Even Students With Low Self-Esteem Don't Benefit From Inflated Praise

June 2nd, 2014 2 Comments Other


Today’s talented youth are often lavished with praise by parents and teachers alike, and most of us are familiar with the argument that this practice may actually harm development. But what we aren’t so familiar with is the idea that too much praise may harm the development of struggling students as well.

No one can deny that an appropriate amount of praise, administered at the right time, has turned academic careers around for countless troubled students who might otherwise have given up on themselves. But the impact of giving too much praise to troubled students hasn’t been well-researched, says Eddie Brummelman, a researcher at Southampton University.

“In current Western society, children are often lavished with inflated praise, such as ‘You made an incredibly beautiful drawing!'” says Brummelman. “Unfortunately, research on inflated praise is lacking.”

In a series of recent experiments, Brummelman and his team set out to test the impact of inflated praise on students who suffer from low self-esteem.

“We theorized that parents and teachers often give such praise to raise children’s self-esteem, but that this approach would backfire,” Bremmelman told InformED.

And it did.

In a representative study, 240 young students were asked to copy a famous Van Gogh painting, receiving inflated feedback from someone only identified as a “professional painter.” They were then asked to draw other pictures of their choosing. They were told some of the pictures were easy to copy though the students “wouldn’t learn much,” while others were difficult and, although they might make many mistakes, the students “would definitely learn a lot.”

The children with low self-esteem who had been lavishly praised chose the easier pictures while those with high esteem opted for the more difficult ones.

“We found that inflated praise leads children with low self-esteem to avoid challenges. Inflated praise sets high standards, and children with low self-esteem might fear not being able to meet these standards. Consequently, they might avoid difficult, challenging tasks, which entail the risk of failure.”

On the other hand, confident children will strive to do better and see the praise as a challenge to repeat or better their efforts.

“Inflated praise can backfire with those kids who seem to need it the most,” Brummelman says.

Using over-the-top words such as “incredibly” demotivates students and, the researchers propose, carries an illicit message that they have to keep to high standards. “This scares them: they think they won’t be able to live up to it.”

Though it may at first seem counter-intuitive, teachers and parents need to fight the urge to give lavish praise to their children if they suffer from low esteem, Brummelman says.

The old adage of “all things in moderation” rings true once again.


Saga Briggs is Managing Editor of InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

2 Responses

  1. Norah Colvin says:

    Hi Sara, I was very interested to read this article. Earlier this year Anne Goodwin and others had quite a detailed discussion on my blog re this same issue. The stimulus for the discussion was a chapter in Stephen Grosz’s book ‘The examined life’ regarding praise. You may like to pop over and have a look it. http://wp.me/p3O5Jj-cm

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