When Is a Negative a Positive? A New Marketplace Podcast

(Photo: Guillaume Capron)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “When Is a Negative a Positive?”  (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)

So when is a negative a positive? When the negative is feedback. We focus on a clever research project by Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago and Stacey Finkelstein at Columbia. It argues that positive feedback certainly has its role — especially when someone isn’t yet fully invested in a new project or job — but if it’s improvement you’re after, then going negative is where it’s at:

FISHBACH: 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.

You’ll also hear from Heidi Grant Halvorson, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School and the author of several books:

HALVORSON: “Look, doling out negative feedback is not fun. It’s embarrassing. We feel terrible. We feel guilty.  So we love hearing, ‘Hey, maybe I don’t have to give negative feedback,’ ‘Maybe I can just say positive things!’  ‘If I just keep saying positive things, then somehow this person will work to their fullest potential and everything will turn out fine.’ And that just turns out to not be the case.”

Although you won’t hear about it in the podcast, keep an eye out for Finkelstein’s new research project to learn what kind of feedback works best with cardiac patients:

FINKELSTEIN: So these are patients who have just had their first heart attack and there’s a lot of question over how do you appropriately give feedback to these patients so that they will complete the right amount of exercise. We’re planning to implement a lot of what we figured out in this study with these patients.

Your feedback, as always, is most welcome.

Audio Transcript

Kai RYSSDAL: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio, that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, the coauthor of the books and the blog, it is the…Here we go. Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It’s that moment every couple of weeks we talk to Stephen Dubner, the coauthor of the books and the blog of the same name. The hidden side of everything is what he does. Dubner, welcome back.


Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey Kai, thanks for having me back. You know last month, you know we New Yorkers lost a legend, former congressman and mayor, Ed Koch.


RYSSDAL: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.


DUBNER: Now, Koch was unique is a few ways, including the fact that he actively solicited feedback from the public.


Ed KOCH: Serendipitously I said on one occasion, “I’m Ed Koch, I’m your congressman, how am I doing?” People stopped to tell me, and I knew I was on to something.


DUBNER: So Kai, this got me to thinking about feedback generally.




DUBNER: It strikes me that a lot of people say they want feedback, but I’m not so sure they really do, especially if there’s a chance that it will be negative feedback.


RYSSDAL: Yeah, no, who wants to be told they’re doing something wrong? Forget it.


DUBNER: That’s probably right. But the fact is if you really want to get better at something, it’s hard to do that without feedback, whether it’s your job, or a sport, or schoolwork. So I wanted to know the latest academic thinking on feedback.


RYSSDAL: Alright, well give it up. What’d you find?


DUBNER: Well let’s start with the fact that there are obviously at least two different kinds of feedback, right: positive and negative. As it turns out, they each produce their own benefits. Positive feedback is really helpful when you’re trying to increase someone’s commitment. So let’s say, you know, someone new to a job or a project. Here’s Stacey Finkelstein, a Columbia management professor who’s been studying feedback.


FINKELSTEIN: For these people, positive feedback is most motivating. It’s what signals that there’s value to what they’re doing, they like what they’re doing, or that they might achieve their goal at some point.


DUBNER: But here’s the thing Kai, once somebody really buys into that goal, positive feedback has diminishing returns. So if you’re looking for actually improvement you’ve got to start going negative. Okay? Here is Heidi Grant Halvorson, she’s a psychologist also at Columbia.


RYSSDAL: This seems fraught.


HALVORSON: Look, doling out negative feedback is not fun.  It’s embarrassing.  We feel terrible.  We feel guilty.  So we love hearing, ‘hey, maybe I don’t have to give negative feedback.’  ‘Maybe I can just say positive things!’  ‘If I just keep saying positive things, then somehow this person will work to their fullest potential and everything will turn out fine. ’  And that just turns out to not be the case.”


RYSSDAL: Well, wait.  How do you know that’s not the case?


DUBNER: OK, well I’ll tell you about the research that Stacey Finkelstein and coauthor, Ayelet Fishbach, at the University of Chicago did. They ran a series of experiments with people in a variety of realms, some novices and some experts. And granted, these are only experiments, but this is the best they could do for now. And they wanted to see how different people handled feedback at different stages of their expertise. And the results argue quite strongly that novices really need the positive feedback, but that experts just start to tune it out. So here’s Fishbach.


FISHBACH: The more a person is committed to a goal, the more negative compared with positive feedback will be efficient.


RYSSDAL: But Dubner, people are fragile, man!  You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I come out of the studio, and someone says, “man that interview stunk!”  That hurts my feelings!


DUBNER: Well, I guess there are two ways to look at this: you can either look at trying to make people happy or trying to make people better. If you want to make people happy, you know…


RYSSDAL: That’s so cold.


DUBNER: Well, maybe, look, if you don’t want to get better, that’s your prerogative, right? If you do, then it’s critical feedback that’s going to help get you there. Now, I’m not saying you should eliminate positive feedback or that you should, you know, deliver the negative feedback in a way that makes people weep.


RYSSDAL: Well, give me a for instance here, would you?


DUBNER: Oh, I’m so glad you ask, Kai. So as you know, I’m a really big fan of Marketplace. I think you do a great job as a host.


RYSSDAL: Uh huh, yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah.


DUBNER: I would like to look at a couple recent examples of your work. I’ve noticed you are smooth as silk on most domestic matters. But I think you might want to think about practicing your foreign pronunciations a bit more before you get on the air. Here, listen to this one, Kai.


RYSSDAL: Alright.


RYSSDAL: If you want to know where those reactors built like Fumu…Fukushima rather, that Alex mentioned …


RYSSDAL: You are so fired!  Alright, we’re going to turn off your microphone, we’re done.


DUBNER: Hang on.  There’s another.


RYSSDAL: No there’s not.


RYSSDAL: The prospect of a quarter of a million new Romanian-Bulgarians.  Romanians, rather, and Bulgarians.


RYSSDAL: What are “Romanian Bulgarians”?


DUBNER: You remember them? And here’s a little something else I think you could maybe improve on, Kai.  This is interesting, this is kind of a trademark phrase of yours I’ve found.


RYSSDAL: A final thought on the way out that goes like this…This final note on the way out in which Boris Johnson, the mayor of The City of London…This final note as we leave off today, the end of the beginning


DUBNER: You’re sensing a pattern here I gather.


RYSSDAL: I hate you.


RYSSDAL: …This final note on the way out, we did a thing a couple of months ago…


RYSSDAL: You know what?  This may be your final note pal.


DUBNER: Possibly but before I go let me offer the constructive feedback.


RYSSDAL: There’s more?


DUBNER: No, here’s the thing, I have nothing against the “final note” or “on the way out,” but together they’re just redundant. So what about cutting one of them, and just think, Kai.  Just think of all the extra time you’ll save over the course of a year, maybe enough time to run an extra couple Freakonomics Radio segments.


RYSSDAL: Or five minutes every two weeks that we don’t have to have you on. How about that? Would that be alright?


DUBNER: Please no!  Please have me back!


RYSSDAL: Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics.com is his website. We’ll see you.


DUBNER: I hope so.


RYSSDAL: Maybe, I don’t know.

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  1. John B. Chilton says:

    And then there’s Bobby Knight’s new book, The Power of Negative Thinking.


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  2. Ann Hotz says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I don’t think they did a good job of differentiating between toxic, useless unpleasantness and negative feedback.

      “You screwed up with the Finkelstein account” is useless and negative in a toxic way.

      But look at their examples: Here’s something you said, and here’s how that specific thing could have been done better. It was delivered as pleasantly as possible and the content is specific and actionable.

      I’m sure it wasn’t fun to hear (and normally you’d deliver that feedback privately), but Kai Ryssdal is a professional who got to the top of his game by paying attention to feedback like this, so I believe he’ll find a way use that feedback to improve in the future.

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  3. Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) says:

    You indicated that there are some important conditions at work – and I suspect others might be critical too. Commitment to the goal is a precursor for success, and there are likely also roles for trust in the feedback (and the person giving it), the intentions of the feedback-provider and the style of the feedback (e.g. behavioural, general, personal, etc). There is also (I would hypothesize) the mindset of the individual receiving the feedback – the more open (growth mindset) and learning-oriented, the better! Would love to learn more about how all these factors interplay. Certainly giving and receiving feedback is one of the most valuable skills that we can all benefit from.

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  4. Spartak says:

    I heard it on Marketplace and could not wait to get home to take a look at the research. Intuitively, I have been convinced that negative feedback is at least as important as positive one. Now I can add data and research to support it.
    As a side note- I find it amusing that in the organization I work for negative feedback is not OK, yet the same organization consistently cuts their employees’ benefits. It creates a bizarre world where reality has little to do with management’s shared observations.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Cutting compensation is unrelated to providing critical feedback about specific aspects of your performance.

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  5. Eric M. Jones says:

    Computer hardware of course, operates with negative logic innards. That is, NAND and NOR logic. There is a good reason for this–two negatives make a positive, but positive logic can’t make a negative in any simple way.

    I trust negative reviews much more than positive ones (you can always get your buddies or employees or family to post a good review for you). Some bogus products go to amazing extents to publish positive reviews. In fact even finding the negative reviews of entirely fraudulent products can be hard. Find the negative reviews for “Tag-Away” homeopathic skin tag remover. It’s surprising hard.

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  6. Joel Friedland says:

    I saw a Harvard Business School professor on 3/7/2013 on Bloomberg TV and emailed him the following, which I believe is the type of negative feedback that may be useful:

    You moved your head too much when you just spoke on camera live on Bloomberg TV. All your head movement reduced your creditability.

    It was great to be addressed by you on camera like you would address me in a one on one conversation, but the way the camera is held and the way you hold yourself, it would be better if you did NOT address me like you would in a one on one conversation. Please move your head less when you’re on camera.

    To be true to yourself and true to your audience, you have to be false to your everyday conversational manner. Apparently, reality TV is not real, either.

    I would be honored by a reply acknowledging that you received this short note. Thank you for reading.

    He replied:
    Thanks very much for taking the time to provide feedback. Best,

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  7. TK says:

    Recently I watched a documnetary film which is about the difference between amercian and asian students in studying. It was interesting to know that asian students are motivated by negative feedback more than the american students. whether to use negative or positive feedback is also dependent on cultural context, I guess.

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  8. Beth says:

    I’ve been writing my doctoral dissertation for the last few months, and this podcast totally supported what I’ve experienced when soliciting feedback on my chapters. Earlier in grad school, I got really excited about positive feedback and would get discouraged by criticism. At this point, though, I’m just frustrated when someone reads something I wrote and says nothing but, “looks good!” Oddly, few things make me happier than getting a manuscript back full of criticisms from a professor. I know there are definitely problems with everything I write, but sometimes I’m too close to see them, and I need smart people to help me find the problems, so I can fix them.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      How many more people can you find who will read it? You could run an experiment in which half are asked to read it like normal and the other half are told what you said here when they’re asked to read it. Then you could compare the results to see which half provides better feedback (if there’s a difference).

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      • extremediethq.com says:

        I totally Agree with this person. Get a bigger sampling for your research and do a control group. The feedback will probably be dependent on what the reader was looking for and how much they understand of the subject matter. grammar? content?

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