Positive or negative feedback: Which is best?

Whether delivered by a boss regarding a work goal, by a coach regarding an athletic performance, or by a trusted reader regarding the quality of a rough draft, the feedback we get often powerfully influences our ability to succeed. Yet significant controversy exists in the scientific literature about which type of feedback, positive or negative, is most effective.

As researcher Ayelet Fishbach explains: ”Several motivation theories attest that positive feedback is more effective for motivating goal pursuit than negative feedback because it increases outcome expectancy of the goal and perceived self-efficacy of the pursuer. According to this theoretical approach, positive feedback increases people’s confidence that they are able to pursue their goals, leading people to expect successful goal attainment. Negative feedback, in contrast, undermines people’s confidence in their ability to pursue their goals and their expectations of success.”

On the other hand, she says, “Other motivation theories make quite the opposite prediction, suggesting that negative feedback increases motivation more than positive feedback. For example, cybernetic models of self-regulation propose that positive feedback on successes provides a sense of partial goal attainment, signaling that less effort is needed to accomplish the goal. In contrast, negative feedback on lack of successes signals that more effort is needed and encourages goal pursuit.”

So which type of feedback is best? In her article “How Positive and Negative Feedback Motivate Goal Pursuit” Fishbach argues the answer is that it depends.

In general, when we succeed in behaving in a way that supports a goal (e.g., following a diet at breakfast to lose weight), we interpret that success in one of two ways: either as evidence of our commitment to that goal, or as evidence of our progress toward that goal. When our behavior (e.g., following a diet at breakfast) is taken as evidence of our commitment to our goal of losing weight, it turns out we’re more likely to repeat the same behavior again (i.e., follow our diet at lunch). If instead we take our behavior as evidence of our progress toward our goal, we’re less likely to repeat the same behavior again.

Thus, positive feedback will encourage us to repeat behaviors that lead us toward our goal when it signals our commitment, but not when it signals that we’ve made sufficient progress. So, for example, as Fishbach writes, “…a math student who receives a high test score and infers that she likes math will work harder as a result, whereas a classmate who receives similar positive feedback and infers sufficient progress will relax her efforts and focus on spending time with her friends.”

Negative feedback, on the other hand, will encourage us to try again and/or harder when we at first fail if that failure signals that we’ve made insufficient progress, but discourage us from continuing to try if it signals insufficient commitment. Thus, according to Fishbach, “…a math student who receives a bad test score and infers lack of commitment will subsequently reduce her efforts, whereas her classmate, who infers insufficient progress from the negative feedback, will subsequently work harder.”

Take another example: if a dieter chastises herself for her insufficient progress when she fails to follow her diet at breakfast, she’s actually more likely to follow her diet at lunch. On the other hand, if she chastises herself for her lack of commitment when she fails to follow her diet at breakfast, she’s less likely to follow her diet at lunch. In contrast, if a dieter congratulates herself for her strong commitment when she faithfully follows her diet at breakfast, she’s actually more likely to follow her diet at lunch. But if instead she congratulates herself on her outstanding progress when she faithfully follows her diet at breakfast, she’s actually less likely to follow her diet at lunch.

In other words, we should let success on the way to a desired goal mean only that we’re committed to that goal, and failure only that we’ve made insufficient progress.

But how do we take control of these interpretations? One way to increase the likelihood that we’ll focus on our commitment to a goal when we succeed in taking action toward it, according to Fishbach’s research, is by focusing not on the specific action we’ve taken but rather on the goal itself (that is, for example, on becoming healthier rather than on having completed a workout). As Fishbach writes, “When the…goal is salient, it appears far from reach. Consequently, actions signal commitment to a goal more than they can provide a sense of significant progress. However, if a person focuses on the action itself, the action signals goal progress and even fulfillment.” In contrast, then, one way to increase the likelihood that we’ll focus on our insufficient progress toward a goal (rather than a lack of commitment) when we fail to take action is by focusing on the action we failed to take rather than on the goal we’re trying to achieve.

How we interpret our behaviors also changes, however, as a function of our experience in pursuing a particular goal. As Fishbach writes, “People often start by evaluating commitment and then shift to monitoring progress as they gain experience or expertise in a goal domain. They make this shift because novices feel uncertain about their level of commitment, whereas experts are already committed and wish to monitor their rate of progress. One consequence of this shift is that novices should increase their efforts in response to positive feedback on their successes, and experts should increase their efforts in response to negative feedback on their lack of successes.” Thus when beginning a new endeavor, we should make more use of positive self-feedback (and give it to others when they’re novices as well), but as we gain expertise — or if we’re already experts — we should make more use of negative self-feedback.

To summarize:

  1. When we succeed in behaving in a way that moves us toward our goal, we should commend ourselves for our commitment to our goal, but not on our progress toward our goal (which we can accomplish by focusing not on our behavior but on our goal).
  2. When we fail to behave in a way that moves us toward our goal, we should criticize ourselves for our insufficient progress, but not for our lack of commitment (which we can accomplish by focusing not on our goal but on our behavior).
  3. When we attempt to accomplish a goal we’ve never attempted before, one  which we have little to no experience or ability to accomplish, we should commend ourselves on our commitment by focusing on the fact that we continue to strive for it even as we make mistakes.
  4. When we attempt to accomplish a goal we’ve accomplished before, one at which we have real expertise, we should look critically at our mistakes and failures in order to continually improve our ability to accomplish our goal better.
  5. We should apply these same principles when offering feedback to others (especially children).

Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Happiness in this World.  He is the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.

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