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When You Tell Your Kids They’re Smart, It Makes Them Want To Cheat

Even three-year-olds will cheat on tests to avoid letting down teachers who call them "smart", study suggests.

Children as young as three years old are more likely to cheat on tests after they have been praised for being smart, according to a new study. Researchers found that praising children for their intelligence (“you are so smart!”), as opposed to simply saying “you did very well this time” not only makes them more likely to surrender to adversity, but also more likely to give in when they’ve got an urge to cheat. 

“It’s common and natural to tell children how smart they are,” said coauthor on the study Gail Heyman of UC San Diego, in a statement. “What our study shows is that the harm can go beyond motivation and extend to the moral domain. It makes a child more willing to cheat in order to do well.”

The notion that praising kids for their intelligence may do more harm than good was pioneered by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who wrote an entire book on the subject. Dweck claims that, when parents or teachers tell kids that they’re smart, they are suggesting that the child’s intellect is stagnant and that it would be a grave disappointment if they failed at anything. Which means such kids are less likely to even try overcoming challenges, for fear of no longer being considered smart. “Just saying, I like those strategies and you improved, or that was really hard, you stuck to it and you mastered it—just tying that process to their progress, their learning, their outcome, teaches them they can grow their skills in that way,” Dweck told NPR in 2016.

kids cheating on test

For this new study, Heyman and colleagues asked 150 three-year-olds and 150 five-year-olds to play a guessing game with a deck of cards, entirely based on luck, not skill. When the children succeeded, they were either told how smart they were, that they did very well, or nothing at all. Then, the researchers left the cards face-down on the table, left the room, and made the kids promise not to cheat. A hidden camera revealed that children who had been praised for being smart were significantly more likely than the others to lean over and take a peek at the cards.

The findings confirm that children who are worried about losing their “smart” status will go to great lengths to protect it—whether that means, as Dweck found, that they do not rise to challenges or, as Heyman found, that they rig the game to ensure they cannot lose. In either case, praising kids for their intellect rather than their hard work or ability to improve is likely a bad idea. “We want to encourage children. We want them to feel good about themselves. But these studies show we must learn to give children the right kinds of praise, such as praising specific behavior,” said coauthor Kang Lee of the University of Toronto, in the statement.

“Only in this way will praise have the intended positive outcomes.”