Saturday, February 24, 2007

On the Consequences of Self-Esteem & Innate Smarts

From Po:

This post is about observations that finally have explanations.

1. One of the curious set of facts that Ashley & I have kept track of for the last year is what we've called "The Ambition Gap." In 1976, half of all high school seniors expected to get a college degree – and half did. Their ambition was perfectly in line with reality. Today, 94% of high school seniors expect to enroll in college, but the next fall only 63% will actually do it. That gap – between their planned achievement and reality – has never been higher. This gap is present no matter what specific ambition you measure. 50% think they’re going to get a graduate degree someday; less than 10% will. And 64% believe they will have a career as a “working professional,” when just less than 20% actually will. Clearly, we’ve engineered students to have inflated hopes, but not actually equipped them with the skills to succeed.

For the last year, we sat on this set of facts, wondering why it would be. What could explain such a surge in aspirations, with such departure from reality?

When we delved into the culture of praise and the false promise of self esteem, it was kind of an "aha" moment. This explains the Ambition Gap! Kids are being mislead into believing they're capable of futures they're actually unprepared for.

2. Another curious fact we've been wondering about: Since the 1970s, psychologists have occasionally given college students a test for Machiavellian beliefs. Students take a short survey with the cool name of “Mach IV,” which checks how willing they are to use deception in various circumstances. Today’s college students have such high Machiavellian outlooks that researchers are alarmed. And these high Mach students admit to higher rates of sex, alcohol abuse, theft, on-campus vandalism, plagiarism, and – oh, yes – cheating.

If students have been raised in a culture of praise and cheerleading, why would they be so manipulative when they get to college?

Then, we realized that these students have been praised their entire childhood, and much of that praise has been subtly manipulative. The praise was showered on them not as genuine accolades, but as social engineering, hoping that positive self esteem would pay off in higher performance. Kids are literally being taught the art of subtle manipulation.

3. Curious observation # 3. When I interviewed 1,000 people for What Should I Do With My Life?, it was plainly apparent that so many of our smartest college students from our best schools are actually very risk averse. Coming out of college, they took jobs where the "track to success" was spelled out and clear. Wall Street, law school, corporate America - there was no imagination or creativity in these choices. And nothing daring about it. Ten years later, many of them were unhappy and unfulfilled. But quitting - even though they had lots of money in the bank - was absolutely terrifying to them. The loss of status scared them; the idea of jumping off a track and freestyling their career was frightening. They didn't want to look not smart. They were afraid of taking a job that didn't broadcast to the world how smart they must be to have that job.

It drove me crazy. Our smartest and brightest, wasting their talent. Why were they so darn risk averse?

Well now we have a theory that can help explain it. Just like Carol Dweck's 5th graders who didn't want to risk exposing themselves on harder sets of puzzles, these Ivy grads are often afraid of scenarios with some risk of failure.

4. The art of praise has been the subject of Ashley's posts this week. But the core mindset Dweck was exploring was the idea of innate intelligence. Praising children for their smarts is only one way we reinforce this destructive idea. In fact, our society is chock full of messages about how some people are born with gifts, and the rest of us are out of luck. I've always been aware of it because by junior high, people started telling me I had a gift for math. By the end of high school I competed in the Washington State math championships on the high school math team. Meanwhile, I was told I couldn't write. Teachers recognized that I had a lot of ideas in my head, but they were generally unclear ideas and I expressed them poorly. These teachers weren't ignoring my talent - because they were right. I showed no talent. In college, I avoided any class that required me to write because it destroyed my GPA.

Yet here I am today, author of five books, so disinterested in math I haven't balanced my checkbook since 1992.

The truth is, math had always come so easily to me that the first time it did not - post calculus - I quit. Meanwhile, having always been told I was a poor writer, I was accustomed to grinding it out, accustomed to rejection, accustomed to the hard work it took to write.

I would love to hear from readers about other ways this idea of innate intelligence is spread and reinforced.


Blogger shmooth said...

Chomsky often alludes to the 'risk-averseness' of many of our most highly esteemed professional who he suggests are the most indoctrinated of all citizens. And I've always personally identified with his thinking on that - guilty myself to a large extent.

I think there are lots of factors, here, though - it's far from a 'culture of praise' problem. I'm 33 and don't feel like I was praised excessively in school. The only times I was praised I latched onto it and prized it and still do. Praise made me want to do more and better. Not sure what all that means.

The other factors that make folks not take risks are the lack of universal health care. If we had health care in the U.S. - that is, if the U.S. was a civilized country - we'd see entrepreneurial activities start to take off because then entrepreneurial ventures wouldn't be restricted to recent immigrants and the highly educated. Also, some folks have a natural inclination to avoid any kind of negative feedback - that's certainly me.

Being in the technology field I've been able to learn to take on much more risk professionally, but that's only after years of brainwashing on the risk-taking startup culture, etc. And I've often gone without health care coverage.

If you build universal health care, the best and brightest will come out of their skyscrapers for a chance at changing the world.

That's at least one major factor, I'd suggest. :)

3:19 PM  
Anonymous sweden said...

1. on stability...

Beeing able to be a stable and dependable provider is the top selection critera when women are looking for men to marry. (percieved future earning potential) I guess this influences intelligent men's life choices a bit...

This is results from very well established social/political science research.

Prof. Bo Rothstein can fill you in on this.

2. On deluding people with "self-esteem" inflating their "dreams" and aspirations.

This is an institutional issue. Since the results exist; that praise boosts group performance, no school in a competitive setting would be cought redhanded telling students they can't all be top dogs. If they did, media, parents etc would be all over them. So they tell all students they can be top dogs.

This probably hurts kids who would be better off with a more realistic goalset.

(If you walk down this lane you'll just find the traditional social pecking order in the shape of self-esteem rethoric, it's a "social influence over the shape of education" issue.)

3. On Mach-tests

IT has temporarily created a society where fast beats large and time-to-market beats social gravitas very acutely. (Think: Encyclopedia Britannica now sells for USD10 on Amazon.) Elites wanting to stay on top have to fight quite a bit harder to stay there, I guess this influences the Mach-tests.

IMO the praise-malaise is one of many tools for people already in the know to create an aura of excellence around themselves, regardless of achievment.

It might very well be that people not yet in the know, when misinterpreting the social function of praise takes it at face value picks up the behaviour you have found.

hmm... sadly I think these comments are going to earn me a high Mach-score...


10:20 AM  
Blogger Katy said...

Reading this post, the one thing that came to my mind is the use of "gifted" programs in grade schools. In elementary school (I don't remember which grade), certain students in my class were tested for the gifted program. I was tested, but I was not admitted. I remember being very upset about this, as most of my friends were admitted and I did not think that I was any less intelligent than they were, and I think I even tried to get the school to re-test me. I was never admitted to the program, and I held a grudge about this for a long time. Thankfully, my nature was such that all I wanted to do was prove them wrong, but I could see where other students resigned themselves to the fact that they just weren't that smart.

My mother told me when I was older that she had been very happy that I was not labeled as "gifted", that she hated the idea of the program singling kids out who were "smarter" than the other kids, both because it could cause problems for the "gifted" kids and also because it didn't provide a lot of incentive for the "non-gifted" students to work harder. Not only could the "gifted" students hide behind their classification as more intelligent, but the "non-gifted" students could blame their lack of success on their supposed lack of intellect.

In High School and beyond, I noticed that a lot of the students that had been pulled out of class for "gifted" programs were also the students that tended to self-destruct. They overloaded themselves with AP classes, discovered recreational drugs, became pregnant, or just generally had a difficult time with the fact that they needed to work harder and harder in order to succeed academically. I'm not saying that all of the "gifted" students fell into this trap, in fact many of them went on to be very successful academically, but it was definitely a trend.

My first child is only just a month old, but I have already begun to think about how I am going to handle these issues once he starts school. I don't know if the school he will attend has a gifted program or not, but I do know that if it does I will do everything I can to keep him out of it.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Lisa S said...

How is the idea of innate intelligence spread and reinforced? Take Christopher Caldwell's article in yesterday's NYT Magazine. In it, he quotes a piece written for the Wall Street Journal by Charles Murray--of The Bell Curvefame (infamy?):

"Not all schoolchildren have the intellectual capacity to reach “basic achievement” levels. In college, similar limitations apply. The number of Americans with the brains to master the most challenging college classes, Murray argued, is probably closer to 15 percent than to 45."

How many people reading either Caldwell's article or Murray's series will also be familiar with Carol Dweck's work? And how many will be able to tell the difference between an ideologue and a scholar?

11:29 AM  
Blogger MaryAnne said...

It's so interesting to read about your experience with writing and math, because I had the same one only the subjects were switched: great at writing, terrible at math. As a result, the first time I received negative feedback for my writing, from a creative writing prof in college, I stopped writing. While I am far from a math whiz, I have worked hard to improve and even enjoy handling the finances in the family!

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Anna said...

I am greatly interested in your discussion on praise, on a few levels. One, of course is personal; my mother used to tell me I was smart, and if I made a mistake, she would say, "I wonder what the dumb kids do!" I agree that in my case I accepted the fact that I was smart and was not motivated to work at something unless it was enjoyable - if it was hard, I quit.

On another related level, I have been supervising about twenty early career high potential employees - e.g., people in their mid-20s who had top GPA marks, and were labeled very bright at nearly every step in their development. I have often marveled at the 'laziness' of some of them (another label, to be sure) when faced with a task that they are not good at, or fond of. I'm toying with altering my praise to be more effort-related.

Which brings me to my final thought; modifying praise language in the workplace in general to focus on the personal effort. Praise in the workplace is often awkward - perhaps because the focus is on achievement of results, which is objective, and less so on effort, which could be subjective (and intimate). Workplace management theorists aim for managers to link employee's performance with outcome and impact, but in reality it is often glossed over with a simple "good job" phrase. Though "good job" sounds more like effort than a thoughts on this are incomplete as yet.

3:40 AM  
Anonymous dmh said...

Since reading your article:

1. I changed my Master's Thesis topic & am now going to research the effects of different types of praise on students. (I'm a 2nd year teacher & still in grad school).

2. I have begun writing neutral comments like, "You used a lot of detail" on papers instead of "good" on papers because this reinforces effort, not some random, subjective "goodness."

3. I have also noticed that I'm asking for more effort from kids. I'm pushing them a little harder than I was before. In school, we learn about "low expectations," but it didn't really hit home until I read your article (and now some of Dweck's and others' research) how PRAISE can communicate low expectations.

So, thank you. This is fascinating stuff!

(I relate to it on a personal level to some extent, but a lot of people have told their personal I'll resist memoir/autobiography...)


5:19 PM  
Anonymous linda said...

I was always a top student and thrived on the praise given me by teachers and my parents. Things came extremely easily. I can't even remember studying much. I always scored very high on standardized tests, too. However, after receiving numerous awards for academic success in 8th grade, I was faced with more challenging classes (e.g. Honors Math and Science)in high school. I didn't do well in those classes and decided I no longer was smart in Math or Science. It was very frustrating for me because I was always told I was smart and I couldn't figure out what had happened to me. It was as if I had peaked in 8th grade. I attended a good college -- but since I didn't acquire any study skills -- it was very difficult at first. I did discover that writing came easily and that I could do well in any course where the requirements were mainly writing papers. I did find success in an editorial career, followed by corporate communications.

Also wanted to add that my own two sons are very different students than I was. Things don't come as easily as it did for me at their age and I have a tough time relating to this. I realize that it's not easy for me to direct them in approaching their studies. So I appreciated reading about your tips about how/when to praise kids. I am now encouraging them to try and to make an effort in their work.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Suzuno said...

I first encountered What Should I Do With My Life in the Salt Lake City airport a few years ago. My forced career change already loomed on the horizon, so the title intrigued me. But then I opened the book and thumbed through the early chapters, landing upon the young man who secretly wanted to be a golf teacher.

Golf teacher! That's the career I was hoping to avoid. So I put the book back and settled on Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. I lived in Florida at the time and collected orchids, so the book resonated.

I was making a flight connection to a professional golf tournament in Oregon on that day. I knew that within a few years my career in golf would be over, and I would have to make a complete change.

Most ex-tour players go into teaching golf. But I had stayed in school and finished a degree in engineering, so I had a back-up plan. (By the way, I became confused by post-calculus mathematics, too. Differential equations left me flummoxed. I didn't try very hard after the "D" on my first test, either. Even though I had been bumped ahead 2 years in math back in grade school, deep inside I never felt like a math whiz. And on some level I believed the poor grade in Differential Equations proved it.)

Now, four years later, I am working as a golf teacher. It wasn't until at age forty, when my career in professional golf ended, that I learned the realities of the job search world. I had never worked a day as an engineer and my eighteen year old degree was considered obsolete. So, as a single Mom in serious need of a job, I moved up the east coast and became a golf teacher.

It seems obvious now, I had done no career planning beyond getting a 4-year degree. Playing professional golf had taken all of my focus.

When I was younger and imagined playing in golf tournaments at the highest level, my eyes would well with tears. In time I lived my childhood dream, never any doubt in my mind that I was right where I belonged. A passion that many people only dream of fueled my career.

Will I ever find that passion again in a new career? Few are lucky enough to find it once, much less twice. But it is deeply important to me. Now I stand at the crossroads.

When Po Bronson speaks of a gift for math and a love for writing, I ponder my own talents and passions.

When, on occasion, a golf publications has published one of my articles, or a newspaper prints my letter to the editor, I experience the same rush of excitement that clutch birdie putts used to give me, complete with the celebratory fist pump.

Dare I enter another career where the money is as capricious as in professional golf? Imagining making a living as a writer brings the same tears to my eyes that I used to get as an aspiring young golfer imagining playing in front of the crowds.

Perhaps I already know the answer.

Thanks for helping me to think about and articulate all of this. Thanks for your book!

7:19 PM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

Your articles on praise and risk aversion have been like a slap in the face. Except, in a good way.

I'd like to suggest a new angle on this phenomenon -- the combination of abusive environments and praise for innate talent.

My father was an abusive alcoholic, and life was full of demeaning comments, insults, and even physical abuse. Yet, I and my siblings each seemed to have a special safe 'realm.' As long as we stayed in this realm, it seemed to keep my dad at bay.

For one brother, it was sports -- as long as he did well at sports, my dad was satisfied. For one of my sisters, it was looks. For me, it was 'being smart.'

Any praise we did receive was directed toward innate ability: being a good athelete, being pretty, being smart. And the alternative to that praise was danger: if I could bring home some good grades, if my brother could win a soccer game, then we knew we would be 'safe' for a day or two. Otherwise, all bets were off.

Not only did this keep us all clinging to this fragile self-image based only on what we were naturally good at, but it also convinced each of us that our talents lay in only one area. I was smart, but I was never a good athlete -- because that was my brother's job. And my sister was pretty, but she couldn't be smart, too.

I see a lot of myself in these articles, and as an adult, I'm highly risk-averse. I've spent a great deal of my life bewildered by the shortcomings of my so-called innate abilities, and I've passed up a lot of opportunities to grow, develop, and learn because I felt I shouldn't need them. Accepting help and admitting my own ignorance felt like a failure of self.

After all, if I'm so smart, I shouldn't need to study, or to work hard. If it doesn't come easily, obviously I'm defective. Not only that, but I'm defective in the one area that literally kept me safe for much of my life.

Though I've been struggling to reprogram some of these ideas in myself, your article and the work of Carol Dweck has been an epiphany. Thank you.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman said...

Thank you for that comment. I really appreciate it. -- Ash.

9:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an elementary teacher, one of my pet peeves is praise. I've worked hard on myself to avoid the "You're so smart" "Smart thinking" labels for students who get right answers quickly.

Those who process more carefully or don't come up with a teacher wanted response might conclude that they are "dumb" or "not smart." This is often far from true.

I've noticed that several of the younger teachers (I've been a teacher for 30+ years)frequently go to the "You are so smart" response. This may change with experience. I try to mention this in the in service classes I teach, while I'm on my soap box.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Three said...

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I have a blog with a similar subject about finding yourself and overcoming self-esteem barriers. Hope you enjoy!

1:02 PM  

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