Kids praised for being smart are more likely to cheat, new studies find

September 12, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Kids who are praised for being smart, or who are told they have a reputation for being smart, are more likely to be dishonest and cheat, a pair of studies from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto and researchers in the U.S. and China has found.

OISE's Jackman Institute of Child Studies (JICS) Professor Kang Lee and study co-authors say that while praise is one of the most commonly used forms of reward by parents and educators around the world, studies show that when used incorrectly, it can backfire: "Giving wrong kind of praise makes them dishonest," said Professor Lee.

'Smart' versus 'doing great'

In the first study, "Praising young children for being smart promotes cheating", published today in Psychological Science, preschoolers who were praised for being smart were more likely to cheat subsequently than those who were praised for doing "great" in a particular task. Similarly, in the second study, "Telling they have a reputation for being smart promotes cheating", recently published in Developmental Science, preschoolers who were told that they had a reputation for being smart also became more likely to cheat.

In first study, researchers asked three and five-year-olds to play a guessing game. When children did well in one occasion they were praised in one of two ways: one half of the children were praised for being smart (i.e., "You are so smart."), while the other half were praised for their performance (i.e., "You did very well this time."). After receiving either type of praise, the children continued to play the guessing games. Researchers then left the room after asking children to promise not to cheat by peeking at the answers. Their behaviour was then monitored by a hidden camera.

Results show that despite the subtle difference between the two forms of praise, the children who were praised for being smart were more likely to act dishonestly than the children who had been praised for their behaviour in a specific game. Results were the same for both ages.

In the second study, researchers told each child that he or she had a reputation for being smart. Hearing this, similarly to receiving direct "smartness" praise, also had the effect of increasing children's tendency to cheat.

'Ability praise' seen as linked to stable traits

Why is it that giving children praise for being smart promotes dishonesty?

"Praise is more complex than it seems," said Professor Lee. "Praising a child's ability implies that the specific behaviour that is commented on stems from stable traits related to one's ability, such as smartness. This is different than other forms of praise, such as praising specific behaviours or praising effort."

Noting previous research which shows ability praise can undermine a child's motivation to learn when they encounter difficulties, University of California San Diego Professor Gail Heyman, co-author of the studies, said, "Our findings show that the negative effects of ability praise extend beyond this to promoting dishonesty, and that this occurs in children as young as three years of age."

Being 'smart' creates expectations

Hangzhou Normal University's Professor Li Zhao, also co-author of the studies, explained that when children are praised for being smart or learn that they have a reputation for being smart, "they feel pressure to perform well in order to live up to others' expectations, even if they need to cheat to do so." She further explained that praising a child's specific behaviour does not imply that the child is expected to consistently perform well and therefore does not have similar negative effects as ability praise.

Overall, Professor Lee said for adults, the studies show the importance of learning to praise in a way that doesn't prompt or promote dishonest behaviour.

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

Explore further: Spare the praise—spoil the child

More information: 1. Praising young children for being smart promotes cheating

2. Telling young children they have a reputation for being smart promotes cheating

Related Stories

Spare the praise—spoil the child

May 4, 2017
That is the key finding of research that is being presented today, Friday 5 May 2017, by Sue Westwood from De Montfort University at the British Psychological Society's Annual Conference in Brighton.

Parents' praise predicts attitudes toward challenge 5 years later

February 12, 2013
Toddlers whose parents praised their efforts more than they praised them as individuals had a more positive approach to challenges five years later. That's the finding of a new longitudinal study that also found gender differences ...

When being called 'incredibly good' is bad for children

January 2, 2014
Parents and other adults heap the highest praise on children who are most likely to be hurt by the compliments, a new study finds.

Study finds children with low self-esteem are often praised for personal qualities instead of efforts

February 28, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Praising children, especially those with low self-esteem, for their personal qualities rather than their efforts may make them feel more ashamed when they fail, according to new research published by the ...

Kids learn moral lessons more effectively from stories with humans than human-like animals

August 17, 2017
A study by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto found that four to six-year-olds shared more after listening to books with human characters than books with anthropomorphic ...

Recommended for you

Self-harm, suicide attempts climb among US girls, study says

November 21, 2017
Attempted suicides, drug overdoses, cutting and other types of self-injury have increased substantially in U.S. girls, a 15-year study of emergency room visits found.

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017
The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder

November 20, 2017
A groundbreaking Loyola Medicine study suggests that a simple 15-minute electrocardiogram could help a physician determine whether a patient has major depression or bipolar disorder.

Non-fearful social withdrawal linked positively to creativity

November 20, 2017
Everyone needs an occasional break from the social ramble, though spending too much time alone can be unhealthy and there is growing evidence that the psychosocial effects of too much solitude can last a lifetime.

Cultural values can be a strong predictor of alcohol consumption

November 20, 2017
Countries with populations that value autonomy and harmony tend to have higher average levels of alcohol consumption than countries with more traditional values, such as hierarchy and being part of a collective. This new ...

A walk at the mall or the park? New study shows, for moms and daughters, a walk in the park is best

November 17, 2017
Spending time together with family may help strengthen the family bond, but new research from the University of Illinois shows that specifically spending time outside in nature—even just a 20-minute walk—together can ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.