Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Too much praise

A little while ago, in my meandering way, I noticed one or two articles such as this one in the DT.

Dr Jean Twenge, the psychologist and author of Narcissism Epidemic, points out that this culture of compliments “puts the cart before the horse”. Surely, when we work hard we develop high self-esteem, and then the compliments come, not the other way around.

More recently, this piece from PsychCentral focuses on problems caused by praising children for their personal qualities rather than their achievements.

Emerging research suggests praising children for their personal qualities, rather than the effort put forth, may not be the best approach.

In fact, for kids with low self-esteem, such praise may make the child feel more ashamed when they fail.

The concept of using praise to motivate children has been in the mainstream since the 1960s-1970s when researchers suggested that many of the problems of American society resulted from lack of self-esteem. 

Of course such concerns may already be visible in some of today’s younger adults. Taking an example plucked out of the air, we might consider the issue of a young and conspicuously untalented government minister. A young person with far too much confidence and far too little experience or ability on which to base that confidence.

Our hypothetical minister, after grossly excessive childhood head-patting and far too many gold stars for mediocre performance would emerge into adulthood pumped up beyond repair.

Our bouncy and irrepressible minister would be accustomed to extract kudos from what many people would regard as the most dimwitted performance this side of sanity.

Even catastrophic failure would fail to dent the armour-plated self-regard instilled by doting parents and right-on teachers since nappyhood.

Is that something we’ve noticed?


Macheath said...

When the GCSE was introduced, educationalists trumpeted that the exam would 'give credit for what they do know rather than marking them down for what they do not'.

The same principle is applied throughout education; the end result, as you say, is a disastrous combination of too much confidence and too little ability and, crucially, the underlying belief that if you do not know something, it does not matter.

The results of this are, blissfully unaware of their limitations, busy talking themselves up the promotional ladder with overwhelming confidence while leaving a trail of incompetence and mismanagement behind them.

And, as you point out, failure has no impact on them; in fact, they are almost always able, with complete sincerity, to assign the blame to someone else.

Sackerson said...

I suspect that Blair's strength-weakness is not having had too much praise, but in having learned that you can use connections to escape the consequences of your actions. I have read that he got himself moved from one house to another (run by a more liberal teacher) at Fettes, to be free of the fear of being caned.

Sam Vega said...

You're probably right about politicians, but having worked for nearly 30 years in Further Education, I can confirm that the "culture of praise" is indeed pernicious. Many students we see are simply incapable of accepting and criticism whatsoever, and get stressed and angry if corrected. And as for praise, the result is grade inflation.

This then feeds back into politics because the way to "get on" is to win a bidding war of praising the electorate and pandering to their delusions.

A K Haart said...

Mac - yes, it's a horrible thought but I think they are sincere. They just don't get it.

Sackers - that's an interesting point. A caning is unambiguously critical. Maybe Blair went to great lengths to avoid not so much the physical as the emotional pain.

Sam - I'm beginning to feel we don't hear nearly enough of this issue. It chimes so well with the lack of self-doubt we see all the time.

James Higham said...

More recently, this piece from PsychCentral focuses on problems caused by praising children for their personal qualities rather than their achievements.

Absolutely. You always hit the nail on the head.

A K Haart said...

James - maybe we need more teachers to come out and say these things.