Praise or Criticism: Which Is Better?
Have you ever been shouted at or talked down to by a coach? Don’t feel bad—many athletes, both amateur and expert, have experienced the same thing. But why? What effect does criticizing, insulting, and even belittling people have on their performance?
Psi Chi member Thomas Gambino (Rutgers University, NJ) recently conducted a study about this controversial topic called “The Effect of Verbal Praise on Maze Completion.” In the study, some of his participants were praised while trying to complete a simple maze task. For example, at the one minute mark, these participants were told, “You are doing great. There are still four minutes left. Remember to erase your lines if you come to a dead end.”
Here’s where it gets interesting. Other participants were not treated so kindly. For example, at the one minute mark, Thomas told them all this: “You are not even close. This maze is hard, but not that hard. Are you taking this experiment seriously?”
In today’s behind-the-scenes interview, Thomas tells us a little about the inspiration and results of this fascinating project.
How did you become interested in this topic?
I became interested through my experiences playing sports. I was fortunate enough to be able to play basketball throughout high school and two years in college. I played on many school teams and travel teams. I always thought the team and I played better with a more encouraging coach. I wanted to put my theory to the test.
What were the general findings of your article?
The general findings were that the encouraging group completed their maze faster than the less encouraging group. The encouraging group was also more likely to persist in completing the task. You can read the complete study, including the encouraging and less encouraging scripts HERE.
What was it like working with participants?
It was very interesting discouraging the participants in the less encouraging group. Many of them either began talking back to me or even insulted me. This caused them to waste time in completing the maze. Many participants gave up after one discouraging statement. At times, it was difficult for me to keep a straight face while saying the discouraging statements. I am not someone that enjoys making people feel uncomfortable.
After the study was over, the participants in the less encouraging group were all relieved to know I was reading off of a script. Some were still confused about why I was “mean” to them. I definitely enjoyed praising the participants in the praise group. It was almost like I was instilling hope in them to keep going, and many thanked me for praising them while they were completing the maze.
Did any challenges arise while you were conducting the study, and if so, how did you handle them?
I had a difficult time finding participants. The study required that participants feel comfortable sitting in a quiet room with me to complete the study. I do not consider myself a creepy person but sitting alone with a stranger can be uncomfortable. What drove me to finish this study was the hope that coaches and teachers would be able to use these results in working with their students and players. Hopefully, I will be able to change a team or classroom in promoting a positive and happy environment.
What advice do you have for individuals wanting to learn more about conducting research?
I would recommend that interested individuals recruit diverse participants. Almost all of my participants were White college students. It would be interesting to see how others would react. In conducting any research/experiment, it is important that the individual loves the topic. It is not enough to be “interested” alone.
Another helpful tip is to find a research advisor who you love working with. My advisor, Dr. Verneda Hamm Baugh was instrumental to my study. I remember spending countless hours in her office working on my paper. It is definitely a long road but something I would highly recommend for every undergraduate student!
Conduct an Experiment
Psi Chi members, can you think of a time when you received praise or less than encouraging feedback from a coach or mentor? Tell us how this made you feel and how you reacted in the comments below (member login required).
Also, don't forget, submissions to Psi Chi Journal are open year round!