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.