Search the Site

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.