When Is a Negative a Positive? (Ep. 117)

(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 here.)

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.

John B. Chilton

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


Ann Hotz

I can't believe those researchers are so out of touch with the workplace that they don't realize that most bosses love to give negative feedback and have trouble giving positive feedback. The problem is they use their positions to demoralize others so as to increase their own value. The past five bosses I have had were incapable of giving either positive feedback or constructive negative feedback. You guys are just justifying the ongoing abuse I've seen in the workplace.

Enter your name...

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.

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting)

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.


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.

Enter your name...

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

Eric M. Jones

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.

Joel Friedland

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,



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.


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.

Enter your name...

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).


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?


Good observation- two negs make a positive. Now, I get it. Now imagine multiples upon multiples of two negs. What a multiplication table. Funny food for thought.

Mike McNabb

I think this was an outstanding segment. I'm in military aviation and instructor (I actually taught instructors how to be instructors). One of the most critical things we instilled in our students was the process of giving accurate and credible feedback. This was so important because literally lives are on the line and if students didn't perform (or were told honestly and fairly how bad they were), bad things happened.

This was great to see covered! Keep up the good work!


Some feedback for Dubner on his Marketplace segments: you chuckle every time Kai R. introduces you. In fact in general, I think you're overdoing the "radio chuckle" that is so fashionable these days. It's getting old...