The Psychology of Success

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints’ Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

One might believe that giving praise to a student would inspire that student to continue down the road to success.  In fact, most of us realize that punishment is a way of keeping unacceptable behaviors at bay, but it takes positive reinforcement to move a person toward accomplishing a task.  The “reward-or-punishment” concept is simply obvious.  A friend of mine who is an educational leader says it this way: “There are only two motivators in the world:  heat or light.  You either feel the heat or you see the light.”

One of the best education teachers I never had was Pat Derby.  Perhaps you will recognize this name as being the woman who trained Flipper, Lassie, and the animals of Daktari (to name a few of her credits).  Along with Ivan Tors, a producer, Derby pioneered best practices for animal training.  As an aside, she was also a fierce advocate for animal rights, often being appalled at the treatment of animals used in television and movies.  But the reason I owe her a debt is that she helped me understand the reward and punishment system for human behavior at a deeper level.  Again, I can be kept from performing if I am afraid; I will jump through the hoop if I am rewarded.  Derby’s recipe for the reward was “love and trust”.

Now let us consider a scholar in this field of thought.  Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has been publishing groundbreaking work in the last decade, principally due to the explosion of neuroscience research.  Her interest has always been the subject of motivation, and she has a lot to say about it right now.  What she has to say might surprise you.

Praise can de-motivate.  Praise can un-inspire.  Praise can inhibit students from achieving.  Her thesis is not anti-praise, however.  Her thesis is that praising students for the wrong reasons will produce precisely the opposite of what we would hope!  If her assertions are not completely counter-intuitive, you might (at the very least) think that she is overstating a case.  The research says otherwise.

I am reluctant to paraphrase Prof. Dweck’s exhaustive research in a newspaper column, but the bottom line is so important that I’m willing to risk it.  The bottom-line is that praising a student for apparently innate gifts and talents will hamstring this student down the road.  This form of praise (“You got an A on the test.  Wow.  You are highly intelligent”), according to scientific research, creates a personality dependent upon praise for attributes outside of his or her control.  The student avoids any task outside the area of giftedness, shuns true challenges, and believes that his self-worth is constantly being judged on whether or not he is “smart.”  Dr. Dweck calls this abominable state the “fixed mindset”.  The alternative, a “growth mindset” is found in the student who rises to every challenge, is willing to take risk of failure, and who is highly resilient after failure.

Those of us who deal with students (that would be teachers and parents) will do well to consider how we praise the students in our charge.  Praise the genuine effort; not the innate gift.  Although I find Prof. Dweck’s work thrilling, it reminds me of Miss Maudie’s advice to Scout and Jem Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.  “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.”