Surviving the Biology of Negative Feedback

As a former teacher of biology and chemistry, I’m reasonably learned in the sciences and had been a teacher for several years when one day my Assistant Superintendent paid me a visit. “Wayne’s taking a leave next year and I’m assigning the AP Bio course to you,” he announced. “Sure,” I said, “be glad to…” Gulp! Me? Insecurity swamped me. Teach the equivalent of a college biology course? I’m not a real scientist. Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach!

Now, a little background is in order. I was one of only two females in a science department of twenty. I was the new kid on the block, and the man who’d been teaching the course for the past twenty-five years was generally regarded as the consummate educator in the department. You practically had to kiss his ring. Don’t get me wrong, he was a nice guy, just treated with a little too much reverence for my taste.

The new school year began. I surveyed the clientele. The average GPA had to be 99.999, the valedictorian and salutatorian staring at me from front row seats. As the weeks went on they began to annoy me. They asked a million questions, sometimes about the most obscure concepts. I was convinced they were trying to trip me up, to catch me in a mistake. I kept thinking, they probably have thirty IQ points on me. Eventually they’ll figure out I don’t know as much as they think I do.

Actors lament that when reviews come in, even if they are overwhelmingly positive, they tend to fixate on the negative. I’d always considered myself reasonably confident, provided I stayed inside my area of expertise and refrained from shooting my mouth off about stuff I know nothing about. I never thought this would apply to me. And now that I’ve stepped into this new world of writing I quickly found my insecurities getting the best of me again. I don’t have an MFA, and as I confessed last week, I never even took a creative writing class. How could I possibly hold my own against those who’ve formally studied the craft? I’m an impostor! A fraud! Everyone will know!

Why is it so easy to embrace the negative and dismiss the praise? I remember as a young woman someone once said to me, “You need to learn how to take a compliment. All you need to say is thank you.” It seemed so simple when he said it, but so hard to do. I felt that if you acknowledged a compliment it meant you agreed and were therefore … well … conceited. Conversely, it’s easy to accept negative criticism because we have a tendency to think the person who levels it is smarter, more accomplished, more honest than those who give positive critique. We subsequently give more credence to negative reviews.

Word cloud for EvolutionSo, science brain in gear, I decided to do a little research.*

Well, it turns out that biology has a lot more to do with this basic sense of insecurity than I ever imagined. There’s an evolutionary basis for it; to protect us from harm. We give more weight to negative feedback because it alerts us that something is wrong and that if we don’t make an adjustment then our very survival is endangered. And we process positive and negative information differently and in opposite hemispheres of the brain. Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, problem-solving, and the information is processed more thoroughly and slowly than positive ones. Thus, it hits harder and also triggers physiological responses: sweaty palms, increased heart rate and pulse, butterflies in our stomachs.This response is even evident in three-month-old babies and animals. Additionally, the research says Digital illustration of a dnathat negative feedback takes longer to wear off than positive feedback. And the fact that negative feedback is difficult to overcome sometimes can cause a setback. We feel immobilized, unable to move forward as doubt blocks us from making progress. The effect of negative comments has been measured to actually be twice as strong as the effect of positive critique.

I also learned that we remember the negative comments much longer than the positive ones. There is a well-known management tool called the criticism sandwich- offering praise, then the problem, then adding a few final words of praise. But this has been shown to not be as effective as previously thought.

The newest research tells us that:

  • People can only process ONE negative comment at a time.
  • When giving criticism follow the 5:1 rule, five positive comments for every negative one.
  • Consider your audience. If you’re told you’re going to give a lecture to very smart people, your anxiety level will be much higher and you’ll have more negative inner dialogue. Nix that!

Just knowing this may help us better deal with the bad stuff that inevitably happens, and, personally, I found this research reassuring. Hopefully, you’ll keep the biological response to feedback in mind when you either receive or give critique in the future. And when your first book hits the Bestseller List you’ll embrace the positive and consider the negative with the proper mindset. Read it, consider it, and then take what’s useful and toss the rest into the virtual trashcan in your brain. DNA considered, you’ll survive!

*For an excellent summary of the science, I highly recommend the following two articles:

“Praise is Fleeting, But Brickbats We Recall.”

Bad Is Stronger Than Good.”

Up Next From Caryn: A Holiday Wish. In January: The Anatomy of a Fairy Tale.


Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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