The Beanfee Team
· 8 min read
Is there such a thing as too much praise?

A child runs up to his teacher during class and boasts excitedly

“Look, teach, look! I finished my assignment ahead of time”.

The teacher smiles towards the boy and compliments him in a warm and enthusiastic manner

“Wow, well done, Thomas. It is great that you completed your assignment ahead of time. You sure are doing an excellent job, young man, way to go!"

Thomas' posture reflects how proud he is of his accomplishment, and he flashes a wide grin as he walks back to his seat. The following day, Thomas completes his assigned task in a timely fashion. Again, he runs towards his teacher and announces with great glee that he has finished his assignment. The teacher replies excitedly

“You finished your assignment ahead of time, again? You are on a roll, Thomas. I am amazed by your work ethic."

Thomas cannot hide his joy. The behavior pattern repeats itself for five consecutive school days.

Thomas adores receiving compliments from his teacher and they act as a great driving force for his productivity. Thomas' teacher then becomes aware of the monumental power of praise. He decides to compliment Thomas more often to maintain his output, and perhaps, increase it. Thus, the teacher begins to praise Thomas on any occasion that he approaches him, even when he has not completed the task at hand.

Initially, most of the compliments pertain to Thomas' work ethic. However, as time goes by, he starts receiving abundant praise for his intellectual abilities. Subsequently, Thomas' behavior shifts. Productivity plummets and he rarely approaches the teacher to advertise his great progress. The teacher found himself astounded by the unexpected change in Thomas' behavior pattern. The increased effort for praise had backfired. What had caused this perplexing and paradoxical effect?

The Science

It can all be retraced to behaviorism. Operant conditioning, a doctrine in behaviorism, has been deemed the backbone of human behavior. Operant conditioning stipulates that voluntary behavior is controlled and modified by its consequence. The behavior is voluntary on the grounds that it is controlled by the organism itself, that is, the organism decides whether it wants to behave in a certain way or not.

Operant conditioning follows numerous basic principles, including reinforcement. Reinforcement refers to a process wherein a behavior increases in frequency due to an immediate, desirable consequence that reliably follows the occurrence of that behavior. Therefore, resulting in greater probability that the behavior will occur again in the future.

Voluntary behavior is controlled and modified by its consequence

Motivating operations can affect the potency of a reinforcer by altering the perceived value of the reinforcer and by altering the probability that a certain behavior that produces the reinforcer will occur. Motivating operations can either be establishing or abolishing. An establishing operation results in greater potency of the reinforcer and an increased probability of the occurrence of a particular behavior that produces that reinforcer. An abolishing operation results in decreased potency of the reinforcer and a makes it less likely that the behavior that produces that reinforcer will occur.

Deprivation is a powerful form of an establishing operation. If an organism has gone without a reinforcer for a long period of time, the potency of the reinforcer will increase. For example, if a person has not eaten for quite a while, food will act as a more powerful reinforcer than if the person had just finished eating a generous meal.

On the other hand, satiation is a form of an abolishing operation. Reinforcers become less potent if an individual has had ample exposure to the reinforcing stimulus. For instance, if an individual has recently consumed a large amount of food and feels full, food will not act as an effective reinforcer.

The following is a good rule of thumb regarding motivating operations. The longer it has been since a person has been exposed to a reinforcer, the stronger the reinforcer becomes, affecting behavior to a greater extent: however, if a short amount of time has passed since the person was exposed to the reinforcing stimulus, the weaker the reinforcer becomes, affecting behavior to a lesser extent.

The longer it has been since a person has been exposed to a reinforcer, the stronger the reinforcer becomes

Compliments – a power to use with care

When was the last time you received a compliment or complimented someone? Do you remember how you felt? Sincere compliments bring about heartfelt emotions and enhance sense of well-being, both for the contributor and the recipient. Thus, compliments often act as reinforcing agents as they generally elicit pleasant feelings.

It is vital to praise desirable behavior and one of the easiest ways to do so is by giving someone a compliment. For example, if a child completes an assignment in a timely manner (like Thomas), it is great to compliment the child to encourage the desirable behavior. If the child enjoys receiving compliments for finishing the project in a timely fashion, the compliment will act as a reinforcing agent; making the behavior more likely to occur in the future. This effect was evident in the beginning of the curious case of Thomas. Thomas adored receiving compliments for completing his assignments promptly, which further encouraged him to behave in that manner again.

It is vital to praise desirable behavior and one of the easiest ways to do so is by giving someone a compliment

However, one must avoid going overboard on the compliments as praise can be subject to the laws of satiation. Praising too frequently can cause compliments to lose their potency as a reinforcer, making them less effective.

Do you remember the rule of thumb regarding establishing and abolishing operations? It states that the longer it has been since a person has been exposed to a reinforcer, the stronger the reinforcer becomes, affecting behavior to a greater extent: however, if a short amount of time has passed since the person was exposed to the reinforcing stimulus, the weaker the reinforcer becomes, affecting behavior to a lesser extent. Thus, receiving multiple compliments in one sitting may lead to a loss of desire for praise due to satiation, making compliments less reinforcing for the desirable behavior. For example, the teacher started praising Thomas excessively, even when he had not finished his assignments. Thomas' incentive to work hard to complete his assignment in a timely fashion thus plummeted. It was no longer required of him to exhibit hard work and diligence to receive praise.

Those who praise excessively tend to err on the side of imprecision and vagueness when giving out compliments. One must be careful to praise in a purposeful manner. Purposeful praise is achieved by complimenting someone in a specific and definitive fashion. For instance, it is more effective to praise Thomas for completing his assignment on time by saying “It is great that you finished your assignment on time” compared to solely saying “Good job”.

By praising in a specific and definitive language, the recipient understands what behavior is being acknowledged, making it easier for the individual in question to determine the desirability of the behavior. Additionally, excessive praise can appear insincere to the recipient. This may weaken the recipient’s trust towards the appraiser, which may affect their relationship in a negative manner.

It is essential to bear in mind the characteristics of compliments. Praise that encourages a fixed mindset rather than a growth mindset can lead to paradoxical effects. A fixed mindset entails the belief that intellectual ability is a fixed trait which cannot be altered by any means. On the other hand, a growth mindset entails the belief that intelligence can be altered and advanced through hard work and education. Complimenting someone on their intelligence (e.g., “You are so smart”) encourages a fixed mindset. However, praising hard work and effort fosters a growth mindset (e.g., “You are working hard”).

A growth mindset entails the belief that intelligence can be altered and advanced through hard work and education

Excessive praise that promotes a fixed mindset can lead to a short-term increase in happiness for the recipient, but negative consequences often follow. The negative consequences include concerns about intelligence and worth, sadness when failure occurs and exaggerated avoidance of making mistakes. Moreover, children who have been praised excessively in a way that encourages a fixed mindset are more likely to decrease their effort when faced with setbacks, affecting their productivity and self-esteem. In the curious case of Thomas, the teacher begun by praising him for his work ethic. However, as time passed, the teacher started focusing the compliments on his intelligence. Thus, when faced with setbacks, Thomas’ effort decreased tremendously, and self-doubt increased.

In Conclusion

Praise is a wonderful way to foster desirable behavior and can increase well-being for the recipient and appraiser. Beanfee advocates for the utilization of praise as a reinforcer. Praise is one of the easiest and most effective ways to encourage desirable behavior, plus, it is completely free of charge. However, one must take care to praise in a purposeful and moderate fashion, with a focus on promoting a growth mindset.

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