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Pernicious praise – when rewards fail to produce results


A joke (allegedly):

The entire workforce of a huge factory was called to a meeting. The General Manager stood up on the podium and announced: "Alas, I have sad news. As of today, due to the introduction of new sophisticated machinery that will do all your work twice as quickly, none of you will be required to work here any longer." There was a collective gasp of horror. "But," continued the Manager, "I have some good news. You will all still be paid your usual wages. All you’ll have to do is come to the factory on Fridays to collect your wages." Now there was a resounding gasp of delight. Until the union rep stood up and shouted angrily, "Not every Friday, I hope!" We take it for granted that rewarding people is a good thing and guaranteed to motivate them. But in my opinion this notion, like many 'panaceas', is crazy.

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Shouldn’t you be doing this anyway?

In the United Kingdom, the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) pays young people up to £30 a week just for attending classes. Not for passing exams. Not for learning. Just for turning up.

Many teachers have reported more disruption in classes, as a number of recipients of the EMA seem to believe it’s enough just to be there, and don’t appear to feel under any obligation to learn anything while they are there. Some even feel quite justified in trying to claim their ‘entitlement’ even when they don’t turn up. I kid you not (see joke above).

From time to time the UK government proffer ideas about financial incentives to encourage members of the public to adopt behaviors deemed to be ‘beneficial’ in some way – for example, getting obese people to exercise. Such notions are well-intentioned, of course, but show a fundamental lack of understanding of human nature.

I think there are very real dangers in rewarding people for what they should be doing anyway.

Living well is its own reward

Look at it the other way round. Imagine a self-harmer. Maybe a self-cutter, or a smoker. Now if this self-harmer starts to resist the pull of the self-destructive behavior, this would, of course, be an excellent thing, and we should both support and encourage that person in their efforts. But if you try to encourage them by showering them with excessive praise for not doing what they shouldn’t be doing, this ‘encouragement’ carries a malign subtext. Essentially, it says:

"What you are doing (not self harming) is very difficult, and therefore extraordinary, and by extension it would be more ordinary, and therefore normal, to just go back to the self harm…"

Which is depressingly frequently the result we see.

When someone stops smoking, the 'message' I really want them to get is:

"Excellent! This is how it should be. Let’s move on."


"Wow! What you have done is awesome, incredible! How on earth did you manage that!"

Please understand, I am quite aware that positive feedback is vital. You’ll have noticed that some people in your life never seem to quite muster the generosity to say anything good about you, or your efforts. But positive feedback still needs to be measured, like seasoning in a good recipe. I don’t expect to be continually praised for staying out of prison, for not stealing from my neighbors, for not throwing food around in restaurants (alright, perhaps a bit credit for that one would be nice! :)

If a child is praised after an outing for not being disruptive, the message they are really getting is: "Wow, you really surpassed yourself for not behaving like a chimpanzee today!" Surpassed yourself? If we want certain behaviors to become part of normal behavior (not throwing food, not smoking, not panicking in meetings, whatever it may be), we need to treat it as normal behavior.

Of course, this can be done alongside positive recognition of the new trend. So instead of saying:

"Wow, you did really well not having a panic attack in that meeting. That must have been really difficult! Well done!"

We could say:

"Great! It must have been much easier for you like that! As time goes on and you get used to that, you’ll notice you don’t even think about it much any more."

But what about self-esteem? Aren’t we supposed to raise the self-esteem of our kids by continually praising them?

Might as well face it - you’re addicted to praise

While we believe we are providing enhanced motivation for our patients/kids/friends by continually praising them (for not bullying, or for learning to ride a bike), we may actually be doing the opposite. Making a huge deal out of anything someone achieves – or even just attempts – may just be encouraging ‘praise addiction’. And being a praise junkie is an impediment to real success.

Too much praise can produce a person who does not know how to value anything they do other than in terms of the praise it draws. They cannot do anything ‘for its own sake’ – only for praise from someone else.

Consider these examples:

"Your painting is fantastic. You’re the best little artist ever!"

"You did so well today, you played fair and didn’t shout or punch. I’m so proud of you!"

"You are a fantastic piano player and I can’t wait for your second lesson!"

I am not anti-praise. But I consider selecting 'praise' as your default communication setting almost as harmful in its way as selecting 'criticism'.

A study in praise

In a study first published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1998, children were rewarded for simply 'doing their own thing' - drawing, playing and so on. But when the rewards were discontinued, the children tended to lose interest in the activity. (1) It was no longer enough in itself to satisfy them – they wanted the reward. Motivation for the activity had shifted from internal to external. When the external stimulus was removed, the activity stopped. Very sad.

Other similar research suggests that children educated in a 'praise culture' become so over-reliant on adult praise that they actually become fearful to attempt new activities in case their efforts don't receive plaudits.

The danger, of course, is that behaving well, or not smoking, or improving at something, is only seen as worthwhile if the individual is praised for it, rather than worthwhile in and of itself. We take it for granted that negative labeling is destructive, and forget that even positive labeling can have negative effects.

You are so smart - now work harder!

Labeling kids as ‘smart’ and continually telling them how bright they are may reduce their capacity to actually be smart. Praise is important, but it needs to be the right kind of praise.

This was the conclusion of an extended study conducted by psychologist Carol Dweck and her team at Columbia to investigate the impact of praise on students in twelve New York schools. (2) They found that kids who were praised for ‘being smart’ stopped making an effort much earlier than kids praised for ‘working hard’.

The students were all given an easy test to do consisting of a set of puzzles, and were then given a single statement of praise (regardless of the actual results of the test). Half were praised for their intelligence, the other half for their effort. They were then offered a choice of two further tests. One of these was more difficult than the first test, but the researchers told the students that they would ‘learn a lot’ from attempting it. The other was a simple test, very like the one they had done first.

The children who had been praised for their effort overwhelmingly chose to tackle the harder test. Those who had been praised for their intelligence mostly chose to do the easy test.


Well, why would you risk losing the praise which seems, after all, to be the object of the endeavor?

The trouble is, empty praise can make looking smart more important than being smart. The self-esteem movement has focused on praising people just for ‘being who they are’. It didn’t warn us of the possible dangers of doing this.

Dweck was trenchant about the results: "Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure."

But I would go even further. I think that even focusing on the effort can be overdone. If the effort is described as ‘amazing’, it implies difficulty beyond the norm. A better recipe for helping someone make the most of their life is to couple acknowledgement of effort with the expectation that this is how it should be in the natural scheme of things. Like when one young woman I helped said after her morbid phobia of spiders had disappeared, "I never thought it would feel so normal to feel calm around spiders!"

Addiction to praise is a real problem and if praise is too easily got then life motivation can leak away like fuel from an engine. If we feed kids nothing but sugar, pretty soon they won’t be able to consume anything that isn’t sweet. And it’s the same with praise.


(1) 'Can the promise of reward increase creativity?' Eisenberger, R.; Armeli, S.; Pretz, J. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 74(3), Mar 1998, 704-714

(2) Dweck, C.S. (2002). 'Messages that motivate: How praise molds students' beliefs, motivation, and performance (in surprising ways)’. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement. New York : Academic Press.

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