Open Book

Flattery Will Get Them Nowhere

Are we overpraising our children?

Magazine Issue
July/August 2007
Flattery Will Get Them Nowhere

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
By Carol S. Dweck
Random House. 276 pp. ISBN:1-400-06275-6

When you read the subtitle of this book, you can be excused for yawning. Thousands of books with titles like these crowd the self-help market. But this one is different. It has substance behind it, based on years of solid research.

Carol Dweck is a prominent developmental psychologist whose research covers personality, social psychology, and learning. She was a professor at Columbia for years and now occupies an endowed chair at Stanford. I first came across her work on NPR radio, where she’s an accomplished studio guest. What grabbed my ear was how her research was redefining the way we talk about self-esteem, that perennial topic of self-help books.

For a long time, stories have been floating to the surface, in all media, about how our culture’s concern for self-esteem might not be the best thing for parents and children, or anyone. Tag and dodge ball are banned in some schoolyards: you’re “it” or “out” is deemed harmful to the sensitive young. One Massachusetts elementary school even forbade skipping ropes because nobody should be told she can’t jump high enough.

Books and satiric articles have made fun of our cult of self-esteem and the “therapeutic society” that supports it. Dweck’s work with kids from grade school to college, along with other researchers’ studies, is giving us a new basis from which to understand this contentious notion.

Mindset is Dweck’s first foray into popular-trade publishing. It’s sprightly and well-written, sprinkled with research findings and anecdotes. It arrives with “advance praise” (on the back cover) from Yale professor Robert Sternberg, a leading authority on educational psychology. That’s high praise indeed.

But she doesn’t start out writing about praise, nor does she necessarily see herself as a soldier in the self-esteem wars. She’s a social scientist and research psychologist reaching for a description of how the mind works. A psychology of self-esteem flows from her analysis of two opposing characteristics of the mind: fixed vs. growth mindsets.

For Dweck, people are defined by whether they display mostly one or the other of these mindsets. Fixed mindsets are rigid. Individuals with this quality believe their talents and abilities were given to them at birth and are set in stone. By contrast, people with a growth mindset believe there’s always room for more learning and mental development. They’re eager to add new dimensions to their lives.

You might think that this insight about rigid vs. flexible mindsets seems like the sort of thing you’ve heard before. But here’s where the research becomes crucial. Dweck’s work, and that of others she cites, challenges our assumptions about what to say and how to dispense praise, because self-worth, according to her findings, is promoted by the right mindset, which is affected, in turn, by the praise we receive.

In a series of tests, she divided grade-school children into two groups, randomly selected. First, her researchers gave both groups an easy test. Then they praised one group, individually, for their intelligence, an innate ability. The researchers told the kids in that group: “You must be smart at this!” Dweck’s reseachers praised the second group for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.” Then they gave both groups another, much harder test. That’s when the experiment got interesting. The group that had been praised for effort significantly outperformed the group praised for their brains. Amazingly, this result occurred after a single incidence of feedback. Imagine what the difference would be over a decade or lifetime!

Throughout the book, Dweck gives us variations on these tests, always with a similar result. For the scrupulous reader, this popular, friendly approach contains one drawback: the experimental findings she uses are tossed off here and there, like candy for the reader, and she doesn’t seem to give us the requisite follow-up. So her good news comes down a bit like dogma, an experimental version of the Ten Commandments, except really there’s only one, final message. She summarizes the lesson she learned from this research by quoting Haim Ginoot, another authority who works with children: “Praise should deal, not with the child’s personality attributes, but with his efforts and achievements.”

Dweck tells us that the more you reinforce kids for being smart, the more you build in a fixed mindset, so when they encounter a bigger challenge, they’re stymied: they no longer feel so smart—which creates a disincentive to try. In short, they can become paralyzed.

By contrast, reinforcing for effort communicates the message that if you aren’t good at something at first, you can improve with work. This creates a growth mindset. Children then rise to a challenge, and don’t shy away from difficult assignments. A bad mark isn’t a defeat for a child with a growth mindset: it’s a spur to work harder. As one seventh-grader put it: “I think intelligence is something you have to work for. . . . It isn’t just given to you.” Dweck adds, with a growth mindset, “the bigger the challenge, the more you stretch.”

Mindset essentially repeats and reinforces this take-home message because we get it so wrong in our culture. It’s tempting to praise our children for being the brightest stars in the firmament—or for being the best musicians, or athletes, or artists. We might do this because we didn’t get any praise growing up ourselves and we want to make up for it. But going down that road appears to be a mistake.

Not only is praising kids for innate qualities an error, but children also may get an inflated impression of their abilities. Many schools unwittingly create this problem when dealing with disadvantaged kids who hear little praise at home. For instance, one Washington, D.C., public school produced kids who thought they were great at math, even though, when tested, they were at the bottom, nationally. Such a reality test would be a hard blow for anyone.

On the other side of town, an equivalent mistake is being made by rich or middle-class parents, who want their kids to feel supremely secure, so they praise them at every turn for being wonderful. This approach can have negative, unforeseen consequences though. As Dweck reports from her testing: “Telling children they’re smart, in the end, made them feel dumber and act dumber, but claim they were smarter. I don’t think this is what we’re aiming for when we put positive labels—’gifted,’ �talented,’ �brilliant’—on people. We don’t mean to rob them of their zest for challenge and their recipes for success. But that’s the danger.”

The drawback is that kids with a fixed mindset are always monitoring their teachers for approval. Their self-esteem is always tentative, despite their grades or the praise they receive. It’s a variation on the theme of the gunslinger who always fears that around the corner there’s someone with a faster draw aiming to gun him down.

Dweck’s point is a positive, egalitarian message in an age when the pendulum once again is swinging back, from nurture to nature—to an obsession with genetics and fixed, received traits. But ability isn’t carved in stone. She tells us about Marva Thomas, who took inner-city Chicago kids, labeled learning disabled or emotionally disturbed, and turned them into readers of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and the Wall Street Journal while still in grade school.

Dweck hates the Hollywood idea that talented people do things gracefully, with little seeming effort. She tells us that all sorts of gifted people actually worked incredibly hard, whether in science, art, or sports. These, in her view, include Albert Einstein, Tiger Woods, and Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, hailed as the greatest female athlete of all time—who, when she started out, was considered an athlete with some ability, but not particularly special. Dweck thinks the celebrity cult of genius is damaging because it signifies that the gifted are a different breed, a form of superior being.

Dweck rhymes off the names of many great achievers who were thought to have no future when they were young, but succeeded through perseverance and hard work: Marcel Proust, Charles Darwin, Lucille Ball, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley. As far as Michael Jordan, the basketball player known to float miraculously in air while stuffing a ball into the net, she says: “He wasn’t a natural either. He was the hardest working athlete, perhaps in the history of sport.”

But let me raise a caveat to this positive, egalitarian approach. It’s one thing to revise the way we give encouragement and praise to help create a society of learners and achievers, but as a psychologist, Dweck is more ambitious: she wants to build a theory of human personality from these mindset blocks. She wants her mindset categories to inform almost every aspect of human endeavor. And here’s where she becomes less convincing.

She has a chapter on business, for example. The bad guys at Enron—Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling—had fixed mindsets, she says. They thought they were the “smartest guys in the room.” They cheated their shareholders and employees because they thought their genius defined them; they thought they were special, gifted, brilliant businessmen.

She contrasts Lay and Skilling to Jack Welsh of General Electric and Anne Mulchy, who saved Xerox. Welsh and Mulchy operated in a “learning mode.” They were tough, yes, but flexible and willing to listen. They kept their office doors open and cruised the factory floor, always learning from their employees. On the political side, Winston Churchill had a growth mindset. This titan didn’t surround himself with toadies: he set up a special department to inform him about the worst news possible.

But here’s where Dweck’s overreaching occurs, in spades. To define Churchill, or any big-time executive, as a growth-oriented learner reduces people’s complexity to a platitude. And the murderous Joseph Stalin, what was he? Cursed with a fixed mindset? Couldn’t you argue that Mother Teresa, John Paul II, and Martin Luther King, admired people all, had fixed mindsets, too?

Mindset doesn’t explain all behavior in business or politics, or even in the office or school. How did Stalin or Franklin Roosevelt or your boss down the hall arrive at their mindsets? A fixed mindset could be the result of traumatic childhood or a personality disorder, and even terrorists can have growth mindsets: they often get better at what they do, learning from their mistakes and improvising new ways to blow up people. Growth vs. fixed mindsets can’t be a substitute for moral choice, good and evil, psychopathology, call it what you may. “Growth mindset good, fixed mindset bad” is too easy. Sometimes it doesn’t explain anything at all.

Also, as the developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan tells us in An Argument for Mind (see Bookmarks, September/October 2006), people do want to be validated: we do want to be told we’re good or bad, valuable as human beings. Sometimes we want to hear words that affirm our core identities, our personalities, not just our efforts. These words don’t have to be “you’re brilliant,” but they could be “you’re a beautiful, loved, and lovely human being.” Dweck has nothing to say about this human need, but it could well be the rock on which growth mindsets are built.

Finally, she tells us she once struggled with a fixed mindset, but she transformed herself, and so can the rest of us. But her last chapter, on how you can change your mindset, is perhaps the weakest in the book. It sounds like boiled-down Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy: look at your options and the evidence, and work on yourself. For a book that celebrates effort, it seems too pat, too devoid of real, gut-wrenching struggle. She gives trademarked workshops called Brainology. To find out how to change your mindset, I guess you’ll have to take the course.

But in spite of these caveats, Mindset is a valuable book because it changes how we think of encouragement and praise. In a culture filled with devoted parents and counselors, eager to do the right thing, what you think is the right thing may be wrong. Remember: resist praising an innate quality. Don’t say “You’re smart.” Now, didn’t I handle this review well?

Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.