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Dev Psychol. 2010 Sep;46(5):1333-40. doi: 10.1037/a0019665.

The impact of generic language about ability on children's achievement motivation.

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Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 603 East Daniel Street, Champaign, IL 61820, USA.


Nuances in how adults talk about ability may have important consequences for children's sustained involvement and success in an activity. In this study, I tested the hypothesis that children would be less motivated while performing a novel activity if they were told that boys or girls in general are good at this activity (generic language) than if they were told that a particular boy or girl is good at it (non-generic language). Generic language may be detrimental because it expresses normative societal expectations regarding performance. If these expectations are negative, they may cause children to worry about confirming them; if positive, they may cause worries about failing to meet them. Moreover, generic statements may be threatening because they imply that performance is the result of stable traits rather than effort. Ninety-seven 4- to 7-year-olds were asked to play a game in which they succeeded at first but then made a few mistakes. Since young children remain optimistic in achievement situations until the possibility of failure is made clear, I hypothesized that 4- and 5-year-olds would not be affected by the implications of generic language until after they made mistakes; 6- and 7-year-olds, however, may be susceptible earlier. As expected, the older children who heard that boys or girls are good at this game displayed lower motivation (e.g., more negative emotions, lower perceived competence) from the start, while they were still succeeding and receiving praise. Four- and 5-year-olds who heard these generic statements had a similar reaction, but only after they made mistakes. These findings demonstrate that exposure to generic language about ability can be an obstacle to children's motivation and, potentially, their success.

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