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Updated: July 18, 2010 13:57 IST

Praise for your intelligence can make you dumb

D. Murali
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You sit through events where the master of ceremonies or the anchor introduces speaker after speaker with a host of superlative adjectives and catalogues their achievements, more so in the case of the chief guest. And you wonder whether all those adulations are true.

Well, apart from the boredom that the audience is put through at the cost of everybody’s time, a greater danger can be that people can be made dumb by telling them they are smart. Contrary to popular belief, praising people’s intelligence does not fortify them, writes Carol S. Dweck in one of the essays included by Robert J. Sternberg in ‘Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid’ (www.landmarkonthenet.com).

Such praise might buoy them up temporarily, but it instils beliefs that make them vulnerable, she cautions. Her recommendation, therefore, is to focus people on ‘process,’ such as their effort or their strategies, because that is what seems to fortify them, and motivates them in a way that allows them to withstand and even thrive on setbacks.

Dweck observes that the act of praising intelligence when people succeed, rather than boosting self-confidence and achievement, might focus them on measuring their intelligence, worrying about its adequacy, avoiding risk, and questioning their intelligence when they fail.

Intelligence vs effort

On this subject, the author describes a series of studies with preadolescent students, who were given a challenging task to work on. The students succeeded on the first set of problems, and were praised for their success, but in different ways. Some were praised for their intelligence on the task; some were praised for their effort; and some (the control group), simply for their excellent performance, she reports.

Dramatically, the different ways of praising had their own effect on students’ subsequent thoughts, feelings, and performance, the research found. After the first success, the students were offered a choice of what they wanted to work on later in the session. The options were ‘a task that offered an opportunity to learn something new and important, but was quite challenging,’ and ‘a safer task, one that ensured success.’

Most of the students who were praised for their intelligence wanted the latter – the sure thing – notes Dweck. “They were willing to sacrifice a meaningful chance to learn in order to make sure that they would keep on looking smart. In contrast, 90 per cent of the students who were praised for their effort chose the challenging learning task. They were willing to risk mistakes and confusion, for they valued learning over self-protection.”

Enjoyment, engagement

Further on in the study, the students were given a harder set of problems, and the performance in comparison to the first set was poorer. Interestingly, the students who were praised for their intelligence showed a steep decline in their enjoyment of the task once they hit difficulty, the author narrates. They also showed a sharp drop in their desire to take problems home to practise, she adds.

“In contrast, when students were praised for their effort, they showed no decline in their enjoyment of the task despite their experiencing difficulty. In fact, many of them liked the task even better, now that they found it more challenging. Moreover, these students were eager to take the problems home to practise.”

Thus, when performance is said to be about intelligence, enjoyment rapidly wanes when performance turns poor; and when it is simply about effort, enjoyment and engagement remain high, the author reasons.

A key lesson from poor performance is that those praised for intelligence felt they were no good at the task. “If success told them they were smart, failure was now telling them they were dumb. They had learned to read their intelligence from their performance.”

In the opposite, the ones praised for effort thought their poor performance simply called for more effort in the future. As Dweck explains, they did not doubt themselves or their intelligence, but simply concluded that a harder task called for something more from them.

Valuable insights for teachers, managers, and perhaps event anchors.

**

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