I Don’t Want No Bad News – but I am Curious about This News: Our Polarized Reactions to Negative Feedback
I suggest that there is often a polarity operating when we are faced with the prospect of receiving negative feedback. In this essay, I articulate the nature of this polarity and suggest several ways to address the tension that exists within the polarity. I begin by offering a few observations regarding why we don’t like to receive negative feedback. Then I turn to the other side of the polarity: our lingering curiosity regarding this feedback.
Don’t Want No Bad News!!
As a very strong, controlling character in the Broadway musical, The Wiz, says: “I don’t want no bad news.” We certainly don’t want bad news about ourselves and, as Ariely noted, we will distort reality, and even regress to old style denial in order to avoid this feedback. I have already mentioned the powerful motivating force called “cognitive dissonance.” It is important for each of us to preserve a positive image of ourselves and to believe that any flaws in our character are known to us and are being addressed in our own behavioral plan (the way we operate in the world – especially with other people).
Without this positive image, we are likely to feel helpless and ineffective. Why even get up in the morning if we are not hopeful that something good will happen in our life and our relationships with other people? Why try out anything new in our life if we assume it won’t work and that we will be proven once again to be incompetent? We are likely to wind up depressed (and even a touch suicidal) without hope and a sense of personal effectiveness.
Behavioral economists, like Ariely, believe it goes beyond cognitive dissonance: throughout our life we have a compelling motivation to retain a positive image of our self. Our need for self-esteem drives many of our perceptions and actions – especially as these perceptions and actions relate to our interactions with other people. We can receive negative feedback when we stub our toe on a rock or when we realize that the coat we are wearing isn’t appropriate given the weather we just confronted when opening the front door. We are usually quite open to modifying our behavior in response to this feedback. We look where we are going in walking through the rocky field. We put on a lighter coat or pull out our parka.