Children Praised for Being Smart Are More Likely to Cheat

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Praising your child too much is possible, and its effects can be less than desirable. A study from international researchers found that children who are praised for being smart end up worse off than before the praise given.

The study observed that children as young as three years old who are praised for being smart change behaviors after the compliment. Children are more likely be dishonest, to cheat and to give up more easily in the face of challenges after being praised for their intelligence.

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The study authors wrote that complimenting a child for his or her intelligence is a form of ability praise that comes natural. Gail Heyman, study co-author and a development psychologist at the University of California at San Diego, said praising children is nothing new.

It’s common and natural to tell children how smart they are,” Heyman said in a press release. “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.”

Participants included 300 preschool students in eastern China, the study said. 150 three-year-olds and 150 five-year-olds were observed using what the study authors call a “peeking paradigm.”

The researchers hid a playing card behind a barrier,  the card numbers varying from three to nine (except six). The children were asked to guess whether the hidden card was greater or less than six. The researchers told the children a prize could be won if they guessed correctly at least three times out of six attempts.

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The participants were instructed not to peek, and the game was rigged so that the children succeeded twice and failed three times before attempting the last round. While a control group received no praise whatsoever, other groups were praised for their intelligence or performance, with phrases such as ‘You’re so smart’ and ‘You did very well this time.’

The researchers asked all of the children to promise not to cheat, then left the room momentarily in the middle of the game. The unattended children were monitored via video to observe who would peek at the card left unsupervised.

Those praised for being smart were the most likely to cheat versus those praised for performance or not at all, regardless of age or sex. Kang Lee, study co-author and professor with the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said the study results don’t prohibit praise from happening.

“We want to encourage children. We want them to feel good about themselves,” Kang Lee said. “But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kinds of praise, such as praising specific behavior. Only in this way will praise have the intended positive outcomes.”

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Tori Linville
Tori Linville is a freelance writer and editor from Clarksville, Tennessee. When she isn’t writing or teaching, she’s faithfully watching her alma mater, the University of Alabama, dominate the football field.