Kids Cheat More If You Tell Them They Are Awesome

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New research highlights how different forms of praise can promote positive encouragement, while others can backfire by promoting dishonesty and lying.

According to the two new studies by researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, kids who are praised for being smart are more likely to be dishonest and to cheat in the hopes of maintaining their positive image.

The first of the two studies gathered a group of 3- to 5-year-olds to play a guessing game. If they were correct, half of them were praised for being smart by saying "You are so smart.” The other half were praised for their performance by saying "You did very well this time." This subtle change in emphasis was enough to sway the way the kids viewed their performance.

The researchers then left the room and told the children to promise they would not cheat by looking at the answers. Watching them through a hidden camera, they found that children who were praised for being smart were more likely to act dishonestly and peek at the answers.

The second experiment, published in Developmental Science, set out with a similar premise. They told certain children they had a reputation for being smart. Hearing this kind of praise was associated with a higher tendency to cheat.

"Praise is more complex than it seems," study co-author Professor Kang Lee, OISE's Jackman Institute of Child Studies (JICS), said in a statement.

The important difference in wording can have a huge effect. While you might believe you are encouraging a child by saying “you are awesome”, this can, in fact, lead them to cheat in order to uphold the positive trait assessment. Instead, their actions and behavior should be praised. It might seem like a very subtle difference, but it can have an affect on the child’s mentality.

"Praising a child's ability implies that the specific behavior that is commented on stems from stable traits related to one's ability, such as smartness," said Lee. "This is different than other forms of praise, such as praising specific behaviors or praising effort."

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