Children who are told they’re smart are more likely to cheat, finds study

It’s about giving them the right kind of praise

Olivia Petter
Monday 18 September 2017 12:28

Children who are praised for their intelligence are more likely to cheat in exams, a new study has found.

Published in Psychological Science, the Toronto-based study builds on the widely-cited research led by Stanford’s Carol Dweck, who spent 40 years researching the “growth mindset,” proving that kids who are praised for their efforts rather than their abilities have a greater chance at success because they are more motivated.

If children believe that their intelligence can be developed, rather than it being fixed, they are better equipped to deal with setbacks, Dweck found.

For example, Dweck advocates using phrases that perpetuate constructive criticism i.e “biology isn’t one of your best subjects yet,” rather than “biology isn’t one of your best subjects.”

This latest research shows that this can affect them at a much younger age than previously theorised, with kids as young as three years old being more likely to show signs of dishonesty if they've received praise for their academic efforts.

“It’s common and natural to tell children how smart they are,” explained co-author Gail Heyman.

“Even when parents and educators know that it harms kids’ achievement motivation, it’s still easy to do. What our study shows is that the harm can go beyond motivation and extend to the moral domain. It makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well,” the development psychologist at UC San Diego said.

To acquire their results, the researchers asked 300 children - half aged three, the other half aged five - in Eastern China to take part in a guessing game. Some of them were praised for their intelligence whilst others were praised for their performance and some were not praised at all.

The children who were praised were asked to promise not to cheat by the researcher, who then left the room midway through the game.

A hidden camera documented these children subsequently cheating, leaning over to look at the answers that had been left on another desk.

It’s about giving children the right kind of praise, explains Kang Lee, co-author of another study which explored the consequences of children who were told that they have a reputation for being smart.

Kids who are told they are smart - or that other people think they - are more likely to experience greater pressures to perform well which can lead to cheating, he explained.

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