September 21st, 2021


The Pathology of Praise

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

Published Nov. 16, 2016

The Pathology of Praise

How compliments and criticism may be partners in crime

You’re so cute. You’re so sweet. You’re such a doll.

You slob. You moron. You’re such a loser.

Anyone who has studied education or taken parenting classes has heard the eight-to-one rule: offer eight positive comments for every negative one. The theory is sound. By responding to good behavior, we accomplish three things:

         • reinforce that behavior so it will be repeated more often

         •encourage a positive self-image inconsistent with bad behavior

         •legitimize occasional criticism so it will be taken to heart

All well and good. Except when it doesn’t work.

In her acclaimed bestseller, Mindset, Dr. Carol Dweck reports that grade school teachers criticize boys eight times more often than girls. If that weren’t enough, school-age boys typically pepper their conversation with insults, put-downs, and name-calling. Consequently, we should expect to find that girls grow up into self-confidant over-achievers and boys grow up into meek underperformers.

In fact, just the opposite is true.

Professor Dweck observes that the constant negativity directed at boys makes them increasingly impervious to criticism, which may boost their confidence but leaves them unreceptive to constructive advice. In contrast, the praise lavished on girls can leave them hypersensitive to criticism, to the point where they are afraid to take risks and tend to indulge in constant self-doubt.

Applied to society at large, this may explain a lot about our collective cultural dysfunction.


There are two ways to give criticism and two ways to give praise. The most common kind of praise is the warm-fuzzy adulation: nice job; good work; you’re the best.

These are the junk food of commendation; emotionally yummy, but lacking psychological nutrition. As a rule, praise for the sake of praise is recognized as insincere and unfounded. Far better to acknowledge the qualities and characteristics that produce success: you worked really hard; you put a lot of thought into that; I’m really impressed by your honesty.

As professor Dweck points out, empty praise often leads to insecurity, since the accolades seem unconnected with actual work or work ethic. Even when linked to performance, praise that emphasizes results and outcome divorces approval from the more substantive metric of motivation and effort. In other words, it sends the message that you have value only when you succeed and none when you don’t.

On the flip side, relentless criticism can quickly become filtered out, especially if it is considered unfair or unbalanced. We might be willing to listen to constrictive suggestions for improvement when they are given respectfully and for our benefit; but if all we get is a stream of negativity, we tune it out and become immune to it.


In 1992, George H. W. Bush lost the presidential debate -- and subsequently the election -- when he glanced at his watch during a question from the audience. In 2000, Al Gore lost the debate -- and subsequently the election -- by rolling his eyes and sighing in response to George W. Bush’s folksy remarks. In both cases, voters were turned off by the lack of manners and decorum they expected from any presidential contender.

Now consider how those missteps pale in comparison with the foibles of this year’s campaign. It started during the primary debates with such invectives as Lyin’ Ted and Little Marco, as well as slurs about Carly Fiorina’s appearance. Then it continued in the general election with Mr. Trump comparing Mrs. Clinton to the devil and vowing to throw her in jail, and Mrs. Clinton declaring Mr. Trump unfit to serve and claiming his party has abandoned him.

Put that together with the relentless barrage of hyperbolic attack ads and self-promoting braggadocio, and we ended up caring less about who won and more about when it would all be over. More broadly, in response to the endlessly repeating mantra of America as the greatest country in the world and the dire prophecies of a country in catastrophic decline, many of us tuned out all thoughtful consideration and abandoned our fate to the next cast of elected officials.


As depressing as modern politics has become, we have to remember that politics follows the culture at large. If we want to change our society, we have to start by changing ourselves. Here are a few places to begin:

Just the facts, ma’am. Everything you see in an email or read online isn’t necessarily true. And everything you feel isn’t grounded in reality. So get the story straight and check your ego and emotions at the door before you debate with your in-laws or your co-workers. If they believe that you know what you’re talking about, they’ll be more likely to listen.

What did you say? If you really want to get the upper hand in an argument, respond to your antagonist with this: “So what you’re saying is....” then repeat back his position. The shock that you’ve actually heard him will leave him momentarily speechless, long enough for you to explain why you disagree.

Me, too. Find some point, any point, on which you can agree. Once you dispel the perception of irreconcilable differences, it’s easier to find common ground.

Admit when you’re wrong. Nothing gives you more credibility than demonstrating a willingness to concede a point. Once you do, you’re in a better position to win the next one.

Don’t sit still for spin, especially from your own side. Just as insults make us deaf to criticism, uninformed consensus makes overconfident in our beliefs. Just as you wouldn’t accept sloppy thinking or skewed information from the other side, you shouldn’t tolerate it from your own. It discredits your position and concedes the moral high ground.

Be clear, be fair, and always remember the words of King Solomon: The one who listens -- it is he who deserves to speak!

Rabbi Yonason Goldson is a professional speaker and trainer.  Drawing upon his experiences as a hitchhiker, circumnavigator, newspaper columnist, high school teacher, and talmudic scholar, he teaches practical strategies for enhancing communication, ethical conduct, and personal achievement. He is the author of Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages is available on Amazon.