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Freakonomics Radio

When negative is positive: Freakonomics on feedback

Marketplace Contributor Mar 6, 2013
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“You’re doing great.”

“Keep up the good work.”

“What were you thinking when you did that?”

Giving feedback can be an awkward experience. Those who give it out — employers, parents, teachers — can fear the reaction they’ll get. Those who get it can feel embarrassed or unmotivated.

But is there a better way to understand the whole idea of feedback? Some new research has insights into its value and shows that many people want to hear about what they’re doing wrong.

The research comes from Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and Stacey R. Finkelstein, an assistant professor of management at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“The more a person is committed to a goal, and by that I mean the more someone thinks that they absolutely have to do it, they like doing it, it’s important for them to do it, the more negative compared with positive feedback will be efficient,” says Fishbach.

Their work shows that positive feedback is best used to increase someone’s commitment to a goal. But the more a person works toward that goal, they less they value positive feedback. It turns out that they begin to need a sense of where they’re falling short.

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