generic vs specific feedback and the fundamental attribution error

A recent study indicates that giving generic trait-based feedback to children ( in the form of “you are a good drawer”) increases feeling of helplessness on subsequent mistakes/failures and reduces their resilience in the face of failure in comparison to the condition in which they are given specific outcome-based feedback (of the form ” you drew a good drawing”). It is thus apparent that when generic praise is given, then this results in a stable inborn talent-like view of the self abilities, while a specific praise enforces more a concept of skill-based self ability that may be affected by circumstances and can be worked on and acquired.

Generic praise implies there is a stable ability that underlies performance; subsequent mistakes reflect on this ability and can therefore be demoralizing. When criticized, children who had been told they were “good drawers” were more likely to denigrate their skill, feel sad, avoid the unsuccessful drawings and even drawing in general, and fail to generate strategies to repair their mistake. When asked what he would do after the teacher’s criticism, one child said, “Cry. I would do it for both of them. Yeah, for the wheels and the ears.” In contrast, children who were told they had done “a good job drawing” had less extreme emotional reactions and better strategies for correcting their mistakes.

It is interesting to read this along with the fundamental attribution error, which was the theme of my blogger SAT challenge essay. As per this bias, people have an inherent bias to view their successes in terms of stable underlying talents/traits and failures as reflective of external circumstances. The reasoning reverses when applied to others. Others fare well due to luck (or external circumstances) and fare badly due to dispositional elements.

From the above study, it is clear that though the fundamental attribution error may serve us well (after all it has to serve a purpose for it to evolve), say by increasing our feelings of self-efficacy and thus leading to greater confidence/esteem, yet it has its downside. It makes learning from our mistakes harder and leads to feelings of helplessness or that of external locus of control, when faced with failures. This rationalization of failures due to our helplessness (despite perceived stable talent/trait) , and due to the external circumstances ( and not as due to some carelessness or lack of effort on our part on this specific circumstance) also leads to less resilience in the face of failures and less motivation to indulge in similar activity in the future.

It is apparent thus, that while giving positive feedback to children, it is framed in specific outcome based terms, so that they do not fall prey to the fundamental attribution bias and pay more emphasis on skill-based accounts rather than talent-based accounts. Conversely, it may be plausible to presume that while giving negative feedback it would be best to be direct and point any underlying issue that the child may have and not gloss them over by providing environmental explanations. The child would anyway make up environmental excuse for the failures!

While inspiring the child to undergo observational learning, one should presumably describe others and their success as resulting from stable traits/ skills and should explain their failures due to circumstance not in their control. This would go a long way in making the child overcome his inherent attribution bias and help in lead to a generally positive and compassionate view of others and a resilient and humble view of himself.

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5 thoughts on “generic vs specific feedback and the fundamental attribution error

  1. Jackson

    Thats really interesting to see how overlly general statements of praise can lead a child to feel pressure and insecurities in the future. This seems to be an example of generalizations not giving the most accurate portrayal of the truth. The more specific a comment of praise or even critique, the more accurately it can be recieved without overly dramatic reprocutions.

  2. Kevin Adrian

    So basically, coming to an assumption and telling a child he/she is good at a task, whether it be art, sports, academics etc. and coming to that assumption after one or two performances of that particular task, could instill a potentially false notion in the child’s mind that he or she was naturally given this talent. As a result, the child is less inclined to perform the task with optimal drive, and more inclined to feel hurt when a real criticism is thrown their way, because they believe in the fact that they were told they’re great artists or athletes or whatever?

  3. Krista

    The idea of encouraging a child at a young age should be inherent as a parent or guardian. Regardless of our age humans desire to be praised. We desire to be told that we are good, and when we are not told or reminded of these things it’s understandable that we feel insecure.

  4. Sandy G

    Welcome Pratt Psychology bloggers!

    Jackson, you are right – the more specific the comment the better.

    Kevin, its true that being told that you are a good artist/whateverleads to hurt feelings when subsequently criticised. that is why it is best to tell that you maade a good artcifact and not that you are a good artsisan.

    Krista, you got this wrong. Its true that we all need to feel good and praise be an essential ingredient to our upbringing. what is argued against is not praise per se, but generic trait based praise. If specific outcome based praise is given it would serve the purpose better.

  5. Jasmine

    This study is much more stable then the whole red-pen-on-tests-have-negative-effects-on-kids thing. Because while one can’t argue the benefits of figuring out the things that have negative effects on people at early ages (lead paint, anybody?), the traumatizing effects of red ink are negligible next to the generic-feedback-ruining-the-self-esteem-of-the-future thing. But, really, are we going to change school policies because of either of these things, or maybe dramatically improve the world’s parenting skills? I think the bigger chunk of the world’s population isn’t keeping up with the latest psychological trends.

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