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When can praise hurt?

In my last post on Skinner’s theories on learning, I mentioned the potential misuse of punishment and praise. It seems plainly obvious how punishment can cause a lot of problems. Excessive and inconsistent punishment of behavior could easily cause attachment issues, maladaptive behaviors that inappropriately associate punishment with benign behaviors, or any number of personality disorders could develop if there is intensity or a long period of abusive punishment.

When should we use punishment? It’s a fairly tough call to make. Sometimes it’s harder to support positive behaviors than it is to target a single negative behavior. For example, if my pet dog was jumping onto the furniture, I may try to use punishment to teach the animal. I could use a spray bottle, and spray the dog with a bit of water if it jumped on the couch. After enough consistent repetition, my dog would associate the act of getting on the couch with the uncomfortable spray of water. This could be an effective training method if I’m consistent, and my reaction is immediate. If I’m quick and consistent, my dog will understand that its action of getting on the furniture will prompt my reaction of the use of a spray bottle. Prompt and accurate ‘feedback’ is absolutely vital for successful learning to occur.

What about something harder to punish – perhaps something like rude behavior at school? Imagine a parent gets a letter sent home from the teacher informing them that their child has been bullying other children by being verbally aggressive. The child is behaving in this negative manner outside the supervision of the parent, so it will be nearly impossible to give prompt corrective punishment to the child. An adult supervisor, teacher, principal, etc, may be able to help curb this behavior, but the effect of the parent’s punishment will be quite weak, if effective at all. The best the parents can do is ensure they are not modeling verbal aggression, then investigate other sources of verbal aggression among the child’s peer group. A parent’s punishment will communicate that the behavior isn’t acceptable, but it will not be likely to change behavior as much as more prompt feedback when the behavior is occurring. When the child engages in bullying behavior, we must have a better understanding of why the child felt the need to do so, what environmental forces (peer groups for example) were pressuring the child, and if the child was antagonized into action. Simply punishing the resulting behavior of all these forces might not be as effective as looking at it like an equation. The child (learned behaviors from past and home life), the environment (school and peers) plus the stimuli (target of bullying or potentially someone who is provoking) creates the outcome (aggression). As you might have guessed, punishment may just add more examples of parental aggression for the child, thus encouraging bullying back in the school environment.

This was just an example of how punishment can further complicate things when we are unable to use it properly. We should only use punishment when it can be prompt, consistent, and precise. Punishment has a massive problem, though. When the authority figure is not present, previously punished behaviors tend to resurface. If the dog associated me with the water spray, it may understand that it cannot be punished while I’m gone! That’s why psychologists tend to suggest reward over punishment for long term behavioral change.

What about praise?

Imagine that a student is going through their first few years of school. They are making good grades, doing their homework, getting along with their peers, and enjoying their time in school. The student’s parents see the report cards and almost always see ‘A’s for most of the courses with a few ‘B’s every now and then. The parents say, “wow look at your grades, you’re so smart!” The child hears this for a number of years as they continue to do well up until middle school.

A while later, the child starts to do poorly, and begins to feel defeated. Over time their grades continue to slump, but their behavior is not changing. For many students, if they begin to do poorly in a class, they might begin to dedicate more study hours to it, but not this particular student. Why? Well, because they were always so smart, right? What does this type of message do to a child?

When someone does well and we say, “Ah, you did well because you are so smart!” it actually causes more harm than good. This is because we are not focusing on the behaviors that led to success, we are only focusing on the outcomes. Just like with improper punishment, if we overly focus on the result, we lose sight of what caused the behavior.

As we tell the student, “you did a good job – you’re so smart” it changes their perception of things. They begin to feel like they do not need to work the achieve. The child may begin to believe “the reason I have good grades is because I’m gifted!”. As they are challenged, though, what happens? The student starts to get poor grades in a challenging course, so they will begin to become defensive. “Since I’m smart, and gifted, clearly the test was not fair,” or perhaps “The class must be exceptionally difficult if even I have trouble with it.” This gives the child a one dimensional view – “things are either easy because I’m smart enough to do them, or difficult because even a smart person like me can’t do them.” This is obviously a problem!

What we see here is the creation of a contingency of self worth that causes major problems in later life. First, the student learns that praise comes from getting a good grade above all else. Next, the student is challenged by harder concepts, thus avoids them due to dissonance. The student begins to enjoy things that are easy to complete more than enjoying achievements related to harder tasks. Later in life, the student may choose to study something that is ‘easier’ or adopt a lifestyle that is free of tougher challenges. Let’s dissect the contingency briefly.

  • “I am smart because I make good grades!” – This is an external contingency of self worth, which is dangerous. It relies on the input of others for your to feel better about yourself.
  • When the student fails at something, they experience dissonance with their self worth, which will trigger self-serving biases – “I failed because it was unfair, or because this subject is too hard.” The blame is being placed on external places, not the internal issue – the lack of effort or study hours.
  • “I enjoy this task because it is easy to me” – This would be common for many people who were raised with unconditional positive regard. Challenges cause dissonance, while easy tasks reaffirm their external contingencies.
  • Easier tasks are preferred and harder tasks are avoided because they challenge my initial contingencies of self worth.

We hope that when a student is challenged by a task, they will dedicate more time to it. This creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, and peers alike to support positive behaviors.

When someone achieves anything, what should we say?

  • “Wow great job! Your work really shows that you put a lot of time and care into this.”
  • “This work was particularly good because it showed your mastery as you must have spent hours studying this.” 

Even my examples are far too general – The best idea is to point out PRECISELY what was good about something. Accurate feedback is absolutely mandatory, whether it’s positive or negative in nature, for someone to learn. If a student made a good grade, always praise the work they put into it, not simply the outcome!

In conclusion, we must praise and punish responsibly. Either way, we must make it clear what behaviors led to success, or failure, when we praise or punish. Understanding the origins of behavior allows to better support our friends and family as we continue to give feedback. With proper feedback, we can help encourage a set of behaviors that thrives off of challenges and hard work instead of focusing simply on gratification and outcomes!


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