Meetings No 21
Gender Equality the New Growth Factor
Atti Soenarso on the silent knowledge women have built up.
Cover Story
Women Deliver
Focus on the Women Deliver Conference.
Women Leadership
Dubai Women Establishment
A champion for women’s participation.
IMEX Launch
The “She Means Business” event
The Future Disrupted
Rohit Talwar on shocks that could overturn our world.
A Life Remembered
Tim “Avicii” Bergling.
Young Leaders
Gaining Edge Scholars
Learning, contributing and building the future.
Smart Cities
How Does a City Become Smart?
Lessons from Tel Aviv.
Motivating Using the Right Mindset
Scientist Alva Appelgren on praise and learning.
Economic Impact
Regarding Rwanda
Becoming one of Africa’s leading business events destinations.
IMEX Frankfurt
Innovation and Inspiration.
MCI Experience
Kim Myhre: The power of brand experiences.
Johan Hagegård
“The future isn’t at all what it used to be.”
Habits to Build Your Empire
Robin Sharma: Resist the saboteur!
Collaboration is key in winning association meetings.
Brain Check
Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg
On reading printed books and listening to audiobooks.
Why Is It Taken for Granted That I’m the Boss?
Roger Kellerman: More Space to Women!
ISN & YPO got Awards
Best Cities
launch global recognition award program.
19-21 November 2019
IBTM World
Launches Business Mentorship and Investment Programme.
28-29 August
IBTM China
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61 offices in 31 countries
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The Future of cities
under the microscope in Brisbane.
big meetings
World leading ear, nose and throat surgeons
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big meetings
secures Flight Centre’s 4500-strong Global Gathering.
significant achievements
AIM Group International’s Annual Report Shows Steady Growth for 2018
Increased EBITDA and overall turnover, diversification of the business, major events realised and acquired are among the flagship results.
BestCities Announces New Strategic Business Development Group Chairperson
Beverly Williamson, General Manager of Business Development and Bids at Melbourne Convention Bureau, has been appointed to the role.
economic boost
Business Events to Bring $112 Million to Brisbane
Brisbane will receive the economic boost through new business events set to take place in the city over the coming years.
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Motivating Using the Right Mindset

An alarm clock going off tells us it is time to get up. An odour from a lunchbox in the fridge tells us that the food has gone off so we throw it away. Our language works in much the same way, but it is not always as clear as a bad odour how words actually affect us. An encouraging word from a colleague could put us in a good mood for the rest of the day, while a similar comment phrased somewhat differently may have us wanting to leave work at the earliest opportunity. Teachers, managers and parents have the task of giving feedback by explaining, encouraging and informing of what has gone well and what needs to change. In the long run, feedback also seems to affect our perseverance and motivation.

The question of how it works and how we can improve our feedback has given rise to a growing research field known as Mind, Brain and Education Science (MBE), which integrates neuroscience, psychology and pedagogy to better understand the processes of learning and to develop better educational models. At the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, my colleagues and I have studied learning processes with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique used to study the differences in brain activity by analysing and comparing the blood flow to different parts of the brain. In one of our studies the test subjects performed an exercise in learning a task when various symbol combinations were shown on a computer screen while they lay in an MRI-scanner.

The subjects received two sorts of positive feedback when they replied correctly. On one occasion they learned a task with the help of what I call character feedback: “You’re clever.” The second time they were given feedback confirming that they chose correctly: “Your choice was correct.” We compared the brain activity in the two conditions to determine the differences in how the subjects reacted to these two different types of feedback. It showed that when they received praise for their intelligence activity in the caudate nucleus was increased compared to when they received feedback about making the correct choice. Previous studies have shown increases in activity in the caudate nucleus, when people were uncertain as to whether they were reacting correctly and if it would lead to a reward. We interpret our findings that the subjects became more uncertain of their ability when praised for their intelligence.

This could be because praise for being clever triggers thoughts about one’s traits and moves the focus from the task to the ego. When the subjects were praised for their intelligence, we observed an increase in activity in the part of the brain involved in self-reflection processing. This indicates that praise focusing on character or personality traits can shift focus from the task to self-reflection, which in turn could make the subject more uncertain. When we studied the participants’ subjective experiences we found that they felt more stressed when praised for their intelligence compared to when praised for making the correct choice. This could be because being called clever may provoke more cognitive recourses than those provoked by concrete feedback on the task. With concrete praise, the subjects learned the task somewhat better and became more motivated to continue.

The results indicate that different types of praise have direct effects on our learning. However, further research is needed to determine whether these effects are stable. But, if it is so that we are affected the moment after we have received different types of praise, what could this lead to? And how are we affected by praise in the longer perspective?

Carol Dweck is a psychology professor at Stanford University in California who is widely acclaimed for her studies into children’s views on learning, traits and intelligence. In one study they looked at the long-term effects of parental praise. Their results showed that the different ways in which children handle setbacks and their will to learn could be linked to the type of praise they receive in early childhood. Dweck’s research team examined the long-term effects of praise relating to a child’s intelligence, for example, “You are so smart,” and praise that relates to a child’s actions, for example, “Well done for trying to piece things together.” The study showed that over time, the children praised for their actions developed a mindset where they felt they could become smarter with practice. This growth mindset is characterised by the notion that it is possible to become smarter by practicing. Carol Dweck has previously shown that this way of thinking may be beneficial in daring to take on challenges and not losing motivation for demanding tasks. Her team suggests that parents who praise a child’s actions and efforts contribute to a progressive mindset later in life.

This has been known in the research since the early 20th century as the Law of Effect – we act in the way we understand as good. If we are praised for doing something well, this praise acts as a reinforcer and we carry on doing it in order to hear that praise again. If the praise is specific, like “Thanks for wiping that up,” then we know what to do to be praised again. Children who have heard much praise for their traits, like how clever and smart they are, want to hear this praise again. But when we give praise for traits in this way it could be sending a message that the ability lies in an innate talent and the child may think that effort is not required on their part. When people who think in this way encounter setbacks or try something they cannot handle at once, they give up much quicker because they assume they lack the talent. They might think something along the lines of: “If I have to make an effort, that means I’m not good enough.” If something that is normally easy suddenly becomes difficult, the person’s self-image could take a battering. They may well think they have lost their talent. But with a fixed mindset like this it could be easy to forget the amount of effort and practice they needed to put into it in the first place to make them that good. When something goes wrong or they cannot complete a whole task at once, it actually means they have been given a task that is suited to their level of experience, something that will help them progress.

People who are not used to taking on challenges often keep to what they are already good at. This way they avoid setbacks and criticism. They want to maintain the image of themselves as being clever and will avoid trying something new in case they do not manage it with flying colours immediately. Usually this is because they would lose face and their self-image would fall apart if they failed to do well. They measure their value by their achievements, which, in a study from 2007, scientists at the Karolinska Institute describe as performance-based self-esteem. Maintaining a self-image of being clever and smart could lead to significant performance anxiety, especially when they demand learning something new without making mistakes.

Giving praise for being clever could therefore give rise to negative effects if you fail to link the praise with the effort involved. Praise for intelligence or cleverness is also a rather unspecific form of praise. It makes it difficult to know what to do more of in order to hear it again. Had the praise instead been aimed at how and what had been done, it would be easier to understand it and know what to continue doing. One criticism here is that the focus on process rather than traits may be very result-oriented. But that is our fixed mindset that fools us, because we can be specific without focusing on the end result. For example, we can praise somebody for persevering, putting a lot of time into something and not giving up.

A teacher can say: “Well done, you worked hard today! You’ve shown that you understand several of the methods we took up last week and you’ve used them to try to solve the problem. This shows your ability to cooperate.” Here the focus is on what the pupil has done, how they have approached the task and that effort pays off, without putting emphasise on the end result. Also, if we give pupils suggestions of things for the student to try to improve, followed by the opportunity to show that they have understood, we have reached even further increasing the knowledge of the pupil. Praise and ideas both focus on how to get there and sends a message that effort pays off and practice makes perfect. This way failure and mistakes are not as painful because failure could in itself generate praise for the effort and perseverance to keep working hard.

So, our approach to learning can be linked to the way we have previously received feedback, which would partly explain why people relate to learning in so many different ways. Some set up goals that make them appear clever. These goals are linked to the reward of being highly respected. Others are driven by the fun in learning a new skill, a language for example, with the aim of progressing and becoming better at it. How we relate to different tasks depends on our goals and expectations of the task and on ourselves. In one of my studies at the Karolinska Institute, we looked at the attitudes of 13-year-olds before starting a memory-training program and how these attitudes affected their perseverance. The pupils would do 20 separate memory exercises of roughly 50 minutes each. It was up to them to decide if they wanted to do all training exercises or quit at any point during the training program. The exercises were adapted to suit each individual’s level to ensure they would all be at working at their most difficult level and making a lot of mistakes. This meant they all had to work equally hard to level up in the training. Before the pupils began, we asked them what they felt about the exercises they were about to undergo. We asked if they thought it would be fun, useful and if they thought it would require a lot of their energy. We also asked if they thought they would complete all the exercises.

The questions were designed to measure the pupils’ intrinsic motivation, their drive to do this because they wanted to and not because they felt they were forced to do it. Roughly half of the pupils completed all 20 exercises and the others dropped out. We found that the higher the motivation of the pupils before they began, the more exercises they completed. We had also asked questions about how they viewed intelligence. The more the pupils thought about being clever as something changeable (growth mindset), the more memory exercises they completed. These results indicate that both expectations prior to the task and their mindset relating to intelligence affected the pupils’ will to complete the memory exercises. Those who believed in their own ability to complete all the exercises and who expected it to be fun and rewarding, completed more exercises.

If research shows that intrinsic motivation and prior expectations have an effect on pupils’ willingness to complete tasks, then we should create opportunities that develop this way of thinking. How do we create conditions where we can focus completely on a task at hand, where we know what we need to develop and where we feel that we want to complete the task? What we can do is try to provide feedback on what has been done and describe learning in a way so that the pupil understands that making mistakes is part of the learning process. It is all about explaining that we can do things better and smarter when practicing. If we want to improve our maths skills, then we practice them. If we want to learn a language, then we have to practice it. When you are learning something that is difficult it requires effort and so we encourage effort. But to do this, we must be given the opportunity to concentrate on the task.

John Hattie is a well-known education researcher at the University of Melbourne. When he studied factors that influence a student’s learning. He found that feedback was not always beneficial. In two of my studies we analysed the effect of a simple type of feedback, given when our test subjects were highly concentrated on a task. We used sound as feedback, to inform our subjects of their progress while they were completing a task. The sound indicated whether they were right or wrong. To be able to concentrate you have to focus on the task and not let your thoughts wander. Our studies indicate that the sounds we played at some time points appeared to make it more difficult for the subjects to concentrate on the test. The sounds were aimed to help but when given in large amounts, indicating both right and wrong answers, they had a negative effect on the subjects’ learning. One theory of why that is, is explained by large amount of feedback given during a task, can shift attention to the feedback rather than to the task. Thus, concentration suffers. This is just one example that feedback is not necessarily good for our performance. From these results we suggest that we can easily be disturbed by sounds that grab our attention or praise directed at our intelligence. The studies even show the beneficial effects of expectations and intrinsic motivation. I want to highlight the importance of giving instructions and feedback in a way that provokes curiosity and the will to try again.

Praising character can in the long run, make us forget the amount of work we have put in. The studies I have described here suggest that we ought to give more praise and encouragement for effort rather than focusing on character traits which may shift our attention from the task at hand towards thinking about what and who we are


Alva Appelgren has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the Karolinska Institute, Sweden. In 2015 she defended her doctoral thesis Error, Praise, Action and Trait. Effects of Feedback on Cognitive Performance and Motivation.

This article has been translated from the original article that was previously published in Modern Psykologi (Modern Psychology).