“Good job! You must be very intelligent.”

“Good job! You must be very hard-working.”

These two compliments are nearly identical, yet a single word’s deviation can mean a world of difference in terms of achievement.

How can different forms of compliments impact achievements of both our academic and health-related goals?

Carol Dweck, in her landmark study of hundreds of elementary school students, wanted to study how minor changes in reinforcement could affect future performance. Upon completion of a nonverbal puzzle, students were separated into one of two groups: Either praised upon their intelligence or their work ethic.

At the end of the study, the students took another similarly difficult test, and Dweck tested to see how the two different compliments measured up in terms of performance. The work-ethic group improved a considerable 30 percent on their test scores. The intelligence-praised group? A devastating 20 percent drop. They scored lower relative to their first attempt.

Exactly how could one word of difference bring about such a dramatic difference in results? Dweck reasoned that the two compliments implicated two fundamentally different mindsets.

In one group, hard work, progress and persistence became the driving factors of motivation. In the other, it became about maintaining an image of intelligence.

With this difference in mind, the tests indicated two completely different things to the two groups of students. Difficulty became a chance to improve for one group and a disgracing verdict of unintelligence to the other.

The children who were praised for intelligence exhibited “negative responses in terms of lower task persistence, task enjoyment and performance.” They chose to busy themselves with the scores of others rather than learn new ways to improve their abilities. They even became prone to lying about their performance results.

This mindset dichotomy, the perception of fixed vs. developable abilities, has a strong presence in nearly all walks of life. Whether it be intelligence, fitness, dating — whatever walk, too many people adopt a fixed mindset about their abilities. Too often have people commented that their “metabolism is just too slow” or that they’re just “bad at taking tests.”

It is these same people who come to comment, “I can’t believe how stupid I was being,” when they put forth effort and realized these skill sets were not predetermined traits, but ones to develop. Rather than copping out without truly trying, they need to give it an honest shot, whether it be improving grades or working on a healthy lifestyle. Typically, once they had gotten the ball rolling, they have never looked back. Mindset was the determining factor that either stalled or spurred action.

The meanings you associate with certain words or “compliments” can have a big effect on your end results. The connection between mindset and behavior becomes hard to shake as they are established. Thankfully, whether our words act as a blessing or a curse lies entirely upon us.


A version of this article appeared on page 8 of February 19th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.