We have been told that praise is good and we all use it daily. We say “great job” to the toddler who has success while toilet training, tell the teen “you are awesome” for his good grades and reinforce a friend for looking “great” after she starts a new exercise regime.
Our society is one where praise is omnipresent and constant. Children get trophies for participation on teams regardless of the team’s success, schools euphemistically report that everyone is a “winner,” parents have bumper stickers on their cars announcing that their child is on the honor roll, and employers offer special parking spots to praise the employee of the month.
Our culture of praise is based on a desire to make people feel good about their abilities and encourage them to engage in a particular behavior more often or at a higher level. The use of praise is supported by the behavior literature that shows that to decrease a behavior you should punish, but to build more of a behavior you should reinforce it. In keeping with this, we may put a child in a timeout for biting but will compliment him when he plays nicely with a peer to encourage more of the pro-social behavior. Likewise, we may remove an employee from a team project if he doesn’t work well with the group, but will praise another for his flexibility in being a good “team worker.”
Our culture may be very praise-centric because praise is easier to dole out than punishment, and it makes us feel good to praise others.
At a quick glance, the use of praise would seem to be a win-win situation for the person being praised and the person offering the praise. However, a nagging question is whether as a culture we offer too much praise. Could we be giving too much of a good thing?
In recent years, educational experts have been questioning the wisdom of offering constant praise. They ask if praise that is continuous can really be effective and point to behavioral literature that shows that we eventually habituate to stimuli, even a reinforcer, if it is offered consistently. We all know that a cookie will be a meaningful special treat if offered infrequently, but if it is offered consistently, it loses its special value.
Beyond questioning the effectiveness of a constant stream of praise, experts wonder whether constant praise could have unintended negative consequences. Could the constant use of praise not only be ineffective but also be adversely affecting the behaviors we are trying to increase?
An emerging body of research suggests that praise has unintended negative consequences. For example, mounting research has shown that children asked to do a series of creative tasks will be more willing to attempt progressively more difficult tasks if they are not offered praise after each task. It appears that children who receive praise may become anxious about not receiving future praise, respond more cautiously and are less willing to risk getting the wrong answer. In essence, the praise becomes a hindrance, increasing performance anxiety.
In addition to inhibiting performance, there is evidence that praise may actually decrease the likelihood that people will actually engage in a given activity. Researchers at the University of Toronto found that children praised for generosity were actually less likely to be generous on an ongoing basis than were children who did not receive ongoing praise for this behavior. Similarly, participants who were reinforced for losing weight lost more weight than those who were not reinforced, but tended to gain the weight back once the ongoing reinforcement was withdrawn.
This finding underscores the idea that behaviors that were constantly praised may not generalize to situations when no one is there to offer the praise. In addition, the finding may suggest that by constantly praising an activity, the intrinsic value of the behavior is lost. People may come to see praise as the only reason to perform an activity and may lose touch with the intrinsic feelings generated form performing a given act. In short, the focus is on getting noticed or praised as opposed to the good feeling that a behavior could generate.
More evidence for the potential negative effects of constant praise comes from a study from the University of Florida. Researchers found that children who received a great deal of praise from teachers were less likely to persist with difficult tasks, more likely to respond to questions tentatively and less likely to share their ideas with their peers. The researchers concluded that the children who received the constant praise had become dependent on it to feel good about their efforts and now required it all the time, being unable to independently evaluate their own performance.
Workplace studies have born out this finding showing that the need for constant praise and reinforcement is particularly apparent among the millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000, who crave constant positive feedback.
There is now convincing evidence that continual ongoing praise is not the panacea we once thought it was. Rather than providing a supportive framework that encourages growth, constant praise can lead people to feel insecure about their abilities, need constant reinforcement to attempt tasks, be fearful of attempting hard tasks and gain less intrinsic enjoyment from certain activities. While the potential negative consequences of constant praise seem daunting, praise can be an effective tool, particularly when a person is learning a new or hard skill.
Instead of committing to using praise constantly or not at all, a modified approach whereby meaningful praise is used in small doses, when it might be most useful, is the best plan. Praise should be used in a way that is meaningful, minimizing its overuse, and in conjunction with other forms of recognition and reinforcement. Specific suggestions follow.
Wishing you a good day with just the right dose of meaningful praise!
1. Evaluate your use of praise and ensure it is effective when you use it.
» First, gain an awareness of how often you use praise. Look at when you use it, how often you are using it and if you are really attending to the praise you offer.
» Next, focus on using praise when it is really needed — to encourage the learning of a new or hard skill.
» When you choose to praise, make it meaningful by fully attending to the behavior and the person you are reinforcing.
2. To decrease your use of praise consider the following:
» For behaviors that are already learned, praise large chains of the behaviors as opposed to individual components of the behavior. Praise a child for getting ready for school as opposed to getting dressed, eating their breakfast and brushing their teeth. Praise an employee for their completion of a project at its completion as opposed to each part of the project.
» Provide a nonevaluative statement of what you observed to encourage more of the behavior. You could say, “You ate all your food” or “You finished the report early.”
» Ask questions about activities you want to encourage. Ask a child about what they are drawing and ask a colleague about how their new project is going.
» Simply be present during the activity you want to encourage. Listening to a child practice guitar or walking with a friend who is trying to get healthy typically provides more meaningful encouragement than praise.
» Say nothing, but provide nonverbal reinforcement to support a behavior. Instead of saying “good job” to a child while you are multitasking, make eye contact, touch his shoulder and smile after he has completed a task. Likewise, when a friend or colleague completes a challenging activity, provide them with reinforcement via a smile and eye contact and a pat on the shoulder.
» Remember that changing the way you use praise can be like breaking a habit and will take time and effort but can pay dividends.