Biology, Fundamentals

The Surprising Power Of Praise In Challenging The Myth Of Natural Instinct

myth of natural instinct

“In taking our marital arguments upstairs to avoid exposing the children to strife, we accidentally deprived them of chances to witness how two people who care about each other can work out their differences in a calm and reasoned way.”

–Po Bronson

The 2009 book, Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, written by best-selling author Po Bronson and journalist Ashley Merryman challenges many current child-rearing philosophies, including the myth of natural instinct. It also challenges the myth of natural instinct. This popular book was on the New York Times best seller list for three months and has been translated into fifteen languages. Po Bronson has written a number of books on the subject of personal success and even a novel. Ashley Merryman is also an attorney, and has written a play in addition to having served as a speechwriter for Vice-President Al Gore. Both describe themselves as science journalists.

Worriers and Warriors

One of the challenges to the myth of natural instinct is brain research that indicates that genetics and brain chemistry play a large part in the way people respond to stress. In an interview, Bronson described how genetics determine the way in which the brain’s frontal cortex processes dopamine. He categorizes people as either “worriers” or “warriors” according to those genetic factors. According to Bronson, people with the “worrier” gene can have a cognitive advantage of up to ten point IQ advantage–when they aren’t stressed. Under normal conditions, worriers have a greater ability to think and plan ahead. With the introduction of stress, that advantage is significantly reduced.

Warriors tend to perform better under stress. One of the factors that determines whether a person is a warrior is the amount of testosterone the developing infant is exposed to in the womb. According to research, testosterone lengthens the fingers of the fetus, while estrogen limits their growth. The length of a person’s fingers can be one way to determine how they people will respond as adults to stress and the hormones it releases within the human body.

The Surprising Power of Praise in Challenging the Myth of Natural Instinct

The areas in which the book challenges the myth of human instinct are listed in a chapter synopsis. Chapter one addresses how a parent’s instinct to praise their child for being intelligent may be detrimental. The authors point to studies which show that being praised for specific actions and effort are more effective. For example, in one study, children who were praised for their efforts tended to choose harder puzzles than those praised for intelligence. Additionally, they showed a 30% improvement between the first and third tests. Conversely, the scores of those who were praised for intelligence decreased by 20%.

One of the reasons for these findings was that children praised for intelligence tend to take fewer risks that might jeopardize that initial assessment. It was found that teens often discounted such praise from teacher, and even equated it with veiled criticism. There was also a correlation between praise and the amount of time that students were able to spend concentrating on a task without seeking further approval. Heavily praised students often displayed less autonomy and less confidence in their answers. This can result in students dropping out rather than risking low grades.

The Myth of Natural Instinct in Competition, Praise and Lying

Another chapter makes a connection between praise and lying. According to the authors, respect for both the rules and other competitors is defined as “adaptive competition”. Maladaptive competition doesn’t allow for losing, which leads to behaviors such as lying and cheating due to the desire to win at any cost. In one study, students were told to rate themselves on report cards which would be sent to students at other schools whom they would never meet. It was found that 40 percent of the students who’d been praised for intelligence inflated their scores. That percentage was much lower among those who’d been praised for their efforts.

One of the reasons for cheating is the stigma associated with failure, which discourages children from developing strategies on how to deal with it successfully. Failure often provides greater opportunities for learning than success. Michigan scholar Jennifer Crocker believes that it’s essential to redefine the terms and not stigmatize the learning process by calling it “failure”.

Overcoming the Myth of Natural Instinct in Performance

According to Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis “The key is intermittent reinforcement”. Studies revealed that the brain can learn that experiencing frustration can ultimately result in reward. His research located a neural network between the prefrontal cortex and ventral striatum of the brain that monitors its reward center. Dr. Cloninger believes that frequent rewards can result in less persistence. Intermittent rewards result in switching on the neural network that serves to anticipate future rewards based on continued effort.

An excerpt of the book provides case studies that illustrate some of the principles set forth in the book that challenge the myth of natural instinct. It seems that giving children that “A” for effort might be more important than we’d ever realized, and can result in an increased ability to learn.

myth of natural instinct
Syrian refugee children in a Lebanese school classroom, wikipedia cc2.0
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