One email at the end of the month containing ideas on mastering your craft and yourself. Subscribe


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.