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February 2009

Positivity, Praise, Practice and Perseverance

I was recently given an unsolicited opportunity to practice what I've preached here on my blog, about being positive (or filling buckets, as I'd put it) in the context of my family. My son came home with a mid-term report card that wasn't all As, and I immediately focused on finding the causes for the low grades (two Bs) rather than praising him for his good work in achieving the As that were on the report card. His negative reaction to my negative reaction helped me to reflect on the episode, and on some underlying issues I hadn't thought much about - nor, apparently, practiced - lately.

There are a number of painful ironies in this episode. One is that the book that prompted my earlier blog post, How Full is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life, by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton, reports on a study - that I have never been able to track down - on parents' responses to children's report cards in different cultures. The hypothetical report card lists an A in English, an A in Social Studies, a C in Biology and an F in Algebra. In the United States, 77% of parents focused on the F, while only 7% focused on the As. I would have liked to think of myself as being in that 7% minority, but apparently I'm not (or at least not consistently so).

Another irony is that I had mentioned my son in that blog post:

The main resistance I have to fully embracing the concepts in this book was immediately obvious to my 10-year-old son when I read him the theory of bucket filling and dipping: "I thought you said it shouldn't matter what other people say about you?" As I've noted earlier, I have an ongoing ambivalence over independence vs. interdependence, or how much I choose to be affected by others' actions (or inaction) -- or, indeed, as a social animal, how much power I even have to choose. The second agreement in Don Miguel Ruiz' book The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom states Don't take anything personally, i.e., anything anyone else says to or about me is really more -- or perhaps entirely (?) -- about them rather than me ... and, conversely, anything I say to or about another person is really about (and often for) me. I think Don Miguel himself has some ambivalence about this, since one of his arguments for the first agreement, Be impeccable with your word, is that our words can have significant positive or negative impact on others ... and, thus, one might reason, others' words can impact us ... um, even if we don't take anything personally (?).

In the current context, I believe that my son took my negative reaction personally, but I know that I hadn't mastered the Second Agreement at 13 (and, in fact, despite having subsequently written an entire blog post on Don't Take Anything Personally, I have still not mastered this agreement ... but in the spirit of the Fourth Agreement - Always Do Your Best - will persevere in my practice).

Reviewing this passage in the post, I started to wonder whether students ought to take grades and report cards personally (parents' reactions to them notwithstanding). I also wondered about whether I was taking the report card personally, i.e., whether my son's report card was somehow about me (vs. him (or his teachers)), but I'll return to this in a bit.

In another passage in my earlier blog post on positivity, I'd noted a study that demonstrated the effects of [deserved] praise:

Rath and Clifton report on a study done in 1925 that showed how students whose work in a math class over a 5-day period was consistently [and deservedly] praised by a teacher showed far greater improvement (71%) than those whose work was [deservedly] criticized (19%) or ignored (5%).

This reminded me of more recent research I heard mentioned by Jonah Lehrer in a KUOW conversation (interview) about his new book, How We Decide. While the 1925 study by Elizabeth Hurlock demonstrated the importance of praise, studies conducted over the last 10 years by Carol Dweck and her colleagues demonstrate the importance of what is praised. Her article on The Perils and Promises of Praise, in the October 2007 isue of Educational Leadership, differentiates between students with a fixed mind-set and those with a growth mind-set, and shows how the objects of praise influences the development of those two mind-sets.

In the fixed mind-set, students care first and foremost about how they'll be judged: smart or not smart. Repeatedly, students with this mind-set reject opportunities to learn if they might make mistakes ... When they do make mistakes or reveal deficiencies, rather than correct them, they try to hide them ... They are also afraid of effort because effort makes them feel dumb. They believe that if you have the ability, you shouldn't need effort ... Finally, students in the fixed mind-set don't recover well from setbacks. When they hit a setback in school, they decrease their efforts and consider cheating.

By contrast, in the growth mind-set, students care about learning. When they make a mistake or exhibit a deficiency, they correct it ... For them, effort is a positive thing: It ignites their intelligence and causes it to grow. In the face of failure, these students escalate their efforts and look for new learning strategies.

She then goes on to describe an experiment that has been replicated in several cultures that shows how praising students for their intelligence - promoting a fixed mind-set - rather than for their effort - promoting a growth mind-set - diminishes their performance over time.

  • 5th grade students are split randomly into two groups and assigned a set of problems to work on; after they complete the task, one group is praised for their intelligence ("You must be smart at these problems"), the other is praised for their effort ("You must have worked hard on these problems").
  • When offered the chance to next work on either a more challenging task or an easier task, the majority of those in the first group chose the easier task while the majority of thsose in the second group chose the more challenging task.
  • The students were then assigned a more challenging task (intended for 2 grade levels higher); everyone failed to solve the problems, but the students in the first group lost their confidence, while the confidence - and eagerness - of students in the second group remained strong.
  • The students were next assigned a set of problems at the same level of difficulty as the original task, and the students who were praised for their intelligence performed 20% worse than they had on the first set, while the students who were praised for their effort performed 30% better.
  • Finally, 40% of students in the first group lied in reporting their scores, compared to 10% of students in the second group.

Based on these insights, Dweck and Lisa Blackwell experimented with an intervention for junior high school students, noting that this is a time of "great vulnerability":

School often gets more difficult in 7th grade, grading becomes more stringent, and the environment becomes more impersonal. Many students take stock of themselves and their intellectual abilities at this time and decide whether they want to be involved with school. Not surprisingly, it is often a time of disengagement and plunging achievement.

In their report on the intervention, 7th graders at Life Sciences Secondary School in East Harlem who were showing a decline in math grades were taught to think of the brain as a muscle, and that through exercising it - exerting the effort to take on new challenges - they could make it stronger. Students who were taught two lessons - totaling 50 minutes - about exercising the brain showed an improvement in math grades, compared with a continued decline in math grades for a control group that was not taught the "brain as muscle" principle (both groups were also taught study and time management skills).

This cultivation of empowerment - thinking about intelligence as a trait that can be developed rather than a fixed or innate quality - is very much in alignment with the second agreement, and with promoting intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations at an early age:

Adolescents often see school as a place where they perform for teachers who then judge them. The growth mind-set changes that perspective and makes school a place where students vigorously engage in learning for their own benefit.

Po Bronson shared additional details and insights on these themes in his article on How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise, which incorporates additional research into the effects of the relentless focus on promoting self-esteem in children that has been the norm in the U.S. since the 1970s. He notes a 44-page review of the self-esteem literature by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues, Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles? Among the findings:

After reviewing those 200 studies, Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (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.) At the time, Baumeister was quoted as saying that his findings were “the biggest disappointment of my career.”

Now he’s on Dweck’s side of the argument, and his work is going in a similar direction: He will soon publish an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: It’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”

I can now return to one of the themes I'd mentioned earlier, Don Miguel Ruiz' Second Agreement: don't take anything personally. Although I'm not consciously aware of projecting myself onto my son's performance [ratings], or seeing his performance as a reflection on me, there may be an element of this at work here. I often tend to be a perfectionist - perhaps reflecting a fixed mind-set - and so I want my son to be perfect - and get perfect grades - as well. But I think there's also some personal history - and additional shadows - involved in this.

Bronson's article goes on to explore a related issue that strikes close to home: praise junkies - people who are addicted to constant praise.

But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification. Delving into this research, I learned that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain. Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis located the circuit in a part of the brain called the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex. It monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, “Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.” While putting people through MRI scans, Cloninger could see this switch lighting up regularly in some. In others, barely at all.

What makes some people wired to have an active circuit?

Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. “The key is intermittent reinforcement,” says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

I am a praise junkie, or perhaps a recovering praise junkie, having grown up with one parent who was so effusive with praise that it seemed like background noise by the time I reached adolescence (and another parent who had effectively disengaged from the family by that time). Up through the end of 6th grade, I was a straight-A student, but around the time of 7th grade - the aforementioned period of "great vulnerability" - my interest in school, and my grades, declined. I wonder if I had developed a fixed mind-set around that age.

I coasted along with Bs and Cs throughout junior high, high school and my first two years of college, putting in very little effort, and using my [innate?] skills in test-taking and writing to maintain passing grades, and score high marks on the PSAT and SAT tests. My junior year of college is when things turned around, where I became a more active and engaged learner ... and earned grades that put me on the Dean's List for my last 4 semesters. I attribute this turnaround to three significant changes that year: several of the closest friends I'd made my first two years of college left (partly due to then President Reagan's cuts in financial aid), I started taking courses in computer science (enabling me to refocus my intellectual energies after having become increasingly pessimistic about Philosophy - my major course of study - and life), and I became involved in my first non-platonic relationship with a woman (who would later become my wife).

In some ways, I think of my experiences during junior high, high school and first two years of college as a sort of middle ages - or perhaps dark ages - with my third year of college representing something of a personal renaissance, which enabled me to not only finish college, but continue on to graduate school. I'll share experiences in one course from each of the two periods that I believe illustrate my shift from fixed mind-set to growth mind-set. Despite having gotten nearly effortless Bs in honors courses in mathematics throughout high school, when I took Calculus as a freshman at Ripon College, I studied one hour for the first exam, and got a grade of 40 (out of 100). For the second exam, I doubled my study time to two hours, and my grade was 26. I had a solid enough grounding in basic mathematics to recognize that there was an inverse correlation to effort vs. reward at work here, and so I dropped the class. Other classes I was taking came much more easily to me, and so I followed a path of lesser resistance and majored in Philosophy.

In my coursework at the University of Massachusetts, where I earned a Ph.D. in Computer Science, there was only one course for which I did not get an A: a course on Theory of Computation, which involved a great deal of highly abstract mathematical reasoning. Despite working an average of 40 hours per week on this one course, and spending lots of time with the professor and teaching assistant during their office hours really trying to understand the new ways of thinking that were required to master the material, I only got an A-. The important thing, in this context, is that I was willing to persevere in the face of challenges, unlike my earlier unwillingness to exert effort in my first year of college.

In any case, if I'm projecting anything onto my 7th grade son now, I suspect it is primarily my fear that he, too, will spiral down during this period of great vulnerability and enter his own personal dark ages. Although I don't - or didn't - believe I have been propagating the trait of constant praise, I've long suspected that many of my parenting practices reflect an unconscious adoption of the practices of my own parents. Fortunately, over time, as I have experienced new contexts in which I have been exposed to more "intermittent reinforcement" - one of many areas in which my wife has helped promote my personal growth - I have been able to recognize and compensate for my early conditioning. Although there are many dimensions of my life in which I carry a rather fixed mind-set (as my wife, children and work colleagues can all attest to), I like to think I've developed a growth mind-set in some areas over time. One area for future growth related to all of this is my ongoing dilemma about acceptance vs. striving, but for now, at least with respect to my interactions with my son (and the other members of my family), I will strive to be more accepting :-).

I'll finish off with yet another ironic - and embarrassing - item from my post on positivity 3 years ago:

I recently wrote about how I am becoming increasingly -- and painfully -- aware that I have not been paying much attention to my family (especially my children). I now recognize that, despite my best intentions, I have been dipping more often -- and filling less often -- than I want to. I also recognize that attention itself is a currency that can be used as a bucket-filler, and that I run the risk of passing on the attention deficit I inherited to my children, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. The simple terminology and concepts introduced by How Full is Your Bucket will help me be more conscious of how I choose to focus my attention -- and other actions -- in the future.

So once again, despite my preaching, it looks like I still have much to practice, with respect to persevering with positive attention to those I love. As one small step in this direction, I shall disengage from this blog post, and re-engage with my family ... here and now.