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Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance

June 21, 2022 by John Andrew Williams

By John Andrew Williams, Britt Fulmer, & Lauren Gombas

Whether it happened to you growing up, or you have done it yourself, children are often praised for their intelligence. Ranging from praise and reward for getting straight A’s, or eagerly presenting a gifted child to family and friends, it’s often our first reaction to intelligence.  We rarely think about, or consider the effort that went into getting those straight A’s, or in other cases, the effort it took for a child to finish reading a book or doing well on a test. Research conducted in six separate studies however, revealed that while conventional knowledge states that children gain motivation through praise for intelligence, it is praise for effort that creates the likelihood of enhanced motivation.

Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children's Motivation and Performance


Researchers Claudia M. Mueller and Carol S. Dweck conducted six separate motivation studies in 1998 through Columbia University. Each study consisted of on average about 69 fifth graders, with the total number of participants being 412. Participants ranged in age between 9-12. The distribution of gender and race varied per study. 

The studies included or partially included:

  • A series of problem-based tests, such as the 10 Standard Progressive Matrices.
  • Positive feedback, negative feedback, or no feedback as it pertained to the students’ performance on the tests. 
  • Questions on perception and intelligence, such as if they believed intelligence was fixed. 
  • Self-assessment questions, such as their perception of their performance or how they assess failure. 
  • An assessment asking the children to explain the tests to others in writing. 
  • The option for the fifth-graders to either:

- select information on strategies for doing better next time 

- or to learn about the scores of other students 

Researchers measured the correlation between motivation and praise for either intelligence or effort throughout the studies. To ensure that children did not feel inadequate at the end of their tests, evaluators told the children that the most challenging test was above their grade level.


Previous research has indicated that children perceive receiving praise for intelligence as insincere, and it can make them feel pressured to perform. Additionally, research shows that parents believe it's important to praise their children when they do well. Child care providers, too, may believe that praising intelligence is essential for motivation. However, despite these conventional beliefs, students who received praise for their ability showed less persistence and enjoyment than children who received recognition based on effort. Furthermore, children who received praise for intelligence viewed intelligence as fixed and had low-ability attributions. Therefore, it is important to reconsider how praise is allocated for self-worth and for mitigating the cost of performance-based goals.


Coaches can examine and implement the findings of this research into both how they interact with their clients and support their clients in meeting their goals. For example, when providing feedback to a client, try praising the effort and the commitment the client has made to coaching sessions rather than personality attributes. Here are a few questions for you to consider, as a coach:

  • How can I support my client's effort?
  • How can I provide positive feedback on effort?
  • How can I use Mueller and Dweck's research to my benefit and the benefit of my client?
  • How can I focus less on my client’s personality attributes and more on the commitment they put into our sessions?

When working with a client, consider the types of goals they may have that relate to their internal and external worlds. Consider the following questions when helping a client work toward their goals:

  • How can you acknowledge your dedication to the coaching process?
  • How has your commitment gotten you closer to your goals?
  • How can your endeavors motivate you even when you've failed or you feel stuck?
  • How can you use the correlation between motivation and effort after a long hard day?
  • How can you track progress on a goal by considering hard work over intelligence?
  • How can you use your attempts at success to give value to your journey?

Consider spending time alone and with your client reflecting on these questions. Whether you encourage your client or do so yourself, writing for at least twice a week for fifteen minutes on motivation and effort can help you and your client feel more motivation toward achieving your goals. Allow this writing practice to support your belief in yourselves and each other. No detail is too small.

We would love to hear from you after a month or sooner! In the comments, tell us how reflecting on effort has changed your view of what's possible.

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