Effort vs. Ability

Scientists did an experiment with a bunch of children where they gave them several tests that got increasingly more difficult.  After the first two tests, they told the children that they had done very well. Group A was praised them for being smart and talented. Group B was praised for their hard work.

Next they gave them a very difficult test–so difficult that many children didn’t get a single question right. They then told both groups that they hadn’t done as well on this test and asked them if they knew why. The students from group A said that it must be because they weren’t smart enough. Group B said that it must be because they didn’t try hard enough.

That in  itself is pretty amazing. Giving people praise for being smart basically backfires because it teaches them that success comes from being intelligent. Once they are faced with a situation where they fail, the logical conclusion is that they must not be very intelligent.  On the other hand, praising people for working hard helps them stay focused on something they can control–their effort.

My 4 year old is pretty advanced when it comes to reading. According to a test we recently had her take, she reads on the level of a 10 or 11 year old. I’m not sure how accurate the test is, but I do know that it isn’t normal for a kid who isn’t even kindergarten age to read chapter books. (As a side note, one of my proudest moments as a parent was when I saw her 2 year old brother bring her a book and she sat down on the floor and read it to him.)

So is my daughter a genius? No. She has simply put in a lot of hard work. Of course not nearly as much hard work as my incredible wife who taught her how to read.

So back to the experiment. The scientists went ahead and gave the kids another test. This time one that was much easier. Up to this point the kids in both groups had performed about the same on the tests. There was no significant difference between them. On this final test, there was a wide variance in the scores. Members of group A (who had been told they were smart) did about 25% worse than group B (who had been told they had worked hard).

Why did this happen? Lets try to imagine the thought process of these two groups:

Group A – told they were smart:

  • Test 1 – Oh I’m pretty smart. Good for me.
  • Test 2 – Hm. They say I must be really smart. Maybe I’m smarter than I realized.
  • Test 3 (the hard one) – I did horrible. I guess I’m not very smart. Maybe I’m not even as smart as I originally thought.
  • Test 4 – I didn’t really try that hard because this test taking isn’t really for me.

Group B – told they had worked hard:

  • Test 1 – Hey they are proud of how hard I worked.
  • Test 2 – I did it again. I must be working pretty hard.
  • Test 3 (the hard one) – Not so good. I must not have worked as hard on this one.
  • Test 4 – I tried extra hard on this one and I think I did pretty well.

That is a pretty big difference just based a small change in wording isn’t it?

This is something I’m trying hard to be intentional about when it comes to my kids. I don’t want my daughter to feel like she can read because she is smart. I want her to feel like she can read well because she worked hard. I want her to feel like effort is rewarded instead of just success.

I’ve read some other studies that suggest this isn’t something that is limited to children. It works the same way for adults. If you are in management you need to pay careful attention to exactly what you say when you praise people. Make sure you are focused on their effort–not on how smart they are.

While I haven’t read any studies about self motivation, my experience shows that this is a good mindset to be in when it comes to your personal motivation as well. Don’t take too much pride in your intelligence and instead focus on your hard work. You know when you are really trying and putting out effort better than anyone else. If you can focus on rewarding yourself for doing your best, it places you in the mindset to succeed–even after having had a failure. If you focus on how smart or talented you are, it can actually make you do worse!


  1. Mindimoo says

    Agree. I also think IQ tests can be much more of a hindrance than a help. At a young age I discovered I had a high IQ and thought well that’s that, no need to try hard, my brains will help me succeed in life. Not true – as you say Mark, people who are motivated and put in the effort succeed. IQ tests are at best a vague measure of potential and personally I think we’d be better off without them. Many, many successful people with a wide range of talents would not necessarily score well on a standard IQ test and on the other hand I know people with very high IQs who have not achieved very much at all.

  2. says

    Another example:
    I know a lot of young artists who think that somebody will come and make them successful because they’re *talented*. They don’t understand that they have to put in the effort to succeed themselves. And so they stay eternally unsuccesful, frustrated, and are basically waiting for someone who will save them.

  3. Giancarlo Crocetti says

    A very enjoyable article.
    Reading this post reminded me of Korea (South Korea to be precise) which is the most hard working country in the world.
    Without going into culture differences, it is because the hard work of its citizens that this country was able to reinvent itself in the last 60 years: from a poor stricken country to one of the largest economies in the world.
    In their case “Effort” also translated in innovation and it would be interesting to study the connection between the two.

  4. Alain says

    I also got caught in this type of dilemna. I skipped a grade when I was in primary school, a result, undoubtly, of how smart I was… According to my school teachers. This made quite lazy actually after that, I never got excellent grade as I did in my years before skipping the grade. I just coasted, got average grades and basically, just procrastinated.

    Now, reading this, I realize that it had nothing to do with my intelligence, but I effort I put in with my mom besides me to always do the best I could do.

    Also, I skipped grades because I switched school system and that switch made it that I already knew the stuff they were teaching and because of that, I was “smart”.

    But like those kids, the mindset changes from working hard to being smart and I took the easy road, something I suffer with today as I battle procrastination and laziness on a daily basis.

    I aldo did a Kolbe test lately, which was one of the best tests I’ve done of these in a while. They focus on your behaviour, what you are most likely to do in a particular situation. So, the “diagnosis” is all about how to use your strengths to your advantage, which is pretty fantastic.

    Thanks for this great post. Gave me a lot of food for thought.


  5. Darian says

    Nice article, very interesting! I would really like to read more about this study done with the children, do you have any references to it?


  6. says

    Thank you for sharing this interesting study – very intriguing! In any situation (among adults or students), hard work is the key to achieving the results that you want. I discuss in my self-help book that hard work means extraordinary preparation and staying on track by remaining logical over emotional to get to where you want to be.

  7. says

    I definitely agree. If people try hard, even if they aren’t capable of much, they’ll be reaching their maximum potential, which isn’t bad at all. If we don’t try hard, even if we’re capable of a lot, we won’t achieve anything!
    Interesting study by the way :)

  8. says

    That’s a very interesting concept. It’s also amazing to me how much people will stop trying if they are told they are not capable of doing something – especially when it’s something others have done. All it takes is a little refocusing. By saying to ourselves “This is not impossible and if someone else can do it, then I can be just as (or more) successful,” we are capable of so much. Often we have to be our own coaches – but it’s a lot easier when you have people in your life – such as a boss – who knows how to give you the criticism, positive feedback and assistance to change your habits and achieve your full potential.

  9. Elgiva says

    As a teacher for the last twenty years, I am convinced that positive reinforcement with students helps them perform better than they actually would otherwise. This is especially true for students of very low and mediocre IQ. Teachers and parents need to continually make children hear after every good performance,that it’s their hardwork that has got them good grades. Along with positive reinforcement, we also need to supervise that their energy resources for the day are well channelized. This I say, because I firmly believe that children ‘enrolled’ in bad company or bad practices do not perform well inspire of positive reinforcement.

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