In Garrison Keillor’s (and my) home town of Lake Wobegon, according to the tag line, the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average. If I had a nickel for every time I was told I was above average–usually around report card time–I would, well, I suppose I’d have a lot more nickels than I have now.
But it surprised me to see that someone has actually studied what happens to children who are told they are above average. The interpretation of the results surprised me even more.
The study was done by psychologist Carol Dweck on 400 New York fifth graders.
Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his [sic] score, then gave him [sic] a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”
Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.”
Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test.
So far, so good. An interesting set of assumptions, an interesting study.
Now come the interpretation:
The “smart” kids took the cop-out.
Let me get this straight. The researchers define the name of the game for the kids as being smart, then define smart as doing well on a test, but when the kids pick up on the rules and win by them by figuring out how to do well on tests, the researchers get all surprised and huffy and ridicule the kids for “taking a cop-out”.
There is more, about how kids who are praised “become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy”, exhibit “shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of questions”, “image maintenance becomes their primary concern”, and “the child may come to believe failure is something so terrible, the family can’t acknowledge its existence. A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them.” Well, duh. And not completely unlike a real-life work environment.
The comments aren’t much better. They trash efforts to instill self esteem — “they are used to being praised just for existing”. I look out my window at my drunk landlord screaming at his kids as they fumble their halfhearted attempts to take the cellphone away from their mother, the one with the bruises on her throat who is trying to dial 911. “Boy!”, he screams at the eleven-year-old, who is buying time for the police to arrive. (They don’t have names anymore.) “What’s the matter with you, Boy, that you can’t control a woman?” They are used to his screaming. If he ever once said “good job”, they would probably fall over in astonishment.
The commenters complain that praise has given them “perfectionism…massive fear of faliure[sic]…. terrified to take the big risks that would be a career breakthrough”. Poor dears. But where are these jobs that value failure, jobs that value autonomous employees who take risks, jobs that value employees who have no clue about the value–no, necessity–of image before substance? Oh, they exist all right, but not for the children of Lake Wobegon. Those jobs are for the sons and daughters of the the wealthy and the well connected. The people who are too important to ever get in trouble, no matter what they do, or don’t do.
Lake Wobegon children would do well to remember they are above average, then keep their heads down and keep on doing the things that keep those good test scores–and later on the good paychecks– coming. Their strong mothers and their good-looking fathers are teaching them well the skills they will need to survive.