“Growth mindset” theory doesn’t translate directly from kids to adults – telling an adult they are a “hard worker” can backfire

GettyImages-502856475.jpgBy Emma Young

The way parents and teachers praise children is known to influence not only their future performance, but how they feel about the malleability of intelligence. If a child has done well, focusing positive comments on their efforts, actions and strategies (saying, for example, “good job” or “you must have tried really hard”) is preferable to saying “you’re so smart”, in part because process-centred praise is thought to encourage kids to interpret setbacks as opportunities to grow, rather than as threats to their self-concept. In contrast, a kid who’s led to believe she succeeds because she’s “intelligent” may not attempt a difficult challenge, in case she fails.

Now – and somewhat remarkably, given all the praise and growth mindset research conducted on children – a new study, led by Rachael Reavis at Earlham College, Indiana, US, published the Journal of Genetic Psychology, claims to be the first to test the effects of different types of praise on how adults feel after failure. 

The researchers recruited 156 adults via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website. After completing a set of six easy visual pattern problems, which they were given up to two minutes to solve, they were all informed: “You did better than the majority of adults!” But then the feedback varied.

About a third were told that, based on the pattern of their results, they had been classified as “in the high intelligence group” (person-focused ability feedback); about a third were told they had been classified as “the kind of person who works hard” (person-focused effort feedback – they were a “hard worker”) and about a third were told they had been classified as “working hard on these questions” (process-focused effort feedback – they had worked hard).

All participants were then given a set of 12 difficult problems (which timed out after 3.5 minutes), and no matter how well they did, all were told that their performance was “worse than most adults”. The researchers were interested in how the earlier feedback would affect the participants’ performance and enjoyment on the tasks, and especially how they would interpret their apparent failure at the final set of difficult problems. 

Based partly on previous findings involving children, the researchers expected that being told you’re a “hard worker” would be the most beneficial kind of praise or feedback, as it implies that the person typically puts in a lot of effort. (And while this form of praise is person-centred, it focuses on behaviour, rather than on intrinsic ability.)

In fact, the type of feedback participants received after the easy task did not affect their performance on the difficult problems, relative to their performance on the first. Meanwhile, it was the “hard worker” group who said they enjoyed the difficult set of problems the least (the other two groups did not differ from each other on this); they also believed they had been less successful on the tasks than those in the other groups.

Finally, when the participants indicated, on a scale of 0 to 10, to what extent they attributed their poor performance at the final task to lack of effort or to lack of intelligence (as well as to eight other factors that were included to obscure the true purpose of the study), there were no group differences for effort, but as expected, those in the “worked hard” group were significantly less likely to attribute their failure to their level of intelligence than those in the “high intelligence group”. However, against expectations, the “hard worker” group actually blamed their low intelligence just as much as the “high intelligence” participants. 

As the researchers note, “Few of the results demonstrated with children were replicated.”

Why might this be? 

It’s possible that adults believe that telling someone they’re a hard worker is something positive to say when you can’t plausibly say that they’re smart or gifted. When I think back to my own childhood, there were awards at school for “good work” and also for “hard work”, and, among the kids, a “good work” award was seen as being the bigger achievement. In contrast, at my children’s primary school, in the light of the findings on process-focused praise, rewards are focused entirely on effort. However, it’s also standard for a child who typically puts in a lot of effort to be called a “hard worker”. 

For children today, this may perhaps still be beneficial. For adults, who grew up in a different time, “being told one is a ‘hard worker’ may elicit feelings of inadequacy, which undermine positive perceptions of the task,” the researchers write. “Future work should investigate how both children and adults interpret these types of praise.”

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

Effort as Person-Focused Praise: “Hard Worker” Has Negative Effects for Adults After a Failure

9 thoughts on ““Growth mindset” theory doesn’t translate directly from kids to adults – telling an adult they are a “hard worker” can backfire”

  1. I’d suggest it also relates to Meyer’s early research on praise (with kids) where he found that praise resulted in attributions of low ability with kids from about the age of 7, whereas criticism resulted in attributions of high ability.

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  2. Related is the effect of motivational speakers, especially those who have succeeded despite apparently inhibitory disabilities or coming from challenging environment such as growing up in poverty.

    It is assumed that those attending will be motivated by seeing that regardless of the challenges and obstacles that the speaker faced they still succeeded and therefore you can also succeed because your path is easier than theirs was. This is a reasonable assumption as most people attending voluntarily will be expecting such motivation.

    But some people will take the opposite view and become greatly depressed, unmotivated and even suicidal because they see that even a person without legs and arms (for instance) can succeed but they have failed, even someone struggling out of poverty can succeed but they inherited money which they have lost, even an 18 year old student has achieved their first million and you are 40+ and in debt. It can make a person feel like an even greater failure than they really are.

    I suggest that ALL forms of motivation potentially have this dual effect largely depending on whether the individual feels part of the observed success and is now drawn toward it more or feels outside of it and has been rejected by society even more than before.

    Thus it is essential that the child feels that the status the praise affords raises them into a group they want to be part of. A possible example would be a person being praised for intelligence in front of their friends who struggle thus placing them outside the group, something that preoccupies young people far more than individualistic intellectual achievement. The goals suggested, for instance being smart, must line up with the goals the student actually strives for. Failing to see this results in what we used to say, when I was 12, that grownups don’t understand us…and most of them didn’t.

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  3. > “the kind of person who works hard” (person-focused effort feedback)

    I see the problem right here. Person praise of any kind encourages a fixed mindset. The correct growth mindset praise would be “you worked hard on that,” or condition 3. And indeed condition 2 “hard worker” had more of a fixed mindset than condition 3 “worked hard,” consistent with Dweck’s overall theory.

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  4. There are some sound criticisms of ‘growth mindset’ theory as applied to children, too, which is why the one you spoke of may show ‘contrary’ results. When all is taken into account the results may, in fact, be typical. You need only search around a little to gain a sense of disquiet about ‘growth mindset’. I believe Martin Seligman’s earlier research on ‘learned helplessness’ is more valuable and practical, and I say this as a secondary school teacher. To my mind, Dweck’s ideas are merely monetised evolutionary theory. How is a growth mindset any different from encouraging each pupil to develop an old-fashioned open mind – curious, adaptable and problem solving? Does not evolutionary theory show most clearly that adaptability is the key to the continuance of each species? I think it is no coincidence that she chose the term ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’ as it is such a resonant binary opposition. Also, what human being actually has a fixed mindset and lives beyond infancy? ‘Fixed’ means unchanging, like a programmed robot, which supposes that the environment is a given and unchanging. I have never taught anyone with a ‘fixed’ mindset though I have taught many with fixed ideas, or unhelpful habits of mind. The usual combination is that a child will be ‘open’ to one teacher or method and ‘closed’ to another teacher or method, or who prefers certain subject combinations over others. The trick is then to successfully adapt to the child’s preferences while encouraging the child to adapt their own way of thinking in return. In other words, a child is never either/or but something more interesting in between.

    When you have been in education for a time, you begin to see that it is the most seemingly simple and basic things that often make the greatest difference – trust, stability, encouragement, a shared sense of purpose, a sense of fun and adventure, and a hunger for the new. In other words, the best educational environment in a school is one that most closely replicates a loving and secure home environment that is headed by energetic and open-minded parents or carers.

    I have been a student of educational theory for many years and I am often troubled by these ‘new’ theories that spring up every so often – usually from the US, and that have a curiously close resemblance to a good business model – but which, on closer inspection, prove to be no more felicitous than the one preceding the preceding one, or that they are simply a ‘dressed up’ older theory. I am afraid to say that a lot of money may be made out of education, and theorists like Dweck are maintaining an exceptionally good status from it, and the more educationalists she wins to her side the more secure is her business model and status. I notice that she has cited many successful people as having ‘growth mindsets’ but as any social scientist will tell you this is an inordinately partial perspective as there are as many contributory factors in the making of a successful human being as there are successful people – and some would even argue the meaning of the term, ‘successful’. I must also add here, that the theory represents a typical ideology of the particular conditions in which we live, presently, when right wing ideas are given air and big business and unfettered capitalism are exonerated from any blame for the massive problems of poverty and injustice we see all around us. I am sure there are potentially millions of people in the dark and poor and stricken parts of the world who would be successful if they were only given the chance but who will never reap the rewards due to their unsupportive environments, whether they have so-called ‘growth mindsets’ or not. Dweck’s theory, ultimately, leads to the premise that poor and unsuccessful people have brought their misfortune upon themselves. It is interesting that it is an American theory, and that Dweck attended a hugely expensive private college.
    She discusses Ali and McEnroe on her website, claiming that McEnroe had a fixed mindset, which meant he didn’t fulfil his potential, and that Ali had a ‘growth mindset’, which meant he did. And yet, McEnroe was a hugely successful sportsperson – as well as being a notably shrewd, gifted, and successful commentator – and will be remembered for his grace and astonishing ability as well as for his tantrums – I would settle for that! Don’t forget that Ali made the massive mistake of fighting too long until his brain was pulverised and he suffered one beating after another, and debility was his inheritance. He became a shambles of the man he’d been. Further, his politics have often raised an eyebrow or two, not to mention his controversial treatment of women. You can keep your ‘growth mindset’ there – and I say this as one who thought Ali was next to a god when I was a boy. She goes on to cite Charles Darwin as one who possessed a ‘growth mindset’, but neglects to point out that Darwin – who is one of my idols – came from a very wealthy family – I have often driven past his magnificent house – had an extraordinarily good education for his time, and came from a family of free-thinkers and abolitionists who questioned the state, religion, politics, and science as a matter of course.

    You will find, on closer inspection, that there is a large amount of luck combined with fortuitous environmental and social conditions in any successful person’s history. You will also find that so-called successful persons may be exactly the kind of person you wouldn’t want your sons and daughters to marry or otherwise hitch up with. In any case, from a philosophical point of view, isn’t the promotion of ‘growth mindset’ to the detriment of all others evident of a ‘fixed mindset’ and, so, undermines the premise that ‘growth mindset’ theory is built upon? And if Dweck maintains that her theory shows that people who get on in the world are more open to the world then one may counter by paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Horatio who answers Hamlet’s, “There is never a villain dwelling in Denmark/ But that he is an arrant knave…” with, “There needs no ghost, my Lord, come from the grave/ To tell us this…” Well, we don’t need a psychologist, an educational movement, and a mess of statistics to tell us what Dweck seems to be telling us.

    Apart from the ease with which educational statistics can be ‘massaged’ or the differing ways they may be interpreted, or the way that the premises can be arranged to arrive at a particular answer, the main reason that each new theory seems to do well is that schools and teachers are, to a greater or lesser extent, desperate to be seen to be doing well and keeping up with educational theory and to be making a difference, and so almost anything will appear to do well, until the next ‘thing’ shows that the last thing was wrong-headed. Teachers and, more particularly, senior managers, are forever seeking the Holy Grail of a foolproof and replicable means of educating every child that will save time and effort and that produces even and predictable results – a sort of equivalent of mass-manufacture that has served industry so well. But there isn’t a single answer, of course. Each child is ‘hand-made’, and you cannot manufacture an open and loving and intelligent human being using the methods of mass manufacture or by forcing each child to fit a standard template.

    Unfortunately, I have found that the most damaging and upsetting factor in the world of education is that there is very little common sense employed either in the theorizing or in the practice, despite common sense being what each community most requires, and which is most evident in the most open and tolerant ones. I have ever found that children are eager to learn all there is to learn about the world, and are naturally open to experiences. It is adults who create the limits and who are the problem.

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