The Power of Praise: Why Effort Matters More Than Results

by Anonymous | Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Praising someone seems like a great way to boost good feelings and encourage them to face new challenges. While praise does have the ability to raise self-esteem and increase confidence, when solely based on the quality of the performance, it can be a fast route to failure. Although praise is a fundamental tool for one’s emotional and behavioral development, it is important to keep in mind that most effective forms of praise tend to focus on the effort made instead of the result acquired.

Though there are many ways to implement praise, the most common ones seem to revolve around the same methodology of identifying and commending the standard of performance obtained. In other words, we value the results, which sounds encouraging, but does not motivate people to be better the next time. Instead, it leaves them stagnant. This happens because we focus on the uncontrollable aspects that influence a certain behavior, we repress the connection between effort and results. If we instead praise someone for the effort or any controllable aspect that influences behavior, they will tend to believe that if they have overcome a certain challenge, they can overcome another one in the future.

An easy way to understand why this happens is to apply principles of learning and operant conditioning to the acquisition of motivation. In operant conditioning, behavior is a function of its consequences, in this way behavior that is reinforced will occur more frequently, and behavior that is punished will occur less frequently. Let’s try to imagine the following situation: You study really hard for an exam and get a good grade. Your friends and family tell you how smart you are for getting a good grade. In this case, the reinforcer is the praise you receive for being smart and doing well on the exam and the behavior being reinforced is getting a good grade. Thus, in future similar experiences, you will aim for a good grade to continue to receive such reinforcement and keep your intelligence status. Now, let’s consider a different situation: You study really hard for an exam and do not get a good grade. Your friends and family do not tell you how smart you are since you did badly on the exam. Based on previous experiences, you will then conclude that if getting a good grade meant you were smart, getting a bad grade probably means you are not smart. This kind of reinforcement induces people to see intelligence and talent as innate qualities rather than as a skill that can be developed through practice and effort. Not only that, but if instead, you had received a reinforcer that motivated you to engage in a controllable behavior (e.g. studying hard), next time, it would have been more likely for the behavior (e.g. studying hard) to occur.

Hence, the problem is not that receiving praise for being smart does not work, but that as humans, we fail. If we are conditioned to place our motivation on an uncontrollable attribute, the likelihood of the occurrence of the behavior we are interested in will be negatively affected. A more effective way of shaping resilient people is shifting this praise to controllable factors, such as effort and strategy used. By praising the effort, we are also praising the process and choices made, which are things the person had control over. In this way, one develops the ability for self-criticism, self-assurance, and self-assertion by gradually understanding they do not need to be subject to extrinsic motivations (external motivators, like praise, grades, or money).

When it comes to the things that motivate us to do what we do, praise plays an important role in determining how we let such motivations influence our behavior. A lot of times, people will engage in the behavior in order to receive a reinforcer (e.g., praise) even though the behavior has no personal value or attributed intrinsic motivation (internal motivation, doing something for the enjoyment or challenge of it). Whenever praise creates a dependency, the person starts craving praise itself, regardless of the behavior for which they are being praised. Once they become dependent on this external evaluation, it is common for them to seek to do things to please other people. Constant praise causes the person to engage in the behavior for the purpose of being praised rather than for the pleasure and satisfaction that the activity could provide.

Another setback of this dependency is that being a product of other people’s praise is critical to whether or not you consider yourself capable of succeeding in the future. By exalting and valuing uncontrollable aspects, you reinforce the idea of error as something completely negative and not as a path that could lead to success. If people are conditioned to believe that being less or not the best is a synonym for weakness, they will become discouraged to take on new challenges in the future in order to maintain their current competency status. Eventually, they find themselves fearing failure, avoiding risks, and accepting the idea that they have no control over their success by overlooking opportunities for growth, also known as learned helplessness.

As a takeaway, I encourage you to think of the ways you have been praising others and the ways you have been praised throughout your life. Reflect on how these might have shaped who you are. It is never too late to break patterns of behavior and build a resilient sense of self-competence.