In Criticism Of Praise

Sometimes the most profound academic concepts haven’t come from the wonderful medical conferences or hundreds of academic articles I’ve read, but they come from arenas completely tangential to the medical field.  The topic of this article is a great example of this phenomenon.  It came from of all places, a Southwest Airlines magazine.  It’s titled “In Criticism of Praise” by Heidi Stevens.  Being an optimist with four children and many medical students under my wing, (yes I view them as my children) I was initially offended by the title and it of course, it drew me in.

Ms Stevens addresses the American addiction to immense praise irrespective of effort or outcome.   We just love to say “good job!”  She makes the important distinction of process oriented (“you got the pimp question right”) and outcome oriented praise. (“you worked really hard on that project”)  She points out research done by Carol Dweck, who gave students a hard test.  With test results, she told one group, “you must be smart. ” The others were told, “you must have worked hard.”  Later, she offered a choice of taking a hard or easy test.  90% of the “worked hard,” took the hard test while the majority of the “smart” group, chose the easy test.  Later that year, given the same test, the “worked hard” group, scored 30% higher and the “smart” group, 20% lower.


There is power in the subtleties of our words!  When we teach and praise outcomes by mostly rewarding a test score or right answer, we increase anxiety of wrong answers, hide learning gaps, lessen the desire to tackle hard problems and lose trust.  Praising the process of persevering through a tough exercise, develops determination, excites creativity, deepens trust and promotes learning from mistakes, just to name a few.  I’m proud of you for taking the time to think carefully about this article and hope it criticizes the way we praise.


  1. “In Criticism of Praise” by Heidi Stevens

Post Peer Reviewed By: Salim Rezaie (Twitter: @srrezaie)

Cite this article as: Scott Wieters, "In Criticism Of Praise", REBEL EM blog, May 11, 2015. Available at:

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