Praising children for smarts can have unintended impact

Recently, the way we compliment people, especially children has come under scrutiny for promoting certain forms of biases and influencing their development in unhealthy ways. The most prominent point of discussion on this topic revolves around telling young girls they are pretty or beautiful when they dress-up or apply make-up. Experts say that the constant feedback that young girls and women get from our image-obsessed society gives them the unnecessary message that physical appearances matter more than anything else that they have spent their time, energy and effort in. This discussion spawned a whole new set of studies aimed at studying the effect of complimenting children.

A new study published in Psychological Science reveals that praising children for their smartness promotes cheating. Researchers conducted an experiment with 300 pre-school students aged 3 to 5 years old. The students were individually asked to guess a number if the number-card the proctor held in their hand was greater than or less than 6. The children were told that if they guessed 50 percent of the numbers correctly, then they would receive a prize.

However, after the first round, these children were divided into three groups. The first group was told “You are smart”, the second was told “You did well this time.” and the third received no feedback. They were asked to play the game a second time, but before the game started, the proctor left the cards with the numbers on them in the room with the child for 60 seconds after asking the child to promise that they would not peek at the cards.

This research found that children in the first group cheated significantly more than the other two groups. It was also found that males across all groups cheated more than females.

Thus, subtle social cues has an effect on what decisions children make in their life. The socialization, which in this case is the need to ‘uphold their reputation’ of being smart has a detrimental impact on children.