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Features : Editorial Last Updated: Dec 12, 2012 - 10:04:39 AM


Can compliments hurt a child's self-esteem?
By Steve Ferber
Dec 12, 2012 - 10:03:50 AM

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The self-esteem movement may be coming to a close. Studies in recent years are finding that when students are given undeserved praise – by adults, or themselves – it has a negative effect on performance and emotional health. Further, the false praise appears to impede self-improvement, according to researchers.  
In an American Psychological Assn. article, lead researcher Dr. Young-Hoon Kim explained:
“These findings challenge the popular notion that self-enhancement and providing positive performance feedback to low performers is beneficial to emotional health. Instead, our results underscore the emotional benefits of accurate self-assessments and performance feedback.”
Acclaimed Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck quite agrees, according to a Washington Post piece authored by Michael Chandler. In the article, Dweck said: “We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter . . . That has backfired.” Instead of empty praise, teachers nationwide are said to be moving to a new feedback vocabulary – emphasizing “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience,” according to the Washington Post article. Chandler then quoted Carol Horn of Fairfax County, VA who said that, in her schools, “students are no longer labeled ‘gifted’ but considered on a spectrum of ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ in each subject.”
In their study, Dr. Kim (University of Pennsylvania) and co-author Dr. Chi-Yie Chiu (Nanyang Technological University, Singapore) framed the issue:
“Despite the popularity of the idea in American culture that self-enhancement confers psychological benefits, the evidence for this idea is mixed. In the present research, we tested the contention that overly positive self-assessments could lead to psychological distress . . . . [W]e found that self-enhancement, like self-effacement” (being overly critical of oneself) “was associated with greater vulnerability to depression.”
That said, Kim and Chiu believe that positive self-evaluation has its place, so long as it’s accurate. “. . . [T]hese results should not be taken to suggest that positive self-evaluations per se are harmful to emotional health.”  Only when it’s excessive, or inappropriate, they maintain.
Kim and Chiu add: “. . . [M]aintaining favorable perceptions of the self with little substance could be an emotional burden. However, our results also show that individuals with relatively high performance would be less depressed if they acknowledge their strengths than if they hold excessive negative self-assessments. Similarly, holding critical views of the self may not always lead to dejection. For example, self-critical low performers would be less depressed if they can (vs. cannot) acknowledge their weaknesses and strive to improve their future performance (Kamins & Dweck, 1999; Mueller & Dweck, 1998).”
Kim and Chiu’s current study of students in the US and Hong Kong focused exclusively on intrapersonal outcomes (e.g., depression and self-esteem), leading the researchers to encourage future research on interpersonal outcomes (e.g., hostility, defensiveness, social skills). They point out that the current body of research links excessive positive self-perceptions to poor interpersonal outcomes.
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