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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