presents, one that we’re all culturally inclined to say at some point in our lives:

“This notion that our brains don’t ever really forget is certainly embedded in the way we talk about our memories. The metaphors we most often use to describe memory—the photograph, the tape recorder, the mirror, the computer—all suggest mechanical accuracy, as if the mind were some sort of meticulous transcriber of our experiences. Indeed, I learned that until fairly recently, most psychologists suspect that our brains really do function as perfect recorders—that a lifetime of memories are socked away somewhere in the cerebral attic, and if they can’t be found it isn’t because they’ve vanished, but only because we’ve misplaced them. In an oft-cited paper published in 1980, the psychologist Elizabeth Loftus polled her colleagues and found that fully 84 percent of them agreed with this statement: “Everything we learn is a permanently stored in the mind, although sometimes particular details are not accessible. With hypnosis, or other special techniques, these inaccessible details could eventually be recovered.’”

It turns out that the ability to memorize entire bodies of work, speeches, books, and more, were a prized skill back in the day. Whereas today, most people correlate memorization with something we did in school, something that was undesirable and boring. Foer provides a bit of history on how training memory was as important as any other subject:

“Memory training was considered a centerpiece of classical education in the language arts, on par with grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students were taught not just what to remember, but how to remember it.

In a world with few books, memory was sacrosanct. Just look at Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, the first-century encyclopedia that chronicled all things wondrous and useful for winning bar bets in the classical world, including the most exceptional memories then known to history. ‘King Cyrus could give the names of all the soldiers in his army,’ Pliny reports. ‘Lucius Scipio knew the names of the whole Roman people. King Pyrrhus’s envoy Cineas knew those of the Senate and knighthood of Rome the day after his arrival … A person in Greece named Charmadas recited the contents of any volumes in libraries that anyone asked him to quote, just as if he were reading them.’
A strong memory was seen as the greatest virtue since it represented the internalization of a universe of external knowledge. ‘Ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they described as people of superior memories,’ writes Mary Carruthers, the author of two books on the history of memory techniques. Indeed, the single most common theme in the lives of saints—besides their superhuman goodness—is their often extraordinary memories.”

What is responsible for this cultural shift? Foer explains:

“Once upon a time, memory was at the root of all culture, but over the last thirty millennia since humans began painting their memories on cave walls, we’ve gradually supplanted our own natural memory with a vast superstructure of external memory aids—a process that has sped up exponentially in recent years.
The externalization of memory not only changed how people think; it also led to a profound shift in the very notion of what it means to be intelligent. Internal memory became devalued. Erudition evolved from possessing information internally to knowing how and where to find it in the labyrinthine world of external memory. It’s a telling statement that pretty much the only place where you’ll find people still training their memories is at the World Memory Championship and the dozen national memory contests around the globe. What was once a cornerstone of Western culture is now at best a curiosity.”

Throughout the book, Foer goes deep into history while also providing scientific research on memory studies showcasing just how powerful our memories are and why the skill is malleable. For example, in one study in the 1970s that took 5 days to complete, researchers presented 10,000 images to participants and they were able to recognize 80% of them.

Now to the main course: how to learn the tactics to memorizing anything. Foer explains an ancient technique that mental athletes still use today:

“It was simply a matter  of learning to ‘think in more memorable ways’ using the ‘extraordinarily simple’ 2,500-year-old mnemonic technique known as the ‘memory palace’ that Simonides of Ceos had supposedly invented in the rubble of the great banquet hall collapse.

The techniques of the memory palace—also known as the journey method or method of loci, and more broadly as the ars memorativa, or ‘art of memory’—were refined and codified in an extensive set of rules and instruction manuals by Romans like Cicero and Quintilian, and flowered in the Middle Ages as a way for the pious to memorize everything from sermons and prayers to punishments awaiting the wicked in hell. These were the same tricks that Romans senators had used to memorize their speeches, that the Athenian statesmen Themistocles had supposedly used to memorize the names of twenty thousand Athenians, and that medieval scholars had used to memorize entire books.”

Now here is the trick:

“The idea is to create a space in the mind’s eye, a place that you know well and can easily visualize, and then populate that imagined place with images representing whatever you want to remember. Known as the ‘method of loci’ by the Romans, such a building would later come to be called a ‘memory palace.’ Memory palaces don’t necessarily have to be palatial—or even buildings. They can be routes through a town—as they were for S—or station stops along a railway, or signs of the zodiac, or even mythical creatures. They can be big or small, indoors or outdoors, real or imaginary, so long as there’s some semblance of order that links one locus to the next, and so long as they are intimately familiar. The four-time USA memory champion Scott Hagwood uses luxury homes featured in Architectural Digest to store his memories. Dr. Yip Swee Chooi, the effervescent Malaysian memory champ, used his own body parts as loci to help him memorize the entire 56,000-word, 1,774-page Oxford Chinese-English dictionary. One might have dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of memory palaces, each built to hold a different set of memories.”

Simply put, information wrapped in images that are placed in a journey is the key to remarkable memory. Ever look up when you’re thinking? You’re engaging your mind’s eye. You’re trying to visualize the idea, to see its shape and colors. The more you visualize it, the more you remember it simply because that’s what our brains prefer. What Foer states throughout the book is that if you make the picture funny or even sexual, you’ll likely remember it more, which is why his title reflects a mnemonic that he used in the competition.

The key to making information more memorable requires us to understand what our brains remember best [emphasis by me]:

“In a culture dependent on memory, it’s critical, in the words of Walter Ong, that people ‘think memorable thoughts.’ The brain best remembers things that are repeated, rhythmic, rhyming, structured, and above all easily visualized. The principles that the oral bards discovered, as they sharpened their stories through telling and retelling, were the same basic mnemonic  principles that psychologists rediscovered when they began conducting their first scientific experiments on memory around the turn of the twentieth century: Words that rhyme are much more memorable than words that don’t; concrete nouns are easier to remember than abstract nouns; dynamic images are more memorable than static images; alliteration aids memory. A striped skunk making a slam dunk is a sticker thought than a patterned mustelid engaging in athletic activity.”

This explains why we teach children to learn the alphabet as a song, why we attach pictures to a letter, like A is for apple. The only reason why I know every prepositional phrase isn’t because I’m a writer, it’s because in middle school we spent weeks singing it out loud. It’s why we learn history best when we reenact it or draw timelines, not when we just read a textbook. This is why science is fun when Bill Nye teaches it. It’s why we love infographics. This also may explain why using pictures on a PowerPoint presentation is far more engaging and helpful than entire blocks of text. By attaching an image to a body of information and then placing that in a memory palace like your home, it helps us retrieve it easier in our mind’s eye. We can close our eyes, imagine our home, and then identify the different pieces of furniture as the information that we desire to remember. It’s incredibly daunting at first, but with practice the results of what we’re capable of remembering is astounding.

Another system is the PAO system. Foer explains how this ancient system is still used today for mental athletes that want to memorize a deck of cards. Here’s how it works:

“In the PAO system, every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is represented by a single image of a person performing an action on an object. The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Likewise, 13 might be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. The number 79 could be Superman flying with a cape. Any six-digit number, like say 34-13-79, can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object from the third—in this case, it would be Frank Sinatra kicking a cape.
Mental athletes memorize decks of playing cards in much the same way, using a PAO system in which each of the fifty-two cards is associated with its own person/action/object image. This allows any triplet of cards to be combined into a single image, and for a full deck to be condensed into just eighteen unique images (52 divided by 3 is 17, with one card left over).”

Moonwalking With Einstein was an overall fantastic read. The book is part memoir, part self-help, with a dash of journalistic rigor and storytelling. The various studies that he provides, as well as personal stories in meeting and training with champs and researchers is one of the most interesting stories I’ve read. Who knew a topic about memory would be so fascinating, so helpful? It helps us appreciate just how powerful our minds are, how we are capable of such unique feats that are usually deemed impossible, and sadly, how we are so woefully underdeveloped in exercising these techniques early in our education. Whether you need to pass the boring exam or ran out of Post-its to write down your grocery list, you can utilize the principles of the method of loci, or the memory palace, and turn mundane information into images that are placed throughout your memory palace. You can, in essence, improve your memory by using the right tactics—ones that have been used for thousands of years.

The Psychology of Feedback Versus Praise and Why Your Words Matter

“In the right context, a casual remark by a teacher, or even a raised eyebrow or tone of voice,” said Sir Ken Robinson, “can set you on a lifelong journey of discovery or put you off taking even the first step.” While some may argue that talent is the main element for success, I would argue that perhaps it’s a student’s receptiveness to being coachable, meaning an eagerness to listen to essential feedback that helps identify what mistakes were made and how to fix them.

Throughout our lives we are in a position to give feedback but often mistakenly fall into the trap of not giving any at all—just a flurry of compliments that only feeds the ego and helps us escape the seemingly painful process of being honest and helpful. However, this kind of communication is an art, one that takes the right frame of mind to know, and to let the receiver know, that you’re not judging the person but rather the work for the sake of improvement. Providing and receiving the right kind of feedback—do this, not that; here, like this—is a profoundly important process to honing our skills and reaching a deeper level of expertise. As Seth Godin said about advice, “I’m not sure what takes more guts—giving it or getting it.”

So what exactly is the difference between feedback and praise? In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), authors Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, share a study done by psychologist Carol Dweck where she carried out an experiment on Asian children; one group was praised for their efforts and the other group was praised for their intelligence. What’s important to recognize here before reading the passage is appreciating the role of language and how it’s so easy to overlook and undervalue its effectiveness and necessary precision [emphasis by me]:

“In her experiments, some children are praised for their efforts in mastering a new challenge. Others are praised for their intelligence and ability, the kind of thing many parents say when their children do well: ‘You’re a natural math whiz, Johnny.’ Yet these simples messages to children have profoundly different consequences. Children who, like their Asian counterparts, are praised for their efforts, even when they don’t ‘get it’ at first, eventually perform better and like what they are learning more than children praised for their natural abilities. They are also more likely to regard mistakes and criticism as useful information that will help them improve. In contrast, children praised for their natural ability learn to care more about how competent they look to others than about what they are actually learning. They become defensive about not doing well or about making mistakes, and this sets them up for a self-defeating cycle: If they don’t do well, then to resolve the ensuing dissonance (“I’m smart and yet I screwed up”), they simply lose interest in what they are learning or studying (“I could do it if I wanted to, but I don’t want to.”). When these kids grow up, they will be the kind of adults who are afraid of making mistakes or taking responsibility for them, because that would be evidence that they are not naturally smart after all.”

In The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, he shares another study done by Dweck that was conducted with fifth graders in New York. She wanted to see how one sentence could affect performance [emphasis by me]:

“Dweck did with four hundred New York fifth graders. The study was a scientific version of the fable ‘The Princess and the Pea.’ Its goal was to see how much a tiny signal—a single sentence of praise—can affect performance and effort, and what kind of signal is most effective.

First, Dweck gave every child a test that consisted of fairly easy puzzles. Afterward the researcher informed all the children of their scores, adding a single six-word sentence of praise. Half of the kids were praised for their intelligence (‘You must be smart at this’), and half were praised for their effort (‘You must have worked really hard’).

The kids were tested a second time, but this time they were offered a choice between a harder test and an easier test. Ninety percent of the kids who’d been praised for their effort chose the harder test. A majority of the kids who’d been praised for their intelligence, on the other hand, chose the easy test. Why? ‘When we praise children for their intelligence,’ Dweck wrote, ‘we tell them that’s the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.’

[Then there was a third round of tests, and the response was different. The effort group dug into the test, trying solutions, testing strategies. The praised-for-intelligence group hated the harder test and concluded that they weren’t smart.]

The experiment then came into full circle, returning to a test of the same difficult as the initial test. They praised-for-effort group improved their initial score by 30 percent, while the praised-for-intelligece group’s score declined by 20 percent. All because of six short words. Dweck was so surprised at the result that she reran the study five times. Each time the result was the same.”

It’s honestly baffling because we would think that saying, “Hey, great job, you’re really smart,” is seemingly helpful. Who doesn’t want to hear that? We are naturally inclined to think that that’s what we should be saying to others, but all that really does is provide a small boost of self-esteem. Although self-esteem is important, it’s not the our true long term goal: our goal is to get better, not feel better. Again, language is at the heart of influencing behavior, either promoting a desire to keep trying and learning or to find easier targets to hit in order to sustain that “I am smart” mindset.

Author Tina Seelig, in her book inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, shares an interesting study on how instructions affect a child’s curiosity. Again, this goes back to the role of language and why our words matter when speaking to children, friends, coworkers, etc.:

“This research consists of giving 4-year-olds a new toy outfitted with four tubes. What made the toy interesting is that each tube did something different. One tube, for instance, generated a squeaking sound, while another tube turned into a tiny mirror.

The first group of students was shown the toy by a scientist who declared that she’d just found it on the floor. Then, as she revealed the toy to the kids, she ‘accidentally’ pulled one of the tubes and made it squeak. Her response was sheer surprise: ‘Huh! Did you see that? Let me try to do that again!’ The second group, in contrast, got a very different presentation. Instead of feigning surprise, the scientist acted like a typical teacher. She told the student that she’d gotten a new toy and that she wanted to show them how it worked. Then, she deliberately made the toy squeak.

After the demonstration, both groups of children were given the toy to play with. Not surprisingly, all of the children pulled on the first tube and laughed at the squeak. But then something interesting happened: While the children from the second group quickly got bored with the toys, those in the first group kept on playing with it. Instead of being satisfied with the squeaks, they explored the other tubes and discovered all sorts of hidden surprises. According to the psychologists, the different reactions were caused by the act of instruction. When students are given explicit instructions, when they are told what they need to know, they become less likely to explore on their own. Curiosity is a fragile thing.’”

So far we have a greater understanding on feedback versus praise on intelligence versus effort. Language is the lifeblood of influencing behavior—the right words can push a student to try harder tasks, to be eager to learn and improve, whereas the wrong set of words can altogether kill curiosity, create a self-undermining belief about oneself (“I’m not smart enough), and in turn, hinder any desire to learn, adapt, and improve.

So when we are in a position to give feedback, and we keep this knowledge in mind—that we should focus on providing feedback on their effort and not merely praising their intelligence—how should we do it? Again, in The Talent Code, Coyle shares a study done by two psychologists, Ron Gallimore and Ronald Tharp, who got to study legendary basketball coach John Wooden. They studied how he coached his players and all the other activities that most coaches engage in, only to find out that the typical punishment laps and expected chalk talks were not in the program. What made Wooden such a great coach was his ability to spot his player’s mistakes and to provide essential feedback to help them adapt and learn:

“Here’s some ways the coach spoke:

‘Take the ball softly; you’re receiving a pass, not intercepting it.’ ‘Do some dribbling between shots.’ ‘Crisp passes, really snap them. Good, Richard—that’s just what I want.’

Gallimore and Tharp were confused. They’d expect to find a basketball Moses intoning sermons from the mount, yet this man resembled a busy telegraph operator. They felt slightly deflated. This was great coaching?
Gallimore and Tharp recorded and coded 2,362 discrete acts of teaching. Of them, a mere 6.9 percent were compliments. Only 6.6 percent were expressions of displeasure. But 75 percent were pure information: what to do, how to do it, when to intensify an activity. One of Wooden’s most frequent forms of teaching was a three-part instruction where he modeled the right way to do something, showed the incorrect way, then remodeled the right way, a sequence that appeared in Gallimore and Tharp’s notes as M+, M-, M+; it happened so often that they named it a ‘Wooden.’ As Gallimore and Tharp wrote, Wooden’s ‘demonstrations rarely take longer than three seconds, but are of such clarity that they leave an image in memory much like a textbook sketch.”

So when someone asks you to review their book, article, or their form while squatting, don’t fall into the easy trap of saying, “You’re really great,” but instead provide something that the person may not want to hear, something that will help them explore their edges and potential and to ultimately improve at what they’re doing. A boost of self-esteem (“Hey, you’re a great writer) is great to hear, but for the sake of actually improving the person’s writing, to help them break out of automaticity so they may meticulously analyze their work to figure out how to do it better, demands that we give feedback and not solely praise.

Compliments may merit gratitude now, but provide essential feedback so that your friend may constantly improve and reach higher, and they’ll thank you for life.