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Psychon Bull Rev. 2012 Dec;19(6):1073-7. doi: 10.3758/s13423-012-0294-y.

A critical eye: praise directed toward traits increases children's eye fixations on errors and decreases motivation.

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  • 1Child and Family Development, The University of Akron, Schrank Hall South, Akron, OH 44325-6103, USA.


Although there is evidence that praise of different types (i.e., generic vs. nongeneric) influences motivation, it is unclear how this occurs. Generic praise (e.g., "You are smart") conveys that a child possesses a trait responsible for their performance, whereas nongeneric praise (e.g., "You worked hard") conveys that performance is effort-based. Because praise conveys the basis for success, praise may change the interpretation and salience of errors. Specifically, generic praise may highlight the threatening nature of error (i.e., the child does not possess this trait). Because attention is drawn to threats in the environment, we expected generic praise to increase attention to error. We used eyetracking to measure implicit responses to errors (i.e., visual attention: fixation counts and durations) in order to determine the relation between visual attention and verbal reports of motivation (persistence and self-evaluations) in 30 four- to seven-year-old children. Children first saw pictures attributed to them, for which they received either generic or nongeneric praise. The children then saw pictures attributed to them that contained errors--that is, missing features. As a pretest and posttest, the children saw pictures that were "drawn by other children," half of which contained errors. The results indicated that children who received generic praise ("you are a good drawer") produced more and longer fixations on errors, both their "own" and on "other children's," than did children who received nongeneric praise ("you did a good job drawing"). More fixations on errors were related to lower persistence and lower self-evaluations. These results suggest that generic praise increases attention to errors because error threatens the possession of a positive trait.

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