Hurlock’s Study: Praise verses Criticism

Research studies can be intellectual, academic, difficult to understand, and sometimes even irrelevant to our specific application. But there are other studies that can be very insightful and help us understand how better to do our job. There is one such study that I would like to discuss in this month’s column. The information is so timely and connected to managing others that I think we all need to read and think about what the researchers discovered. The unique part of this study is that the researchers were not studying adults, but rather children. I know this may sound strange to you; however, what we learn from the study can be directly related to managing adults. So don’t get caught up thinking this study doesn’t relate to your job because the subjects were children.

In this case the people studied were fourth and fifth grade students and the situation was how they performed in a math class. The variables introduced by the researchers were the type of feedback the students received after they took math exercises and quizzes.
Dr. Elizabeth Hurlock wanted to know what reactions there would be when fourth and fifth grade students received different types of feedback on their math performance. She specifically wanted to know if it was more effective to praise, criticize, or ignore students’ performance in math. And she wanted to know what would happen when students were subjected to each of those conditions. The outcome was to be decided by how many math problems each student had solved 2, 3, 4, and 5 days after receiving the different types of feedback.

For her study Dr. Hurlock divided the students into four groups. In the first group students were identified by name and praised in front of other students for their good performance. Students in the second group were also identified by name in front of other students, but they were criticized for their poor performance. Students in the third group were completely ignored, although they were in the classroom to hear the other students being praised or criticized. A fourth or control group was moved to another room after the first test. Students in this group took the same tests, but they received no comments on their performance whatsoever.


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Now, here is what Dr. Hurlock learned. Students in the groups that were praised or criticized performed better after the first day. Then their performance changed dramatically. The students who were criticized showed a significant decline in their test scores, and by days 3 and 4, they were performing equally with students in the group that had been completely ignored.
By contrast, the students who were praised experienced a major improvement after the second day that was sustained through the end of the study. By the fifth day of the study, the group that received praise showed much better performance than the other groups.

Look at the accompanying graph to see the scores of the four groups. It’s startling, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you think that the results of this study should be standard reading for every schoolteacher in America? Sounds like it, doesn’t it? But there is just one problem. Dr. Hurlock’s study was conducted in 1925, that’s eighty years ago! Unfortunately, the study wasn’t seen as important in 1925, and, therefore, hasn’t changed much behavior in the classroom since. But the results are so convincing that I would like to draw a parallel to managing adults with praise, criticism or indifference.

Some managers believe that giving positive reinforcement to employees is an indication of managerial weakness. So in an attempt to appear strong and in command of the situation, they become masters of inflicting emotional pain through criticism, sarcasm or indifference. Those three tactics are called the Three Pillars of Contempt, because the most common reaction to being subjected to them is to feel contempt toward the perpetrator.
With an effective management development program (, school teachers and business leaders can discover that reinforcing positive performance with supportive feedback is far better than creating a contemptuous atmosphere with sarcasm, criticism or indifference. Like many things in managing others, how your employees perceive you is what really counts. Your intentions are nice and noteworthy, but they are actually irrelevant. As every psychology student learns, “perception is reality.” And because it is reality we must be concerned with how we come across to others; in other words, how others see our behaviors is more important that our intentions. To do otherwise is to be foolish and ineffective.

As a manager you need to be aware of the power of positive feedback along with the dangers of trying to motivate others or change behavior with the use of criticism, sarcasm or indifference. Positive reinforcement has been proved by Hurlock’s study and many other studies to be the best method of getting your point across to others. It is unfortunate that so many managers haven’t been convinced of that fact. Watch your own style of giving feedback for the next few weeks. Monitor how much you offer praise as supportive feedback verses how often you lapse into the Pillars of Contempt. The first step in improvement is always awareness. Increase your awareness and then work to modify your style.


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