Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Praise People on Their Abilities

Michal Bernolak
May 22, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

“You are so talented!” is surprisingly something we should avoid saying to anyone aspiring to be better, to achieve more. Praising people for their abilities and intelligence can actually smother ambition — allow me to explain.

We must praise people for their effort, not their ability. I have had the opportunity to test this theory while working as a camp supervisor and a teacher for the majority of my life — and it works.

There are two ways to praise people for their achievements. You can either say “Wow, you are so smart!” or “Wow, you worked so hard!”

Let’s examine the difference.

A study of praise

The effects of praising ability vs effort were carefully observed and documented in a 1998 study conducted by Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck.

They studied how fifth graders responded to praise of ability or praise of effort after they completed an intelligence test.

The scores on the initial intelligence test were generally good, and if they weren’t that great, the researchers would boost the scores. All of the participants received basic feedback.

A third of the students were told they did a good job and that they got a high score, with no additional commentary. This was the basic feedback.

Another third of students were given the basic feedback, and had their natural abilities and intelligence praised. They were told “Wow, you are so smart!”

The final third of students were given the basic feedback, and had their efforts praised. They were told “Wow, you must have worked hard for that score!”

Praising ability vs effort

After the initial high scoring results and varying feedback, the participants were given another test. This time, the fifth graders had a choice between easy problems to solve and more difficult problems.

The easy problems are meant to make the students look smarter, by making it easy to score well. The more difficult problems are meant to teach the students demanding concepts, at the risk of getting a poor score and possibly looking bad in front of their peers.

Children who were given no addition feedback on their initial test score generally chose to answer easier questions.

A staggering number of children who were given praise of their abilities and intelligence opted for the easy questions on the next test. They wanted to answer questions that would uphold their image of intelligence.

The majority of the children who were praised for their efforts chose the more difficult questions to answer for the second test. They knew they could learn from these questions, even though it might make their test scores worse.

All of the students were then given a more difficult test, regardless of the difficulty of problems they requested.

The mischievous researchers then told the students that they had performed significantly worse on the second test than on the first, regardless of actual score.

So how did the students react who were given different feedback?

The students were asked:

how much would you like to take the problems home to work on and improve?

Children who were praised for their ability and intelligence didn’t care about taking the test home. They weren’t concerned with doing better, they didn’t want to improve on their score. They thought they were inherently smart and shouldn’t have to work hard for a good mark.

Children who were praised for their efforts wanted to improve. They wanted to take the problems home to work on them further.

The children who received no feedback placed roughly in the middle.

The researchers had the students complete one final test. They wanted to see how the initial priming affected the students at the end of the study.

The students who were praised on ability did worse on the final test than they did on the first test. The students who were praised for effort did far better on the final test than the first. The students who didn’t receive any praise scored slightly better on the final test.

The final choice and self evaluation

At the end of the study, students were asked to choose one of two reading materials they could to take home.

They had a choice between a folder containing strategies for solving the difficult problems on the test, or a folder that contained the average scores of the other students.

The students who were praised for effort chose the folder with strategies. They knew it would help them learn and gain more knowledge. They were motivated.

The students who were praised on ability and intelligence chose the folder containing the average test score of other students.

All they cared about was how they looked in the eyes of others.

This sends a pretty powerful message about the type of praise we choose to hand out.

The students who were given no feedback placed mostly in the middle.

The final task given to the students was to indicate how they scored on the tests for other children who would be taking the same tests in other states.

The ability praised students misrepresented their scores by inflating them heavily. For them it was all about preserving their image.

The effort praised students hardly inflated their results, and if they did it was very minimal. They didn’t care how other students perceived them. They were focused on solving the problems and learning, rather than their image of intelligence.

Apply this knowledge to your life

People who are praised for their abilities and intelligence view challenges they can’t overcome as failures. They feel as though they fail to live up to their own expectations and are more concerned with how it makes them look.

If people are praised for effort, they look at challenges as opportunities for growth. They want to work harder, to put in more effort.

Its easy to forget that we must praise ourselves on our efforts rather than our abilities. It’s easy to become discouraged when we don’t live up to our own expectations.

That is why it is important to take a step back, and focus on your effort. Praise your hard work and not the outcome. Praise your effort to stay motivated and ambitious.

Praise the effort you see in others, not their talents and abilities. There is a time to praise talent and ability, but very rarely does it lead to a positive result.

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Michal Bernolak

Written by

Writer and founder of Hits Different Audio, a mixing and mastering service for music artists.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

Michal Bernolak

Written by

Writer and founder of Hits Different Audio, a mixing and mastering service for music artists.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

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