Kids told they’re smart are more likely to cheat in school, study finds

TORONTO — Young kids who believe they’re smart are also more likely to cheat in school, a new study finds.

Two related studies— one published yesterday in the journal Psychological Science, and the other published recently in the journal Developmental Science— conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto looked at the behavior of preschoolers who had been praised for their intelligence.

Children who are praised for being are actually more likely to cheat in school, a new study finds.

In both studies, the researchers had kids, aged three to five, participate in a guessing game.

The first study had researchers praise kids in one of two ways following a successful turn: for being intelligent (e.g., “You are so smart), or for their performance (e.g., “You did very well this time.”)

Researchers then let the kids return to the guessing game, asking them to not “cheat” by looking at the answers.

Overall, kids who were told they were smart— as opposed to being good performers at the task— were more likely to cheat on the activity, regardless of their age.

A second study, which had researchers inform each child that they had a reputation for being smart, garnered similar results.

“Praise is more complex than it seems,” comments co-author Kang Lee in a university news release. “Praising a child’s ability implies that the specific behavior that is commented on stems from stable traits related to one’s ability, such as smartness. This is different than other forms of praise, such as praising specific behavior or praising effort.”

As for causation, the researchers said that those who perceive themselves as having an above-average intellect “feel pressure to perform well in order to live up to others’ expectations, even if they need to cheat to do so.”

Ultimately, praising a child’s behavior (e.g., doing a good job) is more effective at encouraging honest play than lauding their natural abilities, the researchers note.

“Only in this way, will praise have the intended positive outcomes,” argues Li Zhao, the study’s other co-author.