The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General has scheduled an article for publication in a future issue of the journal: “On Feeding Those Hungry for Praise: Person Praise Backfires in Children With Low Self-Esteem.”

The authors are Eddie Brummelman, Sander Thomaes, Geertjan Overbeek, Bram Orobio de Castro, Marcel A. van den Hout, and Brad J. Bushman.

Summary: With low-self esteem children (most likely to elicit an impulse to praise from adults), Person-oriented praise (“You are smart, you are pretty / handsome, you are clever”) backfires and lowers self-esteem.

Process praise (“You worked hard and succeeded, you smiled at that unpopular child and made her feel better, you DID something”) raises self-esteem.

Lynn’s comments: Yes, but . . . I have found another way of giving esteem-building feedback. That is the success-focused question.

“How did you do that?”

“How did you know that would work?”

“How did you know how important it would be to that girl to have you smile at her?

“How did you keep going when you felt like quitting?”

“Were you more surprised or more pleased by your success?”

“Who noticed that you had done well in that activity?”

“How did your success help others?”

While social psychologists focus on statements/implicit injunctions (such as, “You worked hard / you should feel good about your hard work . . .”), that ignores the fact that Curiosity is one of the great predictors of both happiness and success.

That is, asking questions has the advantages of Process Praise but with the additional benefit of conveying a sense of wonder, curiosity, and inquiry at the same time as the adult conveys the praise. So far I have not seen social psychologists assessing this question of Asking Vs. Telling.

Marcial Losada found that high functioning teams had a ratio of asking / telling of about 1:1. That opens up the discussion and promotes more dialog.

Low functioning teams had a ratio of ask/tell much higher, around 5:1 or worse. That is a group where people are simply trying to influence each other and aren’t allowing others to influence them.

Eric Hoffer, the legendary longshoreman/ essayist, once wrote, “It is impossible to overestimate how much we are influenced by those we seek to influence.” Hoffer intuitively knew that influence, to be legitimate, must be a two way street.

I wonder if much of our current political instability, as we lurch from one crisis to another, is based on two sides both trying to influence without being influenced. We seem to be in a state of permanent tell-and-never ask, and I don’t blame one side or the other. Both seem to me equally at fault.

In fact, even the process of assigning fault and blame feeds the problem. When I blame you for lack of progress, I am still enmeshed in the tell-and-never-ask mentality.

Only if I wonder if the other side has some good points, only when I stop blaming Democrats, Republicans, George Bush, or Barack Obama, is there any hope that we can all just get along.

In the mean time, while our elected leaders stumble toward Armageddon, let’s shift our praise from Person-focused to Process-focused.

Experiment with Question-Process focused praise. Leave a note below and tell me what you think. Link this to your own sites or send to people who can put in their insights and understandings.

Here’s how the article concludes: “Western society has a strong belief in the power of praise– especially for supporting children with low self-esteem (e.g., Talbot, 2009; Youngs, 1991). The present research indicates that adults are inclined to give children with low self-esteem person praise but that such praise ironically backfires. Thus, much like penicillin, person praise can have adverse side effects and must not be administered haphazardly.”

Reprint request contact info: Eddie Brummelman, Department of Psychology, Utrecht University, P.O. Box 80.140, 3508 TC, Utrecht, the Netherlands. E-mail: <e.brummelman@uu.nl>.

Perhaps I have overlooked some vital insights. Perhaps you have learned something about praise for children or adults that I don’t know. I need your influence. What can you teach me?