Does Praise Help? A Look at Research
March 1973

“Does Praise Help? A Look at Research,” Ensign, Mar. 1973, 48

Leadership in the Home and Church

Does Praise Help?

A Look at Research

Do your children behave the way you expect them to behave? Is their behavior based upon your attitude toward them? Is honest praise a good motivating and directional force?

Answers to these questions may be found in contemporary research that highlights important elements in leadership, whether it be in the home, church, or employment situations.

For example, quite unconsciously, as parents or leaders, we interact with our children or fellow Church members so that we may receive the response we expect to receive.

Research in this area was undertaken a few years ago1 at the start of the school year in a San Francisco, California, school where every child was given an intelligence test. Then, at random, 20 percent of the children in each class were selected as an experimental group. Their teachers were told that these particular children had scored high on the test and would show remarkable gains in intellectual development during the school year. Actually, the only difference between these children and the others in the school was in the minds of the teachers.

By the end of the year, the children designated as intellectually superior had gained four points more on the average than did the other children, and in reasoning ability the average gain was seven points. The teachers were asked to describe the classroom behavior of their pupils, and those designated superior were seen as more interesting, more curious, and happier.

Studies of this nature demonstrate the widespread tendency of people to behave the way others expect them to behave, a pattern known as the self-fulfilling prophecy. This has great implications for home and church. If we really believe that people will behave in a certain way, then our attitude is based on that expectation. In turn, our attitude produces the expected behavior.

In another study2 involving children as the subjects, honest praise for good work proved to be a significant factor. Students were provided specific tasks (puzzles) with the rewards for their efforts being either monetary, for one group, or recognition in the form of praise, for a second group.

The first group spent significantly less time with the puzzles when unsupervised than did the second group. Once they received money for completing the puzzles, their intrinsic motivation decreased.

The students who were praised for their work enjoyed the puzzles more and spent more free time working on them.

Interestingly, when all the students were given puzzles that were too difficult, they all spent less time on them and disliked them more. Failure at a task apparently reduces the motivation to stay with it. Motivation is also decreased when negative verbal feedback is given.

This suggests that positive feedback, honest praise, and recognition for work well done reinforce self-motivation and make people feel good, while negative reactions and the assignments of tasks beyond one’s ability can break down both a person’s self-motivation and his self-esteem.

The pattern could develop into a vicious circle where a parent or teacher, perceiving a child as being bad, treats the child accordingly, and the child responds by being bad. This response reinforces the parent’s or teacher’s attitude, and a completely negative relationship ensues. If parents and teachers see good in a child and act as though the child is good, offering honest praise for work well done, then the child reacts favorably and a positive relationship exists.


  1. Robert Rosenthal, Psychology Today; September 1968, p. 44.

  2. Edward L. Deci, “Work—Who Does Not Like It and Why,” Psychology Today, August 1972, p. 57.