The Power of High a Five

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Originally posted on October 16, 2014.

One of my earliest memories is my dad giving me a high five. He was training for a marathon and agreed to take me, his talkative four year-old, on a run. I ran an entire mile. When I finished, red-faced and smiling, he said, “Give me five, son.” It was my first high five.

According to a new study, high fives go a long way in motivating children. Five and six year-old children completed a task in which they imagined experiencing success. Next, the children received different types of praise. Some children received verbal praise that would highlight an individual trait (“You are a good drawer”), whereas other children received a high five.

What motivated the children more, clear praise for being good at something or a high five? The high five won handedly. When the children bumped into a setback, those who received a high five persisted more than the other kids did.

We might reconsider how we praise children’s behavior. If we tell children they’re geniuses, we’ve told them that they have a stable trait that isn’t under their control. If they fail a test, the responsibility can’t be theirs because they have a trait that should guarantee success on all intelligence test. Blame the teacher. Criticize the test. Give up and find something else to do. Don’t find a better way to study.

By giving a high five, children know they have done something well. They also know that their success is under their control. I have run many miles since my first high five, but that first one with my dad will always hold a special place in my heart. It motivated me, either consciously or unconsciously, to continue to push my limits. For that high five, I’m grateful.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”