Be Stingy With Praise

There are two basic schools of thought on moral praise:

Be generous: Praise people generously, telling them that lots of things they do are moral, even marginal acts that seem questionable. This gets people into the habit of thinking they are especially moral, and makes them more receptive to later requests to act moral. Better to have people pretend to be moral than not to care at all about morality.

Be stingy: Praise people sparingly, and only for acts that seem clearly and strongly moral. Since people want to be moral, they will try harder to meet your higher standards, which will induce more moral behavior overall. It will also better ensure than their moral contributions are real, and not just what folks like to think are moral.

Recent studies seem to favor the stingy school:

It seems that we have a good/bad balance sheet in our heads that we’re probably not even aware of. For many people, doing good makes it easier — and often more likely — to do bad. It works in reverse, too: Do bad, then do good. …

Voters given an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama for president were more likely to later favor white people for job openings. … people who bought green products were more likely to cheat and steal than those who bought conventional products. … After getting high-efficiency washers, consumers increased clothes washing by nearly 6 percent. Other studies show that people leave energy-efficient lights on longer. … Choose between buying a vacuum cleaner or designer jeans. Participants who were asked to imagine having committed a virtuous act before shopping were significantly more likely to choose jeans.

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  • Michael Foody

    Praise people often so that they will like you more.

    • josh

      Great Idea!

      • On The Internet No One Knows You’re a Dog

        You are a terrible person.

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  • Michael

    Who defines morality according to these schools of thought? Presumably they do reference some sort of well defined moral system?

    If so isn’t there a third option, simply to require adherence to that moral system or be punished?

    If you are in an authoritative position praise is more difficult to distribute on a case by case basis than punishment, since people are more likely to complain about being wronged than applaud being treated right. Therefore failing perfect knowledge isn’t it more efficient to set boundaries and focus your attention on those who step beyond them?

    This is how we conduct our legal systems is it not?

  • David C

    You’re considering praise for others strictly in terms of its value as a selfless act without considering the value of praise for others as an act of selfishness. How does praise for others affect my own social status?

  • Praise is an extremely effective tool for instruction (or what not). But, there is an art to it. It only works if the praise is nearly perfectly impedance matched to the recipient’s model of himself. If you praise stuff he takes no pride in you insult him, and he comes to question your competence. If you fail to praise that which he takes pride in you grow dead to him. So I tend to doubt the quality of research like the above.

    It’s a not to hot, not too cold problem. If your stingy, as a doctrine, your almost sure to fail to use to the tool effectively when you could have. If your generous, as a doctrine, then you are likely to discover that the tools efficacy rapidly dissipates. The later case does provide for those amusing satirical pieces about over the top practitioners of the self esteem movements.

    By the way. Love what your doing with the blog. 😉

  • Matt

    Praise can improve people’s behaviors if you use it as a reward after the fact instead of a motivator. The standard method of behavior management in any classroom is use of positive reinforcement. I know there are lots of reasons to be critical of public education, but because teachers directly suffer the consequences of student misbehavior and have direct experience of improvements in behavior they are forced to be more rational about how to get kids to sit down and shut up than about broad goals of education.

  • KrisC

    A person told they are good will believe they are good even when they are acting selfishly. If they even should think about the selfish act, they will believe it to be a slight lapse, thus having little motivation to correct the behavior.

    Conversely, those who are told they are evil have little reason to be good, as they have been condition to think of themselves as evil.

    The solution (if there is a problem) is to reinvent oneself by identifying the underlying beliefs, making a conscious effort, and changing one’s environment.

    Frankly, all the examples in the last paragraph of the post seem like signalling, not morality. In some people’s minds these are different things.

  • Alex Tabarrok

    This post was ok but you can do better.

  • Aron

    So on the spectrum of how society regards moral acts, we need a power law not a normal distribution. This relates somewhat to the concern that games (and increasingly game-like lives) are providing mini-rewards that screw up people’s ability to set appropriate goals (the few very important ones). Too much weight on the middle of the bell curve…

  • kei

    Hi Robin,

    unfortunately, this is a false dichotomy. i fell into this sort of choice in my teaching job about praising students, though i guess it is different when you are discussing about praising moral actions.

    this article on carol dweck has a clear message. Dont praise some abstract notion of intelligence lest the person gets attached to the idea. Praise the efforts made. Less chance of the praise backfiring while stimulating feel-good emotions.

    Perhaps it is the same here in the area of moral actions.

    I don’t know. it is a guess.

  • Bloatedwaisted

    Urgh… How do the researchers manage to get so detached from real life… Praise when praise is due!

  • “After getting high-efficiency washers, consumers increased clothes washing by nearly 6 percent. Other studies show that people leave energy-efficient lights on longer”

    In other news, people buy more apples when apples get cheaper…

    • Exactly what I was going to say.

      Also, does the 6% more washing undo the benefit of having a high energy saving washing machine?

  • These results strike me as overly cynical and lacking in context. Studies that treat human beings as closed systems are fundamentally flawed.

    And scientists wonder why the public distrust them.

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