Too Much Praise? Don’t Believe What You Read

Every day I read, see or hear something that drives me crazy. The latest is the headline on a piece that’s circulating the news outlets, “Too Much Praise Can Turn Your Kids into Narcissistic Jerks, Study Finds.” As I have said many times, if you reinforce in the wrong way and at the wrong time, one time is too much, but if you do it correctly, you can never do it too much. If I am fortunate enough to be playing golf at 100 years old, I still won’t get tired of hearing the words “Good shot!” from my playing partners. I can’t imagine that on hearing that for the 50th time in a round of golf that I would turn and say, as a Narcissistic Jerk might, “I am sick of hearing that. Every time I hit the ball, someone is yelling, “Good shot.” I might be old but I’m not blind. I know a good shot when I see one.”

If there is one fact about behavior that could have a tremendous impact on children, families, workplaces and society at large, it is that you get more of what you reinforce. If you reinforce “jerky” behavior of a child or an adult, you are sure to get more of it. Simon Cowell, formerly a judge on American Idol, gave what was probably the best advice some of the singing contestants had ever received. “Let me give you some advice. Don’t sing any more. Don’t even sing in the shower. You cannot sing. Stop singing.” The contestant would invariably respond, “I don’t understand. Everybody tells me that they love my singing. Every time I sing in church many people compliment me on my voice.” While I would not say what Simon said, and he certainly could be unnecessarily abrasive and rude, he may have been the first person to give the contestant honest feedback.

The families had to know that the contestant didn’t know how to sing and had less than one chance in 300 million of being the next American Idol, but probably thought that “bragging on his singing” was the right thing to do. Telling a person that they are good, wonderful, and intelligent when they are not, is a cruel injustice. If you give someone something for nothing, you make them “good for nothing.” Research has shown that non-contingent reinforcement that is delivered independent of a behavior or is in other ways not deserved or earned, actually reduces behavior. Think of the effects of punishing behaviors when the person has done nothing wrong, immoral, illegal or unethical. That would certainly not seem to be a good thing to do. Neither is it a good practice to give reward or praise independent of some behavior that is in some way meritorious. Alexander Pope got it correct when he penned the words, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and it finds a home in the understanding of the concept and practice of positive reinforcement.

Many people think positive reinforcement should be the only thing that should be used to change behavior. It's like the cowboy song, “…never is heard a discouraging word.” Positive reinforcement increases behavior; plain and simple!  This has been demonstrated and proven in literally thousands or research studies. This fact about it is so robust that it increases behavior that is happening when the reinforcement is delivered. If a child is having a tantrum that is certainly not the time to tell the child that she is brilliant, creative or intelligent, as it will only reinforce tantrums. Praising is a good thing to do if the praise is earned and if the person receiving it values your opinion. Do it in a timely way for behavior that you would like to see more often. And, do it often. If you deliver positive reinforcement in this way, there will be fewer articles on how we’ve ruined our children’s futures.




Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.