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Self-defense against criticism

There’s a curious thing about people. All of us are driven in some way or another to achieve – we want to run faster, be more creative, win more awards, cure more illnesses, earn more money. But here’s the thing: if you want to help us reach our individual potentials by pointing out how we’re doing and where we could improve, if you want to offer warm words of wisdom, constructive criticism or “360-degree feedback”, then think again. Most of us would rather not hear it.

Our fragile egos are partly to blame. We all want to meet our own expectations of ourselves, and so being critiqued – or even just the prospect of being critiqued – can present an enormous threat to our self-esteem and positive sense of identity. Yet as decades of psychological theory and research have demonstrated, people have endless cunning tactics at their disposal for remaining positive in the face of criticism.

For this reason, rather than us welcoming feedback with open arms, our first response is often a defensive knee-jerk. These reflexes serve to make us feel better about ourselves and yet, almost paradoxically, they also shine an unflattering spotlight on our insecurities, character flaws, and unpleasant attitudes.

Ignorance is bliss

The art of deflecting feedback requires being adept with selective attention and self-deception techniques. Many people will cautiously fish for compliments, for example, innocently seeking feedback only from supportive allies, and only on matters in which they know they excel. But perhaps the simplest deflection technique is to avoid hearing feedback at all. We observe this “fingers in the ears” reaction within the education system, where students sometimes fail to even collect or look at the advice they receive on their assignments. And in the world of public health, we see that people will go to great lengths to avoid visiting their family doctor, rather than risk being advised to lose weight or stop smoking, or given other unwanted home truths.

Psychological research reveals more about this unhealthy appetite for ignorance. In one study, students watched a bogus educational film about a serious disease called “TAA Deficiency”. In fact, TAA Deficiency is completely fictional, but the students were not told this information; instead, they were asked whether they wished to provide a cheek swab for assessing their risk of developing the disease. Half of the students were told that if they ever developed TAA Deficiency, then the treatment would involve them taking a two-week course of pills. Of this group, 52% agreed to provide the diagnostic cheek swab. The other half of students learned the treatment would involve taking the pills for the rest of their lives. Of this group, only 21% agreed to the swab.

These findings demonstrate a common pattern seen in other studies within and beyond the context of healthcare. That is, people are especially resistant to hearing feedback when they believe it could oblige them to do something difficult or unpleasant.

It’s not me, it’s you…

Although ignorance is bliss, it isn’t always possible to ignore or avoid critical feedback entirely. In many situations, we instead need to find other ways to protect against ego-bruising. One of the other handy tools in our self-deception toolbox is misdirection: focusing attention away from our flaws.

For example, when we hear that we have performed worse than other people, our common reaction is to point to those people’s shortcomings and away from our own. “She may achieve more than me” – you might argue – “but I have more friends, and a better personality too.” It isn’t unusual to exaggerate our own admirable qualities and our rivals’ flaws, of course, but research shows that we do this far more when we learn that our rivals have outperformed us. And although it might sound spiteful, this can be a highly effective way of maintaining and validating our positive self-regard in the face of failure.

Perhaps the most apt person to discredit when faced with difficult feedback is the person who provides it. As Harvard academics Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen astutely observed in their book Thanks for the Feedback, “When we give feedback, we notice that the receiver isn’t good at receiving it. When we receive feedback, we notice that the giver isn’t good at giving it.” In this spirit, when a critical reviewer recently informed one of us that our research paper would have been “better with more effert” (sic), it was highly tempting to note the critic’s poor spelling, and surmise that they were just incompetent. Who would trust the judgment of someone who can’t even spell? Reacting this way wouldn’t push us to improve the paper, of course, but it would certainly be far easier and would numb the pain.

Discrediting the feedback-giver is not always enough, though, and the next step might be to actively blame them for our failures. In fact, the way we blame feedback-givers can sometimes uncover our most unpalatable of prejudices. In a study conducted at the University of Waterloo in Canada, students reported the grades they had received in various courses, and rated the quality of the teachers who gave them those grades. The results showed that students who performed poorly tended to minimise their loss of face by blaming their teachers: the lower the grades they received, the more they judged the teaching as low-quality. But crucially, unlike their high-performing classmates, the poorly performing students were especially critical of teachers who were female. In their search for ways to discredit their teachers, these students apparently discovered that discriminatory sexist attitudes can be an effective tool of blame.

‘Emotional armour’

It seems that even the most useful feedback can bring out our worst sides. But are these defensive reactions to feedback inevitable, or can we avoid them? It stands to reason that if we could, then we would often be far better equipped to reach our goals. After all, feedback is one of the strongest influences on our development, yet we can only ever benefit from advice that we listen to.

The trouble is that none of our options really seem very appealing: failing to reach our goals makes us feel bad, but so does hearing critique that could help us to achieve those goals. If we are so afraid of damaging our self-esteem, though, then perhaps the solution to this dilemma is to reflect on why we feel so positively about ourselves in the first place. Indeed, research suggests that people are more open to receiving diagnostic medical feedback – such as by getting tested for the fictional TAA Deficiency – if they first think about the positive traits they most value in themselves, and remember past occasions when they demonstrated those traits. This finding fits with the broader, perhaps predictable, picture that people who already experience high self-esteem are generally better than their less-assured counterparts at seeking feedback from others.

So if we want to be more receptive to unwanted news, it might help to put on some emotional armour beforehand, ensuring that our positive self-regard can stay intact regardless of whether the news is ultimately good or bad. In fact, maybe another part of the problem is that we allow ourselves to treat feedback as unwanted in the first place. Classic psychological studies on persuasion show that people can easily trick themselves into thinking they enjoyed an unpleasant task, if they only believe they actively chose to do it. Could something similar work with feedback? Can we convince ourselves to accept advice merely by believing that we chose to receive it?

Some support for this idea comes from American research in which participants estimated the years in which various historical events occurred. The more accurate their answers were, the more money they won. Each participant then answered the same questions for a second time, but not until they were offered feedback about the answers that other people had given. Sometimes this feedback was free, and sometimes it would cost a few dollars from their winnings if they chose to accept it. Unsurprisingly, people were more likely to accept free advice than costly advice. But participants were much more likely to take the feedback on board – by shifting their estimates toward what other people thought – when they had paid for it. In other words, these results suggest that people feel a stronger sense of obligation to act upon advice when they feel they have invested resources in receiving it.

If we actively seek and invest ourselves in receiving honest feedback, then, and if we bolster our positive identities in anticipation of how bad it might feel, we may find ourselves ready to hear and accept the advice that we most need. Perhaps there are even ways to train ourselves to recognise our knee-jerk reactions whenever we have them, so that we can resist concluding that everyone else, rather than us, is wrong.

Whichever mental precautions we take, though, reaping the benefits of challenging feedback will always be tough. Science may offer advice on how to do this better, but ultimately, we are all free to take it or leave it.

Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone