Author Archives: Sarah

Praise effort, not ability


From chapter 9 of “59 Seconds” by Richard Wiseman (emphasis mine):

In the late 1990s, Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck from Columbia University conducted a large-scale programme of research into the psychology of praise. Their experiments involved more than 400 children, aged between ten and twelve, who were drawn from a variety of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. In a typical study, the children were presented with an intelligence test in which they were asked to look at rows of shapes and, based on logic alone, work out which shape should come next in each series. After they had worked through the problems, the experimenters took away their workbooks, calculated the scores but provided each child with false feedback. They explained that each child had done really well and solved 80 per cent of the problems correctly.

In addition to this feedback, one group of the children were told they must be really bright to have solved so many puzzles, while another group were greeted with stony silence. According to the self-help gurus who promote the positive power of praise, just spending a few seconds complimenting a child’s ability can have a dramatic effect. The results revealed that they are right, but perhaps not in quite the way they had anticipated.

In the next stage of the experiment, the researchers told the children that they could choose one of two tasks. They were told one of the tasks was quite difficult and so they might not succeed, but they would be challenged and learn even if they failed. In contrast, the other task was much easier, so they were likely to do well but learn little. Around 65 per cent of the children who had been told they were intelligent opted for the easy task, compared to just 45 per cent of those who had not been praised. The children who had been told they were intelligent were far more likely to avoid challenging situations, and instead stick to the easy stuff. This is not exactly good news for the ‘praise be’ approach to parenting. However, worse was still to come.

In the next phase of the experiment, the researchers gave the children some more puzzles. This time, the puzzles were much harder than the first set and so, as a result, most of the children did not perform especially well. Afterwards, all the children were asked how much they had enjoyed the puzzles and whether they would continue working on them at home. Dramatic differences between the groups emerged. The children who had received just a single sentence praising their intelligence found the difficult puzzles far less enjoyable than their classmates, and were far less likely to work on them in their own time.

Even more bad news for the advocates of praise emerged in the third and final part of the study. After struggling with the difficult puzzles, the experimenters asked the children to try one final test. This last set of puzzles was just as easy as the one the children had encountered at the start of the study. Even though the two groups of children had obtained roughly the same scores at the beginning of the experiment, their performance on the final test was very different. The pattern of results was exactly the opposite of that predicted by many self-help gurus. The children who had been told they were intelligent obtained far lower scores than the others.

Why should praise have counter-intuitive and counter-productive effects? According to Mueller and Dweck, there are several factors at work. Telling a child they are intelligent might make them feel good, but can also induce a fear of failure, causing the child to avoid challenging situations because they might look bad if they are not successful. In addition, telling a child they are intelligent suggests they do not need to work hard to perform well. Because of this, children may be less motivated to make the required effort and be more likely to fail. Unfortunately, if they subsequently obtain a low mark, it is also more likely that their motivation will collapse, and a sense of helplessness will set in. After all, low marks suggest they are not as bright as they were told and that there is nothing they can do about it. The psychological impact of poor results should not be underestimated. At one point in the Mueller and Dweck study, all the children were asked to tell their classmates how well they had performed on the test involving the difficult puzzles. Almost 40 per cent of the children who had been praised lied about their grade, compared to around 10 per cent of those who had not been praised.

Does this mean that all praise is bad praise? So far, I have only described the results from two of the three groups of children involved in the Mueller and Dweck experiment. After getting their initial ‘well done, you obtained 80 per cent’ feedback, a third group also received a single sentence of praise. However, this time the experimenters praised effort not ability, noting that they must have tried really hard to have achieved such a high mark. These children behaved very differently from those in the two other groups. When it came to choosing between a challenging or easy task, only about 10 per cent of them opted for the easy option. Compared to the children who had been told that they were intelligent, or received no praise at all, those in the ‘you must have tried very hard’ group found the hard problems more enjoyable and were more likely to try to solve them in their own time. Finally, when given another set of easy problems at the end of the experiment, those in this third group solved significantly more than they did the first time round.

The results clearly show that being praised for effort is very different to being praised for ability. According to Mueller and Dweck, the children praised for effort were encouraged to try regardless of the consequences, therefore sidestepping any fear of failure. As a result, the possibility of learning outweighs the fear of obtaining a low mark, and they prefer taking the challenging task to the easy option. Also, by definition, these children are more motivated to try hard in future in tests and are more likely to succeed. And, even if they do fail in the future, they can easily attribute their low marks to not trying hard enough, which avoids the sense of helplessness that can set in when poor results are seen as an indication of an innate inability to think.


Food glorious food


I’ve been trying a few new things in the last few weeks…

Beetroot rice

Recipe here. I used pre-cooked beetroots and added paneer cheese to the recipe. Spicy and tasty.

Aubergine curry

I often seem to photograph more steam than anything else! This aubergine curry was really good, the pictures at the recipe site do it much more justice. I put chicken in it.

Aubergine curry again

And it was so good I made it again. Without chicken and with an excessive amount of spring onions. I also used 3 green chillies for some insane reason so it nearly blew my head off. It’s just as well no-one else is eating with me! πŸ˜†

Veg curry with coconut

Looks nothing like the original as I did not even remotely respect quantities. πŸ˜† Was really good anyway.

Mutton shank with butter beans

I first did this recipe years ago. I got an organic mutton shank at a market and decided to dig the recipe out again. The meat was lovely, even if it seemed to shrink as it cooked!! It is definitely a weekend recipe as it involves a long cooking time. The other thing is baked polenta with feta cheese and rosemary. Yes it looks kinda weird. Presentation is definitely not my forte.


I can’t claim credit for these heart-shaped pancakes – someone else brought them to the Unitarian group I attend once a month as it happened to fall on pancake day. With cream, jam and strawberries. Lovely!

Chicken pasanda

I was very pleased with this recipe. It will be obvious by now that I love curries, but I usually find it hard to make good curries at home. This and the aubergine one gave me great results. I used single cream instead of yogurt, I was too afraid of the yogurt curdling as always seems to happen. Next time I might do half yogurt and half cream.

Spinach and feta borek

Recipe here. The yogurt, olive oil and egg mixture to spread on the pastry sheets was new to me, but the result was very tasty.

Introverts are powerful


Introverts attract validation junkies. I say this not primarily as an introvert, but as a validation junkie. πŸ˜€

Introverts typically are seen as very intriguing, and their quiet thoughtful depth can make their approval or interest in you feel very validating indeed.

People who, in just a few devastating words, can cut incisively to the core of an issue with a staggering clarity, seem to garner an especially high level of respect and deference. They are economical with words but when they chime in, people listen. These are the people that have most often triggered my insecure need of validation. I have put them on a pedestal and performed a merry dance for the scraps of attention I craved that they occasionally deigned to throw at me. Yes, they are very powerful!

I think once or twice I may even have held a similar position for other validation junkies, people less introverted than me. But I did not get that at the time. I felt bewildered by the attention, and if the person was trying to impress me, they overshot massively. Because of course there is something powerful and dominating about extroversion, too. I often feel powerless around extreme extroverts, to the extent that I’m even sometimes tempted to think my quietness is taken advantage of by them. So it doesn’t tend to occur to me that they might also feel powerless around me.

If you need validation, you are likely to look for it from an introvert, but unlikely to ever really feel validated for very long. They are too cool. They don’t gush, and in most of these situations they probably haven’t got the slightest idea that you even need anything from them.

I think very many of us don’t recognise how powerful we are!

Ten Questions


A meme from Susanne.

1. If you blog anonymously, are you happy doing this? If you aren’t anonymous, do you wish you started out anonymously, so that you could be anonymous now?

I started out basically anonymous (I mean, my name is so common I could be anyone) and there is a certain freedom in that. At some point I linked my blogs up to Facebook so they are potentially read by people that know me now, and I’m slowly figuring out where the boundaries are, what I will feel comfortable saying and what I will regret later! On balance it was probably worth doing as it’s opened up interesting conversations and connections with people. You just never know who will turn out to be interested in the things that interest you, until you put stuff out there. If I’ve mortally offended anyone, they haven’t let me know.

2. Describe an incident that shows your inner stubborn side?

I don’t let things go until they make sense to me. I don’t stop asking “why”. Maybe that is a form of stubbornness.

3. What do you see when you really look at yourself in the mirror?

Well I just looked, and what I saw was chocolate on my nose! πŸ˜†

4. What is your favourite summer cold drink?

Agreeing with Susanne that you can’t go wrong with water.

5. When you take time for yourself, what do you do?

All kinds of things, depends what I feel like. I do a lot of thinking… too much probably.

6. Is there something that you still want to accomplish in your life?

Not really… I don’t look at life that way. Just managing to be reasonably happy for the time I have to be here and not do too much harm to anyone is about as ambitious as I get. I find it hard to see the point in anything more.

7. When you attended school, were you the class clown, the class overachiever, the shy person, or always ditching?

A bit of all these, at different times, and sometimes simultaneously. I was quiet but I was known for laughing too much in class. I did well but I didn’t much care.

8. If you close your eyes and want to visualize a very poignant moment in your life, what would you see?

Sitting in the Unitarian church hearing, from beneath its floorboards, the rumble of the 11:30 train to London that was taking my Muslim husband away. I still miss him.

9. Is it easy for you to share your true self in your blog, or are you more comfortable writing posts about other people and events?

It’s too easy for me! I have to limit it. I don’t write much about people any more either as I get too paranoid that someone will think it’s about them.

10. If you had the choice to sit down and read a book or talk on the phone, which would you do and why ?

Read a book, because like Susanne, I hate the phone. I find Skype with video slightly easier although still much more awkward than talking in person.

The need to feel sufficient


The other day a friend posted this article on Facebook: “Generic Love”. It’s quite an entertaining read. πŸ™‚ It probably isn’t meant to be taken too seriously, but I think for me it does touch on quite a profound point and has really got me thinking.

Everyone has particular ways of expressing love, which tend not to change for different recipients. The relationships that stick for more than a few months are not marked out by a different amount or quality of love, but simply work because the individuals’ generic ways of expressing love happen to match. This seems to be the main point.

Another way of putting it might be that we thrive best with people that make us (and our mashed potatoes πŸ™‚ ) feel sufficient. If you feel lacking in some way, if being with the person makes you feel needy or inadequate or unappreciated or drained, then obviously that is going to kill off the enthusiasm. Or slowly turn you into a nervous wreck or whatever. πŸ˜€

And what interests me is that the same could be true of other situations, like jobs for example. It’s a bit of a revelation to me. What if my generic ways of working do not match 90% of a job, leaving me feeling woefully insufficient? Should my considerable success in the 10% obligate me to exist in this miserable state of affairs? Don’t I deserve a job in which I can thrive on a personal level and not just in terms of output? The lovely thing about the relationship anecdotes in the article is that they paint the whole business of breaking up and moving onto someone else in a very matter-of-fact, dispassionate way. People probably do that all the time. No agonising, no over-analysing, no desperately swimming against the current trying to make it work out… just a shrug and an “oh well… next please!”

I am just left wondering why I swim against the current so hard in so many ways.

Little trips


The silver lining of being let down by the postal service was deciding to deliver my brothers’ Christmas presents to them personally in January when the parcels eventually got delivered to me (although I am STILL waiting on one item!). I went south to visit one brother and north to visit the other. I find it quite strangely amazing that a mere hour and a half on a train can transport you to a place where the streets look completely different and the accents are almost incomprehensible. πŸ™‚

Red brick terrace - so English

Newcastle town centre


Aberdeen harbour