It is not uncommon for parents to say this to their children when they do well in something.
But this kind of praise has been shot down by a number of studies.
Among the most famous are those done by Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller, psychologists from Columbia University in the United States.
Their studies, published in a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1998, were conducted on more than 400 fifth-grade students, aged around 10 years old, from various ethnic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds.
Each study began with the students working on a puzzle that was challenging but easy enough for all of them to do quite well.
The researchers praised one-third of the children for their intelligence, saying: "Wow, you got X number correct. That's a really good score. You must be smart at this."
Another third of the children were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard".
The final third were simply praised for their performance, with no comments on why they were successful.
Subsequently, the researchers asked the students if they wanted to try a challenging task from which they could learn a lot (but at which they might not succeed) or an easier task (on which they were sure to do well and look smart).
The majority of the students who were praised for being intelligent the first time round went for the easier task that would allow them to continue looking smart.
Most of the students who were praised for their effort (as many as 90 per cent in some studies) wanted the more challenging task.
Students in the third group, who had not been praised for intelligence or effort, chose one or the other task equally.
These findings, say the authors, suggest that when people praise children for their intelligence, they are asking them to look smart and not risk making mistakes.
On the other hand, when children are praised for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep engaging in that process. They are not diverted from the task of learning by a concern with how smart they might, or might not, look.
Source: www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/ spring1999/PraiseSpring99.pdf
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