"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Breaking News: Pride is a better motivator than shame

We've all had those lunch room conversations about the million-dollar grants we'd like to get in order to prove that peanut butter is yummy or that up is different from down. A recent editorial in my local paper describes a study that might fall in that category, at least for most successful teachers and parents. Yet civic leaders and opinion makers never seem to catch on to this basic idea. The idea? If you want to mold behavior, shame doesn't work. I'll repeat that. Shame doesn't work. Pride works better. It's not perfect or complete. There is no infallible tool for the formation of character and setting students on the path toward success, but pride has a way better track record than shame.

Here's how one of the researchers described her experiment:
In one of our studies, we put three groups of subjects alone in a room with a very large piece of chocolate cake, the utensils to devour it and water. We told them they could eat as much or as little cake as they wished. But first, the members of one group were instructed to focus on the pride they would feel if they resisted the cake. Those in the second group were told to imagine the shame they would feel if they ate it, and the final (control) group was simply let loose, with no instructions at all.

We discovered that the study subjects who anticipated pride at resisting the cake consumed far less than those who focused on the shame of succumbing. They also ate less than the control group. In other words, when it comes to self-regulation, anticipated pride outperformed anticipated shame as well as unconsidered, heedless consumption.

That is, if you define the goal as "not eating tempting cake," then picturing yourself succeeding at that goal is a better strategy than imagining feeling ashamed. Translated into classroom terms, picturing yourself getting "A's" and receiving praise is a better motivator than trying to impress upon students the possibility and fear of failure, shame and punishment.

Think how powerfully that could be put to work in your classroom. I know I will try it in mine. I have found simple, brief meditation to be a good tool to help students to calm down and focus on the tasks to follow. Now in addition to the visualization of being relaxed and happy and calm and peaceful, I will add picturing being successful, being praised, feeling good, feeling proud of one's success and accomplishment.

Very simply ask them, "What would it feel like to get an A+ in that course? How good would that feel? Is that worth a few simple sacrifices?"

Anyway, it's something I plan to explore, and I always like to have a little academic verification to back me up.

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