When kids were told “You did it! You must be really smart,” after solving the first puzzle, they were more likely to choose the puzzle of equal difficulty, but when they were told “You did it! You must have worked very hard,” they chose the more difficult puzzle. The moral of the story is that calling kids smart makes them want to appear smart, and they’ll aim lower as a result to ensure success.
What I wasn’t aware of at the time was how quickly this finding was employed to serve the feminist agenda.
“The Trouble with Bright Girls” was published in Psychology Today (and yes, I realize I’m setting myself up for disappointment already by reading that shitty publication) in January of 2011. The author, Dr. Heidi Halvorson, discusses a study performed by Dr. Carol Dweck. The study examined how fifth-grade students responded to difficult material. Dr. Dweck found that girls, particularly girls with higher IQ, gave up more quickly than boys with higher IQ.
Dr. Halvorson suggests this disparity arises because smart girls tend to be praised for being smart, whereas boys tend not to be praised at all. Smart girls end up believing that their success derives from their state of being (“being smart”), whereas smart boys believe it derives from their actions (“working hard”). In the long run, she concludes, this holds adult women back in the workforce as they will be less eager to take on difficult tasks with greater chance of failure.
Let’s consider a few quotations from the article:
At the 5th grade level, girls routinely outperform boys in every subject, including math and science. So there were no differences between these boys and girls [in the study] in ability, nor in past history of success.
Emphasis mine to highlight the contradiction in these two sentences (which, incidentally, ought to be one sentence). She just identified a major difference between boys and girls, that girls consistently outperform boys, then immediately claims there are no differences between these boys and girls in terms of ability or past history of success.
What exactly does “outperform” mean if it’s not based on either ability or success? The only way this can possibly make sense in someone’s head is if they believe that equal ability and equal success between boys and girls should lead to a disproportionate outcome that favors girls. Conveniently, such an orientation also explains why she’d find boys outperforming girls in this one very limited area so concerning, while boys constantly coming in second to girls in all other areas is of no concern.
Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or ” such a good student.”
And in the next paragraph:
Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”)
Take a look at these sample phrases. Directed at girls, we have:
“You’re so smart.”
“You’re so clever.”
“You’re such a good student.”
Directed at boys, we have:
“If you would just pay attention, you could learn this.”
“If you would just try a little harder, you could get it right.”
The difference is not that we praise boys in a constructive way and girls in a destructive way. It’s that we don’t fucking praise boys at all.
But now that we’ve discovered an unanticipated advantage to all the criticism we launch at our boys, we simply must harness this power for the benefit of our girls. Heaven forbid boys, who again are behind girls in literally every subject, receive a single advantage. Intolerable!
Boys are in fact behind girls from preschool through high school, not just in fifth grade. They currently make up only 40% of college students. In the under-30 workforce, women outnumber and out-earn men. And here we have an article that acknowledges both the disadvantage boys face in school performance and the fact that they are deemed unworthy of praise by their nurturers- teachers, parents, and other caregivers and educators.
Yet somehow this article ends up being about helping girls.
I’d really like to go on. I’d like to rant about how the “advantage” conferred on boys is the same “advantage” conferred on the bacteria that live in geothermal vents: the environment that kills 99% makes the 1% who survive pretty fucking strong. I’d like to rant about how feminists constantly overgeneralize. Against whom are these women who “suffer” as adults from excessive praise as children being compared? Against the men in male-dominated professions, according to the first paragraph of the article.
Really. Male-dominated professions like coal mining, perhaps? Garbage collection? Ice road trucking? Deep sea fishing? Something tells me no. They’re not even being compared to the hordes of code monkeys I see in SOMA every day; they’re being compared to the fucking 1% of the 1%. “Where’s our Steve Jobs? Where’s our Bill Gates? Sexxxxxiiiissssmmmm!!!!!”
We constantly communicate to our boys in myriad subtle and direct ways that they are useless to us unless they do something, while we constantly reaffirm to girls that they are valuable to us merely by being. Yes, that often means men end up doing more useful shit. Occasionally they even get credit for it. But when they don’t do enough useful shit (or do shit society deems unuseful), they have zero self-worth to fall back on.
If you want girls to be as motivated as boys to solve puzzles and tackle big problems when they grow up, fine. It’s not a bad idea. I can even tell you how you might be able to tell when you’ve succeeded: when women start committing suicide at the same rate as men.
 Mueller CM and Dweck CS. 1998. Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal for Personality and Social Psychology 75(1): 33-52  Note that “success” here really means “praise,” not solving the puzzle, which is its own can of worms in terms of what we teach our children to value.