March 1, 2013

When children have low self esteem should you then give them person praise?

In this post: PROCESS PRAISE more effective than TRAIT PRAISE from 2008, I explained the difference between person praise (or trait praise) and process praise. In that post you can read that giving person praise (about personal traits or qualities) may be well-intended but has some negative consequences. A particular disadvantage of person praise is that it induces a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is the belief that you have certain traits and talents which you can not really change. Process compliments, which are about what people have done, work better. They induce a growth mindset, which is the belief that people can change their traits and qualities by putting in effort.

Much research has shown that having a fixed mindset has many disadvantages compare to a growth mindset. For more details about this, read: Growth mindset associated with various positive outcomes (competence, relatedness, learning, vitality, adjustment).

After reading my posts, a solution-focused therapist sent me an e-mail saying: "My own reactions to the paper were initially a wholehearted interest in process rather than trait praise. But then I got to think about young people with very low self esteem, and thinking a bit of me still sees a potential value in commenting on traits they may not know they have." My response was that I thought it was a sensible hypothesis but that I'd predict that, even here, process feedback would work better. Back then, I had no evidence to support my prediction. But now I do.

Eddie Brummelman et al. (2013) studied the effects of person praise and process praise on children with low self esteem. Their conclusion is that person praise has negative impact on these children. For more details about this research read this post: Person Praise Backfires in Children With Low Self-Esteem.


  1. Hi Coert

    I have a couple of questions:

    Most of the research I've seen on this takes an either/or approach, is there anything you are aware of that looks at what happens with combined person/process praise? "You're really intelligent because you've worked so hard."?

    What about giving person praise that emphasised characteristics associated with an incremental mindset? "You're very adaptable, a good learner and courageous."?

    I'm just speculating.


  2. I've just realised "good learner" is process praise in disguise, so substitute "inquisitive". :-)

  3. Sorry, I must be in a very inquisitive mindset this morning, but here's another question. Do you know of any research on the effects of person vs process criticism instead of praise? My assumption would be that person-focused criticism is more damaging than process-focused but it would be nice to have some evidence.

  4. Hi David, No, I don't know any research that checks that but based on the research that is available but we might make predictions.

    The question is: how does the type of compliment guide one's attribution? For example:

    - You're really intelligent because you've worked so hard." might indeed work because it may introduce an incremental attribution (work hard->become smarter). Then again, I am not complete sure because it might also induce an attribution of: "Now I have reached the state of smartness" which might lead to the fixed mindset kind of fear of losing that lable.

    - a combination in the style of you worked so hard at this complex stuff because you are so intelligent I would predict to induce a fixed mindset as well. I can't imagine it would work as bad as a simple person compliment ("you are so smart") but I also cannot imagine it would as well as a regular process compliment ("you have worked hard")

    - giving person praise associated with an incremental mindset might work but caution is needed. A person focused compliment like "You have such a great potential to learn" might work (and I think it probably will (although I think even capacity to learn might actually be developed). But a persons compliment like "courageous" might be less incremental mindset associated than you may think. I think it is more fixed mindset associated. It seems to me like any positive trait lable that might make people fearful of losing it.

    On the whole, I think we do not need such a combination strategy and I am sceptical about whether it would work better than a process approach. But, in the end, that is an empirical matter.

  5. Hi David, you ask: "Do you know of any research on the effects of person vs process criticism instead of praise?" Yes there is, I will answer in the form of a new post which I will post in 5 minutes

  6. I'm not challenging the idea that process praise has statistically better outcomes than person praise, but I do wonder about the human tendency towards over-simplification and dichotomous thinking which could be evident in experimental design that ignores possible combination effects. We like there to be a right answer and a wrong answer. We're less comfortable with a right answer that's wrong sometimes. Even process praise doesn't work for all of the people all of the time (statistically speaking).

    I picked courageous because, if you are trying to preserve that trait, you have to be seen to be taking positive risks (or at least avoiding cowardly inaction).

    I'll look forward to the new post.


  7. I understood that and I acknowledge your point.


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