The Need for Praise

One of the classic distinctions made by motivation researchers concerns the difference between extrinsic motivation (where behavior is pursued because of the desire for secondary gain) and intrinsic motivation (where behavior is pursued for its own sake). In general, decades of psychological research shows that extrinsic motivation is associated with negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and sadness. Although sometimes contributing to short-term performance benefits (such as when a student completes a homework assignment to earn points), in the long-run, extrinsic motivation is associated with performance difficulties (such as why many people stop reading for pleasure after extrinsic benefits for doing so cease). In contrast, intrinsic motivation is associated with a better emotional experience and long-term performance benefits, particularly when individuals encounter a setback and need to persist to overcome difficulties.

There are a variety of factors that influence whether an individual will express extrinsic or intrinsic motivation (or, given that motivation occurs on a continuum, the extent to which they show these motivational styles). Perhaps the most studied factor concerns the provision of external rewards. For instance, in one classic study, researchers at Stanford University gave preschoolers markers and instructed them to draw with them. However, they varied the conditions under which the kids played. In one condition, preschoolers were told that they would receive a “good player award” if they played with the markers and then received such an award afterward. In a second condition, preschoolers were surprised with an award afterward, but were not told beforehand that this would happen. Finally, some kids received mild praise for playing with markers and did not receive an award. Results showed that individuals given the tangible, expected reward were about half as likely to play with markers when given the opportunity to do so later, most likely because they started to attribute the cause of their behavior to wanting to receive the reward.

Alfie Kohn is well-known for extending this research into criticisms of many different customs in our society today. For instance, in his book, “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes,” Kohn suggests that reliance on rewards by educators and parents are problematic for children’s long-term development. Most relevant to this post, Kohn suggests that many people have become “praise junkies” because of the amount of praise they have received in connection with their behavior.

Recently, I was struck by the parallels between these concepts in Psychology and some of the ideas expressed by C. S. Lewis in his amazing essay “The Weight of Glory.” For instance, Lewis writes:

“There are different kinds of rewards. There is the reward which has no natural connection with the things you do to earn it and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. . . The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”

Since reading this essay, I’ve thought more about Kohn’s criticisms of praise. I’ve noticed increasingly that my kids (and other kids, for that matter) seem to crave praise. For instance, when I go to the park with my kids, it is not uncommon for both of my girls to be saying “Dad, watch me do this!” It’s almost as if kids need praise.

I also think about the contention made by many psychologists – and supported by considerable research – that belonging and approval are perhaps the strongest psychological motivations (at least when basic physiological needs are satisfactorily addressed). If I am honest, surely much, if not most, of what I do is motivated by the thirst for approval by someone.

This has caused me to revisit the research on the effects of extrinsic rewards on individuals’ emotions and behaviors. In fact, the research doesn’t really support Kohn’s full-blown attack on rewards. As suggested earlier, research consistently shows that tangible, expected rewards contribute to poorer emotional experiences and long-term performance problems. However, the provision of praise is generally uncorrelated with outcomes. If there is any negative effect of praise, considerable research suggests it’s when the praise is experienced as controlling, or when the praise focuses on ability. However, praise that provides informational feedback or that focuses on something that can be controlled by a person, such as hard work, actually seems to boost intrinsic motivation and the beneficial outcomes that tend to follow.

In these ways, then, perhaps the desire for praise is not a deficiency to overcome or circumvent; perhaps, rather, it is a natural urge that needs to be addressed for individuals to flourish. Thus, the provision of praise need not be thought of as a coercive tactic. Praise can be beneficial, if provided authentically and with the intention to provide information and denote approval of controllable activity that contributes to good results. In fact, some actions naturally demand praise. As C. S. Lewis writes elsewhere:

“The most obvious fact about praise. . . strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. . . The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game. . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: ‘Isn’t she lovely?’ ‘Wasn’t it glorious?’ ‘Don’t you think that magnificent?’. . . I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”

It also has intrigued me to consider some reasons why we may long for praise. As Lewis again writes in “The Weight of Glory,” this longing may point to something Higher:

“The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret. And surely, from this point of view, the promise of glory, in the sense described, becomes highly relevant to our deep desire. For glory means good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things. The door on which we have been knocking our whole lives will open at last. . . Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”

In this way, humans’ natural urge to receive approval suggests something about our condition. If we crave praise and constantly seek approval, but never find that urge completely satisfied, perhaps this points to a need that must be addressed by something more complete and perfect than we encounter in the people in our lives. Perhaps we actually were created with the desire for belonging and praise that points to our deepest spiritual longings that only can be addressed by an omniscient, loving God.

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3 Responses to The Need for Praise

  1. John Bower says:

    Very insightful analysis of research and practical experience! Thank you for supporting the useful praise of incremental improvement in our children. The extrinsic motivators can often be a bridge to intrinsic motivation.

  2. Mike Day says:

    I agree with this assesment. I have four sons and from my experience with them as their father, I have observed their need to be noticed. I believe a loving Heavenly Father put this in us, this longing or sehnsucht as Lewis calls it, as a reminder that we are strangers on this earth. This is only a temporary home, and His home is where our longing will take us. It is through this connection to Him that we can become whole.

  3. CJH says:

    Thank you for this concise assessment on need for praise. I have noted as I work alone, I was unreasonably craving praise whenever I had interaction at meetings or conferences. However, I do have intrinsic value in my own work ~ but had lost this instinct along the way. Thank you for this important reminder.

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