The problems of praise and positive thinking

WE live in the age of positive thinking, an urgent pursuit of self-improvement and feeling good about ourselves. In this we are guided by the opinions of “experts” and book shops teeming with tomes on self-help, not to mention the Oprah-fixation of the airwaves.

To put all of this in perspective, it’s worth noting two things: most psychopaths and highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves (debunking the theory that people are aggressive to make up for low self-esteem); and many of the world’s greatest thinkers and doers have lived filled with self-doubt and even unhappiness.

Assuming you don’t want to raise a psychopath or a miserable artist, reconsider what society has been telling you about raising your child. We are emerging from an era defined in the West by the striving for perfection and individual success, dominated by a belief in the importance of high self-esteem.

Smile-or-Die-How-Positive-ThWestern culture has long been largely intolerant of pessimism or “negativity”. The American social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of
Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” (also called “Smile Or Die”), tells how people didn’t want to hear that she was miserable about having breast cancer; they wanted her to tell them how she was going to defeat cancer with positive thinking. 

I believe self-esteem and positive thinking have become two of the most overused and misunderstood terms today. Parents often tell me that they want to raise their children to be motivated and have good self-esteem. Schools commonly suggest that a pupil’s problem is related to a lack of it. 

One of the strategies parents have been encouraged to use in order to build their kids’

self-esteem and improve motivation is to lavish praise and recognition. Judiciously used, all good things!

incredibles-dash

 

But the problem with this approach, when used excessively and uncritically, is revealed in the animated film The Incredibles. Dash is angry when his mother tells him he is not allowed to win races and that, in any case, everyone is special. Dash retorts: “That’s just another way of saying nobody is.”

 

 

Easy, ubiquitous praise and false reassurances do not build your child’s self-esteem — mainly because you can’t easily build self-esteem from the outside in. In a 2009 study published in the journal Psychological Science by Wood, Perunovic and Lee, it was found that people with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating affirmations of their lovability. The authors say that “repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ‘need’ them the most”. The greater the gap between our fantasised ideal self and our own experience of our authentic self, the greater the likelihood of dissatisfaction, anxiety and even depression.

How and when you offer praise is important:

  • Praise in moderation;
  • Always be sincere and authentic; and
  • Praise a specific effort not an attribute; give “process praise”. In other words, focus on engagement, perseverance, improvement and so on.

The last point is the most important. In a study on motivation by Carol Dweck, it was found that children who were praised for an innate ability, for example being smart, did worse than kids who were praised for something they did, like trying hard, or studying. That’s because you can control or repeat an action, but not who you “are”.

Children who believe that they are successful because of innate ability have what Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. They don’t recover well from setbacks, become preoccupied with image maintenance and are afraid to risk making a mistake.

In contrast, kids who believe that their achievements are related to their efforts and learning have a growth mind-set and are more likely to persevere, persist and study.

Dweck says that focusing on and praising effort gives children a variable they can control. If they make mistakes, they understand that they can expend effort to correct it.

Often, parents resort to excessive, generalised praise when they feel anxious they are not doing enough for their children. However, authentic, robust self-esteem and motivation develop not from overdoses of praise and “positive thinking”, but from feeling loved by, connected to and understood by our parents and carers.

We feel better about ourselves when we experience success in tasks that are important and meaningful to us; when we fail it is easier to cope and try again when we receive realistic and empathic feedback about our efforts from people who care about us.

And yes, that means being praised when we deserve it too. 

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2 thoughts on “The problems of praise and positive thinking

    1. Judith Ancer Post author

      Hi Ed
      Glad you enjoyed the piece, I look forward to reading yours. The Sunday Times have a paywall so it is not possible to access my pieces via their website without having an online subscription, so I am slowly posting my pieces onto this blog – will upload the Heroes article within the week. Judith

      Reply

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