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Telling young children they have a reputation for being smart promotes cheating

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The present research examined the consequences of telling young children they have a reputation for being smart. Of interest was how this would affect their willingness to resist the temptation to cheat for personal gain as assessed by a temptation resistance task, in which children promised not to cheat in the game. Two studies with 3- and 5-year-old children (total N = 323) assessed this possibility. In Study 1, participants were assigned to one of three conditions: a smart reputation condition in which they were told they have a reputation for being smart, an irrelevant reputation control condition, or a no reputation control condition. Children in the smart reputation condition were significantly more likely to cheat than their counterparts in either control condition. Study 2 confirmed that reputational concerns are indeed a fundamental part of our smart reputation effect. These results suggest that children as young as 3 years of age are able to use reputational cues to guide their behavior, and that telling young children they have a positive reputation for being smart can have negative consequences.
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DOI: 10.1177/0956797617721529
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Short Report
Praise is one of the most commonly used forms of
reward. It is convenient, is nearly effortless, and makes
the recipient feel good. However, praising children for
being smart carries unintended consequences: It can
undermine their achievement motivation in a way that
praising their effort or performance does not (Cimpian,
Arce, Markman, & Dweck, 2007; Kamins & Dweck,
1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998; see Dweck, 2007). In this
study, we investigated whether the negative conse-
quences of praising children for being smart extend to
the moral domain, by encouraging cheating.
There is some prior work suggesting that evaluative
feedback can influence children’s moral behaviors (Fu,
Heyman, Qian, Guo, & Lee, 2016; Mueller & Dweck,
1998; Zhao, Heyman, Chen, & Lee, 2017). Telling 5-year-
olds (but not younger children) that they have a reputa-
tion for being good leads to a reduction in their
cheating, presumably because they are interested in
maintaining this reputation (Fu etal., 2016). We pro-
pose that telling children that they are smart, a form of
ability praise, may have the opposite effect by motivat-
ing them to cheat to appear smarter. In a study consis-
tent with this possibility, Mueller and Dweck (1998)
found that 10-year-olds exaggerated how well they had
performed after receiving ability praise. However, little
is known about whether ability praise can influence
young children’s moral behavior. The present research
addressed this question by comparing the effects of
ability and performance praise on preschool children’s
cheating.
Method
Participants were 300 preschool children in eastern
China: one hundred fifty 3-year-olds (age range = 3.08
to 4.00 years, M = 3.62, SD = 0.27; 71 boys, 79 girls)
and one hundred fifty 5-year-olds (age range = 5.01 to
6.00 years, M = 5.38, SD = 0.33; 78 boys, 72 girls). To
measure cheating, we used a version of a well-
established peeking paradigm (see Heyman, Fu, Lin,
Qian, & Lee, 2015), in which an experimenter hides a
playing card (with a number from 3 to 9, excluding 6)
behind a barrier and children guess whether it is greater
or less than 6. The children are told that they can win
a prize if they guess correctly on at least three of the
six trials.
The session began with a practice trial in which the
children were told that they had guessed correctly. They
were then randomly assigned to three conditions (50
children in each condition): In the ability condition,
children were told, “You are so smart.” In the perfor-
mance condition, they were told, “You did very well
this time.” In the baseline condition, no praise was
given.
The real guessing game, which was identical across
the three conditions, followed this practice trial. On
each trial, the children were instructed not to peek.
Unbeknownst to them, the game was rigged to ensure
success on two of the first five trials and failure on
three. On each trial, the children were told whether
they had been successful, but no praise was given.
During the pivotal sixth trial, the experimenter left the
room for 60 s after eliciting a promise not to peek at
the card. Acts of cheating, defined as any obvious forms
of peeking (i.e., the child got out of his or her seat or
721529PSSXXX10.1177/0956797617721529Zhao et al.Smart Praise
research-article2017
Corresponding Author:
Kang Lee, Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, University of
Toronto, 45 Walmer Rd., Toronto, Ontario M5R 2X2, Canada
E-mail: kang.lee@utoronto.ca
Praising Young Children for Being
Smart Promotes Cheating
Li Zhao1,2, Gail D. Heyman3,4, Lulu Chen1, and
Kang Lee5
1Institutes of Psychological Sciences, Hangzhou Normal University; 2Zhejiang Key Laboratory
for Research in Assessment of Cognitive Impairments, People’s Republic of China; 3Department
of Psychology, University of California, San Diego; 4Department of Psychology, Zhejiang
Normal University; and 5Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, University of Toronto
Received 3/31/17; Revision accepted 6/28/17
2 Zhao et al.
leaned over the barrier), were recorded by a hidden
camera.
A pretest was used to assess basic numerical under-
standing, and the 3 children who failed (all 3-year-olds)
completed an analogous color-guessing task instead
(see the Supplemental Material available online for
more details about the procedure, including the pre-
test). Because our analyses showed that the pattern of
results did not differ when these 3 children who failed
the pretest were excluded, we report results that
included the data from all participants.
Results
Figure 1 shows the cheating rate for each age group
and gender, broken down by condition. There was
more cheating in the ability condition than in the other
conditions overall, in each age group, and within each
gender (ps < .05 for all chi-square tests).
We conducted a binary logistic regression analysis
in which condition, age, gender, and their interactions
were the predictors of cheating. The final model was
significant, χ2(3, N = 300) = 15.68, p = .001, −2 log
likelihood = 399.13, Nagelkerk R2 = .068, and revealed
two significant effects. One was a main effect of condi-
tion (Wald = 10.12, df = 2, p = .006). A priori compari-
sons with the ability condition as the reference showed
that cheating rates were significantly higher in the abil-
ity condition than in the performance and baseline
conditions—performance condition: β = 0.78, SE = 0.29,
Wald = 7.26, df = 1, p = .007, odds ratio = 2.19, 95%
confidence interval (CI) = [1.24, 3.87]; baseline condi-
tion: β = 0.82, SE = 0.29, Wald = 7.93, df = 1, p = .005,
odds ratio = 2.27, 95% CI = [1.28, 4.02]. The other sig-
nificant effect was a main effect of gender; compared
with girls, boys cheated more across the three condi-
tions, β = 0.55, SE = 0.24, Wald = 5.39, df = 1, p = .020,
odds ratio = 1.74, 95% CI = [1.09, 2.77]. No other effects
were significant (ps > .1).
Cheating latency did not differ significantly across
conditions (ps > .1).
Discussion
We examined how different forms of praise affect
young children’s moral behavior. The results showed
that 3- and 5-year-olds who were praised for their abil-
ity on a single occasion were more likely to cheat than
0%
10%
20%
30%
40%
50%
60%
70%
80%
3-Year-Olds 5-Year-Olds Boys Girls Total
Sample
Participants Who Cheated (%)
Group
Ability Condition
Performance Condition
Baseline Condition
Fig. 1. Percentage of participants who cheated in each age group, within each gender,
and overall, broken down by condition.
Smart Praise 3
their counterparts who were praised for their perfor-
mance, or not praised at all.
It is likely that ability praise promotes cheating because,
unlike performance praise, it is a generic form of language
that implies the presence of a stable ability (e.g., smart-
ness) that underlies performance (Cimpian etal., 2007).
In our study, ability praise may have motivated children
to cheat in order to uphold the positive trait assessment
or the reputation of being smart (Zhao etal., 2017).
Surprisingly, the effect was the same for 3-year-olds and
5-year-olds. This finding demonstrates that even 3-year-
olds are sensitive to the difference between ability and
performance praise, and that their understanding of
ability overlaps with that of older individuals. This find-
ing also raises questions about what kind of conceptual
understanding is required for ability praise to have
behavioral consequences.
Our findings demonstrate that ability praise can
promote cheating in young children. More broadly,
they build on evidence suggesting that subtle social
cues have the power to shape children’s thinking and
behavior (Bryan, Master, & Walton, 2014) and suggest
that researchers cannot rule out the importance of
socialization effects in young children just because
there are no obvious sources of direct teaching or
reinforcement.
Action Editor
James K. McNulty served as action editor for this article.
Author Contributions
L. Zhao, K. Lee, and G. D. Heyman developed the study. L.
Chen collected the data. L. Zhao performed the data analysis
and drafted the manuscript. K. Lee and G. D. Heyman pro-
vided critical revisions. All the authors approved the final
version of the manuscript for submission.
Acknowledgments
We thank Brian Compton for his helpful comments on the
manuscript.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
Supplemental Material
Additional supporting information can be found at http://
journals.sagepub.com/doi/suppl/10.1177/0956797617721529
Open Practices
All data have been made publicly available via the Open
Science Framework and can be accessed at https://osf.io/
p2z8a/. The complete Open Practices Disclosure for this
article can be found at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/
suppl/10.1177/0956797617721529. This article has received
the badge for Open Data. More information about the Open
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... This bias could differentially affect the division of cognitive labor if intellectual competence is more highly prized by children than physical competence. There is again little evidence in the current literature to speak to this (though see Asaba & Gweon, 2019;Zhao et al., 2018 for evidence that children are motivated to appear competent). ...
... We suspect that the key reason for this change is in the overt skill comparison used in Experiment 1 ("Sam was even better than you"), which tends to lead to reward-maximizing behavior in schoolaged children. For instance, preschool children who were told they had a reputation for being smart were more likely to cheat (Zhao et al., 2018), and children who were outperformed by peers persisted longer than when peers performed worse (Magid & Schulz, 2015). In contrast, children in Experiment 2 only learned about the relative age of the partner, which potentially spared them from these competitive feelings. ...
... Yet another possibility is that children were driven to repair their reputation following an unfavorable comparison (see Shaw et al., 2014 for an example within the literature on fairness). A growing body of work suggests that children are very concerned with maintaining their reputation (Silver & Shaw, 2018), particularly about competence (Asaba & Gweon, 2019;Zhao et al., 2018). Preliminary evidence of this possibility comes from Experiment 2, where we found that younger children claimed to be more skilled regardless of how old their partner was, whereas older children matched skill to relative age in both conditions. ...
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