Leland Teschler's Editorial: Positive Reinforcement Run Amok

April 20, 2010
There’s evidence that high self-esteem doesn’t improve grades or career achievement.

Something interesting happened when we were shooting a video segment for our companion Web site, EngineeringTV.com. The subjects were teams of high-school kids who had built electric vehicles for a competition. The contest was a great idea for engaging young minds in projects involving engineering-type decision making.

My cameraman noticed that the podium was literally filled with dozens of trophies, notable in that the competition was relatively small. It soon became evident what was going on: Every team got at least one trophy for some aspect of its work. If anyone inquired about who won the competition, the honest answer would have to be “everybody.”

My colleague shook his head at this state of affairs. “When I was a kid, we’d just have first, second, and third-place winners for stuff like this,” he remarked. “Most of the time you didn’t win anything. When that happened, you’d just shrug and go out for a milkshake. I’m not sure giving everybody a prize is healthy.”

It turns out my cameraman could be onto something. There is a body of research that shows that accolades handed out too generously may cause kids to underperform. In one case, researchers did a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders, some of whom were praised for their intelligence, others for their effort. It turned out that kids praised for their intelligence tended to give up when confronted with tough tasks at which they didn’t excel. They assumed their poor performance was evidence they weren’t really smart after all. Kids praised for effort, however, reacted to failure differently. They generally just assumed they hadn’t focused enough and bore down on the problem.

That brings us back to competitions where everyone wins. The people running the electric-vehicle event would probably claim they were indeed rewarding effort. But it is fair to question the message sent when any amount of effort earns a spot on the winner’s stand. The unintended consequence could be that kids discount the importance of putting out a lot of effort when the job calls for it. That’s because, say researchers, kids reason differently than adults. Kid logic: I am smart so I don’t need to exert myself. In that line of thinking, the need for strenuous measures becomes stigmatized. It is proof to a kid that he or she can’t cut it on natural gifts.

I suspect the everybody-gets-a-gold-star movement arose from misguided attempts to bolster kid self-esteem. After all, the self-esteem bandwagon started rolling downhill with such momentum that in 1984 California created an official self-esteem task force. But there’s evidence that performance doesn’t rise with self-esteem. One study in particular conducted by social psychologist Roy Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. Nor did it reduce alcohol usage or use of violence. (In fact, other studies show that criminals have plenty of self-esteem.)

Finally, there’s other evidence that it can be counterproductive to encourage kids too enthusiastically. Psychologist Wulf-Uwe Meyer says by the age of 12, kids think praise from teachers is patronizing. In kid logic, teachers praise those who lack ability and need extra encouragement. That’s something to think about the next time you see a podium full of trophies.

Leland Teschler, Editor

World’s Smartest Design Engineer — GAME UPDATE
Congratulations to Matthew Rosauer from SKF (aka Automation Boy) on being the World’s Smartest Design Engineer of March 2010. His skills at answering increasingly difficult-level questions in eight different categories won him these bragging rights for the month along with a $250 Amazon Gift Card. If you haven’t registered yet, don’t delay. You still have time to enter for a chance at this month’s prize of a $250 Best Buy Gift Card. Challenge a coworker to a game at lunch, test your knowledge, have some fun, and see who’s smarter!

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