Praise is a Ferrari, it’s rocket fuel, the crown jewel of training tools. When used appropriately, it is the most powerful positive reinforcer for a human being, whose combination of intelligence and emotional sensitivity makes receiving affirmation of a job well done highly motivating. In recent years many psychologists have pushed the idea forward that parents should replace praise with interest when interacting with their children. For example, if your daughter Sally draws you a picture, instead of instantly exclaiming how great it is and giving her a hug while finding a place for it on the refrigerator, you would want to sit down with her and show genuine curiosity, asking her to tell you more about the characters, maybe explain the setting, and talk about the colors she used. You would want to open up a space to help her explore herself and her world more.
The research that prompts this shift in parenting philosophy shows that praise can actually be detrimental to a child’s growth, causing underperformance. The real issue here is not praise itself but indiscriminate praise. Praise should be offered with surgical precision. It is not the subject’s fault that the trainer is sloppy. Tracking situations where praise is given indiscriminately, or where the amount of praise is not commensurate with the level of performance, biases outcomes. As Mr. Miagi famously said to Daniel, “No bad student. Only bad teacher.” Any time we take on the tremendous responsibility of trainer, whether the context is parenting, teaching, coaching, or any other situation where a pupil looks to us for guidance, it is up to us to set up the most precise training program possible to correctly target our subject’s unique talents, abilities, intelligence, and potential.
The paradox of using praise as a training tool is that while it is the most powerful when used appropriately, it ceases to have any meaning at all to an organism when overused. It stops being a reinforcer, instead signaling that the job is complete and that there is no reason to try harder or expand the boundaries of current capabilities. Doesn’t this make sense to you intuitively? If you were told you did a great job all the time, regardless of whether what you did was easy or hard, whether you put in a lot of effort of barely any at all, you would stop considering that praise to be worth anything. It wouldn’t motivate you because you would start to realize it arrives regardless of what you do. This is the problem with parents just telling their kids they are great and clever all the time.
The way to make praise work for you like the rocket fuel it was meant to be is by becoming consciously aware of which behaviors you are trying to encourage, what outcomes you are looking for, and the various steps that will be necessary to get there. This is your responsibility as a trainer, not your subject’s. The more detailed the steps the better, because you will be able to quickly realize when your pupil has jumped a few steps forward and be ready to shift your reinforcement schedule to match the new level of mastery. You will also see your own predictive errors more clearly. Some of the steps you think are important might not end up being necessary at all for your pupil to excel. Then you find a level of praise that is commensurate with the difficulty of the individual step you are at in your training program. Successfully completing the behavior at this step needs to be difficult but attainable for your subject. As human beings, if a task is too hard we tend to get discouraged and give up, and if it’s too easy we tend to get lazy and disinterested. As your pupil starts to perform the step you are on without having to try very hard, you cease offering praise for its completion, instead only offering praise when you see successful movement towards completion of the next step in the process.
This is, at least theoretically, how our school systems are set up. Getting an A in fifth grade is not the same thing as getting an A in eighth grade. The level of difficulty in every subject will have gone up dramatically over this three year period. If you took an A student in fifth grade and plopped him into an eighth grade classroom, the same level of work and knowledge that garnered him an A before would most likely garner him an F now. And a funny thing would happen. He would start to feel stupid, even though in fifth grade he felt smart and in fact was one of the smartest kids in the class. People who have always felt stupid weren’t necessarily stupid at all. Instruction may not have been adequately tailored to their skill level at that time. It was too difficult for them, making them frustrated and discouraged until finally giving up. It needed to be adjusted to meet them where they actually were. The tasks they were asked to do needed to be difficult but doable, not impossible for them. In a perfect world reinforcement schedules would track the progress and natural abilities of each student 1:1. These schedules would be different for each student. This is the mark of a great trainer. It’s not about the modality you use, it’s about intimately knowing your particular subject and setting up a program that works, highlighting unique abilities and accounting for weaknesses.
Lots of dog trainers use treats when they are training a behavior but I never do; I only use praise and I have had great success. This is because whatever dog I am working with doesn’t consider praise to be less worthwhile than a treat since there are no grounds for comparison. Praise becomes just as motivating because the dog doesn’t have the image of a yummy bit of bacon in his mind. Plus praise is what makes everyone feel the best anyway, especially humans. Try to think of a time in elementary school when you got a gold star and you really deserved it, or about a time in high school or college when you got an A on a test that you studied really hard for. In these cases praise is the ultimate affirmation, confirming all the hard work and time we have put in to a task, motivating us to keep working hard in the future. Praise is a symbol recognizing us as good and valuable, and when this praise comes from an authority figure like a primary caregiver or teacher, it takes on even more important dimensions. It acts as an affirmation of Self, telling us we are worthy.
Hopefully it’s obvious by now that genuine curiosity and interest help fulfill these same existential needs. The state of being turned towards your subject with the desire to know more about who they are, creating a space for them to feel safe about expanding their definition of Self and the world, is also a very powerful reinforcer. The problem with making a distinction between praise and interest is that the people who are making it don’t understand behavioral psychology very well. Making sure that the praise you dole out is commensurate with levels of mastery and effort is an art, because the parameters are always changing. Your subject is always striving to do more, always growing, and is always moving further along the scale of mastery if you are using praise correctly. Being able to withhold praise unless the behavior matches a level of performance that is difficult but attainable proves that you are highly interested in and turned towards your subject.
The very best you can do for a human being is to combine appropriate levels of praise with genuine interest. Withholding praise is not the same thing as withholding love, and you always want love to pulse underneath whatever it is you are doing with your pupil. Showering love upon someone is not the same thing as showing praise upon them, because the profession of love can and should be completely independent of any particular behavior. You love someone not because of what they do but because of who they are. Your subject can exist in the warm embrace of being loved, striving for your praise, feeling wonderful when it deservedly arrives and always wanting more. Everyone feels great while walking the path of growth and self-actualization.