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: <>.

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?

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  1. James N. Miller March 6, 2013 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    Thanks. One of the most substantive things you’ve shared. I’ve always been a believer in helping children develop self-respect; ‘self-esteem’ not so much. I’ve dubbed it ‘unconditional positive self-regard’. Your question-process praise is right on target. And it goes for those insufferable ‘motivational’ programs for adults that have you yell ‘I AM GREAT’ at the top of your lungs whether you’ve ever done anything to earn your keep on this earth or not. Good for you. Good thinking. Pursue it.

  2. Andrea Hill March 6, 2013 at 7:37 pm - Reply

    These observations remind me of a story I heard on NPR called “Struggle for Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning” which highlights the different attitudes Asians have toward success, versus Americans. In Asia, it is expected that success is due to a learner struggling until they succeed. In America, success is more often assumed to be due to giftedness, so that struggle indicates that you are not smart, leading to students giving up early on a difficult problem. Here is the story:

  3. Foo Chang March 7, 2013 at 1:39 am - Reply

    I truly like your sharing. As a parent, we use questions to dig out the self esteem and make them learn from their success.

  4. S Joy Fox March 7, 2013 at 7:52 am - Reply

    Confirmation bias supports that folks with low self-esteem prefer hearing what they believe, e.g., I am uncoordinated (self-belief); A friend states, “Wow, no one is going to pick you for the All-Star team.” (response accepted without taking offense).

    By asking questions, one is testing the hypothesis of the person with low self-esteem. To me, it is the best way to unbalance the faulty pattern in the person’s thinking. It is probably the way to get to the core of the thinking, but the person would have to want to uncover the pattern. Without wanting to ‘go there’, I am not sure how one would help a person with low self-esteem, child or adult.

  5. Steve Daily March 7, 2013 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    I enjoyed the thoughts you shared. When I taught a parenting class a number of years ago, we would discuss the difference between meaningless praise and meaninful encouragement. Encouragement was specific and gave the child feedback on what he had done. A parent could encourage his son by saying,” I really appreciate how you played with your sister and helped keep her entertained while were waiting.” The child understands from this information what he had accomplished. The praise of saying “Good job” give almost no meaningful information.

    I had a friend who started a new job working nights, and the main boss who worked during the day happened by and told him he was doing a good job. My friend asked him, “What is it I’m doing that you are pleased with?” The boss was speechless. That would be an example of meaningless praise.

    I like the idea of asking questions that would prompt one to reflect on what they did. I feel that could be very helpful in building self-confidence in children and adults.

  6. rochelle Mason March 8, 2013 at 5:13 am - Reply

    Dear Dr Johnson,
    I enjoyed your recent article on question focused praise as well as the solution focused information you shared at a recent workshop.
    This information is helpful and timely for myself and my co-works at our behavioral health center, as we are encouraged to learn more about the solution focused process.
    Please add my work e-mail address to your e-addresses so I may forward your good work to my peers. That work address has been added to the e-mail slot on this form where my orginal address is usually placed.
    Your generosity with your time and work is monumentally meaningful and greatly appreciated.
    By the way, how did you know how important it would be to make the time and effort to share this valuable information with us? 🙂

  7. Kharis Powell March 8, 2013 at 11:30 am - Reply

    Dear Dr. Johnson,
    I find your emphasis on parent Curiosity to be refreshing and right on. What could be more validating for children than our questioning them thoughtfully about their accomplishments? In doing so we can help them to appreciate their value and potential to develop important skills and abilities. This process provides a far richer interpersonal experience for the child than telling them to repeat, “I am smart, I am a good person, etc.” for no clear reason. Thanks for the post!

  8. Hosting November 2, 2016 at 5:20 pm - Reply

    Telling kids they are smart can be counterproductive, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t praise our kids. As mentioned above, even the “wrong” kind of praise can be more motivating than no praise at all. And it’s likely that the right sort of praise — process praise — gives kids an advantage.

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