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4 - Praise

In this episode, we continue our exploration of Dr. Carol Dweck's Growth and fixed Mindsets and learn about the profound impact of praise on building a growth mindset.


Hey everybody. I'm Menachem Lehrfield welcome to Zero Percent, where we explore world-changing ideas introduced by Judaism. Ancient wisdom for modern living. We've been discussed the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. And before we continue exploring some of Dr. Dweck's research, it's important to get a little bit of context. Professor Dweck wanted to understand why some people reached their potential while others do not. And she discovered that a person's success has less to do with our abilities and everything to do with our belief about our abilities. She introduced this research at the height of the self-esteem movement. We believed, and I think we still do, that self-esteem is perhaps the most important thing, especially when it comes to our children's performance. If we want our children to perform. If we, as individuals and human beings want to perform at our optimum best, we need to have a healthy self image. Self-esteem is crucial.
And for decades, parents and psychologists and teachers were operating under the assumption that if we want to increase a child's self-esteem, the best way to do it is through praise and reward. And that created an entire generation that gave participation trophies. I remember when I graduated high school, every single kid in the class got an award. It was a small class. We only had 20 kids or something. But I remember I got an award which I thought I really... I didn't do very much academic work, but I did do a lot of service work and I was the president of student body. And I got this award at the end, and I felt very proud of that accomplishment until I realized literally every single kid in the class was getting an award. When we all win, nobody wins. We got into a situation where we couldn't tell our children when they were doing anything wrong, because their self-esteem, their way of looking at themselves was so fragile that if we did anything, we were going to crush it. And then came the prizes and the reward, and most importantly, the praise.
What Carol Dweck recognized is that praise alone does not equal self-esteem. Praise alone does not produce self-esteem. What's crucial is not whether or not we praise, but how we praise. When I praise somebody for who they are, I say you are so... fill in the blank. You are so pretty. You are so smart. You are so athletic. What I am telling that person is, "You are fixed. That's the way you are." I'm labeling them. And what that does is it puts them into a fixed mindset. So not only does that praise not build their self-esteem, in fact, it crushes it. When a child receives praise for something they know they didn't deserve, something they know they didn't earn, their brain actually translates it as criticism, which is amazing.
Think about it. I'm giving the child a piece of praise, because I want to help their self-esteem. The way the child translate that is I know I didn't do a good job. Right? All this negative self talk. I know I didn't do a good job. If you're telling me I did a good job, I must have done on so poorly that you felt the need and the necessity to tell me, I did a good job. Think about how backwards that is, but that's the way we interpret it. So it's not about the praise. It's about the way we praise. When I praise somebody for who they are, what I'm saying is, "You are fixed. And if you want to continue getting my praise, you need to show me that that's the way you always are." Somebody with a fixed mindset will never try new things, because when I try new things, it shows the world, when I don't succeed right away, I'm not so talented.
When I praise somebody for what they do, I praise somebody for the process. I praise somebody for the effort that they put into the process. And again, she happened to have done her research on children, but this has been replicated and done in a business setting. It's been done with adults in a personal setting. This works regardless of who it's working on. This works, whether this is the way I speak to somebody else. This works in regards to how I speak to myself, how I speak to my spouse, to my partner, to my friend, to my coworkers, to my boss, to my employees. And I can tell you, when you first learn about this, I know at least me personally, when you first hear about this concept of well praising natural ability is not only neutral, it's actually negative and bad for our children, it's very difficult to switch gears. And you find yourself saying the words and trying to like rip them back. Like, "Oh, you're so ..."
And you find yourself trying to edit because it's a very difficult thing to do to make that paradigm shift. I remember when we had... We used to have an early childhood center, which hopefully we will restart one day. But one of the basises of our early childhood center was the idea of the growth mindsets. And one of the things that we did on a regular basis is I would go in and I would have workshops with the teachers to help them incorporate certain growth mindset philosophies into the classroom, into the way they interacted with the children. And it's actually really difficult to do, and it's not the way you are brought up.
I mean, think about it. Most of our society, the greatest compliment you can give them is, "You're a natural. Wow, such a natural." When you think about the types of compliments that make us feel good, what are they? Oh, you look beautiful. I remember when I was living in Israel, I used to sell photographs as a hybrid between a hobby and a excuse for a profession. And I would sell photographs. And I remember somebody once giving me a quote unquote compliment where they said to me, "Wow, that's a really beautiful picture. You must have a great camera." And I thought to myself, can you imagine translating that into an anything else in the world? Can you imagine going to somebody's house for dinner and after dinner saying, "That was delicious. You must have amazing pots. Your oven must be out of this world." It's obnoxious. But when you think about it, the compliments that make us feel the best are things we did absolutely nothing to achieve. When somebody says that you look beautiful and that's the first thing they mention about you, we should be embarrassed.
When the first thing somebody says to you is, "You look beautiful," we should be thinking to ourselves, that means that that was the first thing the person noticed about me. I didn't do anything for that. "Oh wow. Your eyes are gorgeous." I was born like that. I did literally nothing. You can say maybe I put on makeup. I worked out. My eyes? I did literally nothing. I was born. That was it. Why do I feel good when someone compliments my eyes? I hear this all the time. After a big lecture, someone will come out to me and say, "Wow, you're such a natural."
And for many people, and the truth is, for a long time, I would look at that as a compliment and say, "Wow." Because that's a fixed mindset. In a fixed mindset, I want to appear like a natural. I want to get off the stage and for everyone to think, wow, that was so effortless. But for someone with a growth mindset, that's embarrassing. For someone with a growth mindset, effortless, that's not something to be proud of. In our home, we sit around the dinner table. We'll each share something that was challenging or what's something that you failed at, what's something you tried, you didn't try before. Or what's a question that you asked, something that you you didn't know the answer to that you wanted to know and now you know something that you never knew before?
When our children come home and we say, "How was school?" They're going to say, "Fine." And even more detrimental when our children come home, we say, "Oh, did you have fun today?" What we're doing is we're creating an entire generation of children who believe that the ultimate goal of everything we're doing is to have fun. Life is not about having fun. Yes, it's important to have fun in life, but that's not our goal. When my children come home after a long day of school and they tell me they had no challenges that day, my response is, "That's so sad. I'm so sorry your brain didn't have a chance to grow today." Usually at that point, they'll come up with something.
But our approach totally changes. If we still feel most proud about the things we did absolutely nothing to achieve, that means we're still primarily operating from a fixed mindset. The good news is we can change. One of the most amazing things about her research and what really got me so drawn to it was how quickly we can create an onset of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. And I've tried this with my own children and it is remarkable. She brought in groups of two children one by one. And they gave them a visual IQ test. The first test was very easy. It was way below their grade level. They gave them the test, a test that they were all going to do very well at.
There were three groups. There was a group that was praised for effort, a group that was praised for intelligence, and then there was a control group. So in the effort group, they were taking the tests, these visual IQ tests, they were doing these problems. And as they did the problems the researcher would say to the child, "Wow, you did really well. You must have worked really hard. You must have really tried hard." To the other group, they said, as each child came in one at a time, they would say to the child, "Wow, you did really well. You must be really smart at this." Okay. So a difference in one or two words. And what was remarkable, in just seconds, the trajectory of what those children would do was completely changed.
Then they gave them a second test. They gave them a choice. They said to the children, "Would you like to take a harder test? It's a great opportunity to learn and grow. Or would you prefer to take an easier test? I'm sure you'll do really, really well at it." 92% of the kids that were praised for effort chose to do the harder test. 67% of those who were praised for intelligence chose to do the easy one.
Now what happened over here? When the child saw that this adult sitting across from me, praised my effort and said, "Wow, you tried really hard," that gave over the message that what is truly important is not getting it right, but trying, the effort. So when I'm given a choice between one that will show you that I can put in more effort, because it's more difficult, or one that's easy where I'll get it right, because you chose to praise effort, what's important to you is effort. What's important to me now is effort. And I believe that if I try hard, I'll succeed, even if I get the answer wrong.
Whereas the child that was praised for being smart, so now what happens is I have this title. I have this label over my head. This person on the other side of the table thinks I'm smart. I'm either smart or I'm not. And I don't want to find out, and I don't want them to find out. If I do the harder test and I get it wrong, what happens to that title I just achieved? It's gone. It's out the window. It shows that I really wasn't smart after all. So the researcher now just put this child into a fixed mindset. So I'm going to take the easier route. I'm going to go with what I know for sure I'll succeed at because then I'll be even smarter. I got two questions right.
Then we go to test number three. Test number three, all the children were given difficult tests. They didn't have a choice in this one. So those in the group that were praised for effort, they worked harder. They worked longer. They enjoyed the process. They said things throughout the interview like, "Oh great. I was hoping we'd have a challenge today." What kind of children say things like that? But apparently they did. And they said, "Yeah, thanks for the challenge. Wow." They saw by their facial expressions, they were having a good time. They were enjoying it. The children who were praised for intelligence shut down. They gave up, they became frustrated.
What was most amazing is the fourth test. The fourth test, they were given a test just as easy as the first one. The group that was praised for effort did 30% better than they did initially when they took the first test. They improved by 30%. there was a 50% difference between the children who were praised for effort versus the children who were praised for intelligence.
How do we understand this? How do we explain how children that started off with roughly the same IQ and the same amount of intelligence can react so differently and perform so differently? When the researcher said to a child, "Wow, you did really well. You must be really smart," what they were doing was giving the child this title, this status, and they were led to believe that the reason why they did well was because they were inherently smart. They were intelligent. But then when they didn't succeed, what that meant was they must really be dumb.
If ability is fixed and they now realize that they weren't really so smart after all, so that meant that they were stupid. And they don't want to do anything that will allow this adult, this praise wielding person sitting opposite them, from knowing their secret. They don't want that other person to take away that title that they were given. So they will do anything in their power to avoid it at all costs. Pretend that you don't really care. Don't put an effort. And if I'm now given a choice, do I want to do a test that's as easy as the first where I'll surely do well or take the chance and take a challenge? Of course, I'm going to go with the easy one, because the easy one reaffirms that title that I am smart.
The other group, the kids who are praised for their effort, when it started getting hard at that second test, they didn't view it as failure. They didn't think that their inability to answer the questions correctly had any bearing on their label of being smart, because that whole mindset didn't even show up for them. When it got hard, the kids who were praised for effort just thought that meant apply more effort. It's harder than it was the first time, that means it needs more effort, or I need to use a different strategy.
What's even more shocking is how far this goes. More than 40% of the kids that were praised for effort actually lied about how they did. So at the end of the study, at the end of this IQ test, they said to each student, "We're going to go to other schools, and I bet the kids in those schools would really like to know about the problems and how you did." So they gave them a piece of paper for them to fill out how the test was. And part of that was writing how they did, what their score was. And almost 40% of the kids who were praised for being smart lied about their scores. Carol Dweck says, "Telling children they're smart, in the end made them feel dumber, act dumber, but claim they were smarter."
And that's exactly what we're talking about. If we want to encourage our children to develop a growth mindset, it's not just whether or not we praise them, but more importantly, how we praise them. If we choose to praise a child's natural abilities, it shows them and tells them that that's the way they are and there's no point in trying. But if instead we focus on the effort our children put forth, we choose to praise what the child does instead of who he or she is, then we begin to help our children develop a growth mindset.

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