Effort vs. Ability

Personal Development

Scientists did an experiment with a bunch of children where they gave them several tests that got increasingly more difficult.  After the first two tests, they told the children that they had done very well. Group A was praised them for being smart and talented. Group B was praised for their hard work.

Next they gave them a very difficult test–so difficult that many children didn’t get a single question right. They then told both groups that they hadn’t done as well on this test and asked them if they knew why. The students from group A said that it must be because they weren’t smart enough. Group B said that it must be because they didn’t try hard enough.

That in  itself is pretty amazing. Giving people praise for being smart basically backfires because it teaches them that success comes from being intelligent. Once they are faced with a situation where they fail, the logical conclusion is that they must not be very intelligent.  On the other hand, praising people for working hard helps them stay focused on something they can control–their effort.

My 4 year old is pretty advanced when it comes to reading. According to a test we recently had her take, she reads on the level of a 10 or 11 year old. I’m not sure how accurate the test is, but I do know that it isn’t normal for a kid who isn’t even kindergarten age to read chapter books. (As a side note, one of my proudest moments as a parent was when I saw her 2 year old brother bring her a book and she sat down on the floor and read it to him.)

So is my daughter a genius? No. She has simply put in a lot of hard work. Of course not nearly as much hard work as my incredible wife who taught her how to read.

So back to the experiment. The scientists went ahead and gave the kids another test. This time one that was much easier. Up to this point the kids in both groups had performed about the same on the tests. There was no significant difference between them. On this final test, there was a wide variance in the scores. Members of group A (who had been told they were smart) did about 25% worse than group B (who had been told they had worked hard).

Why did this happen? Lets try to imagine the thought process of these two groups:

Group A – told they were smart:

  • Test 1 – Oh I’m pretty smart. Good for me.
  • Test 2 – Hm. They say I must be really smart. Maybe I’m smarter than I realized.
  • Test 3 (the hard one) – I did horrible. I guess I’m not very smart. Maybe I’m not even as smart as I originally thought.
  • Test 4 – I didn’t really try that hard because this test taking isn’t really for me.

Group B – told they had worked hard:

  • Test 1 – Hey they are proud of how hard I worked.
  • Test 2 – I did it again. I must be working pretty hard.
  • Test 3 (the hard one) – Not so good. I must not have worked as hard on this one.
  • Test 4 – I tried extra hard on this one and I think I did pretty well.

That is a pretty big difference just based a small change in wording isn’t it?

This is something I’m trying hard to be intentional about when it comes to my kids. I don’t want my daughter to feel like she can read because she is smart. I want her to feel like she can read well because she worked hard. I want her to feel like effort is rewarded instead of just success.

I’ve read some other studies that suggest this isn’t something that is limited to children. It works the same way for adults. If you are in management you need to pay careful attention to exactly what you say when you praise people. Make sure you are focused on their effort–not on how smart they are.

While I haven’t read any studies about self motivation, my experience shows that this is a good mindset to be in when it comes to your personal motivation as well. Don’t take too much pride in your intelligence and instead focus on your hard work. You know when you are really trying and putting out effort better than anyone else. If you can focus on rewarding yourself for doing your best, it places you in the mindset to succeed–even after having had a failure. If you focus on how smart or talented you are, it can actually make you do worse!

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