Why is it, then, that ten instances of praise can be completely canceled out (in my head) by one good criticism?
And by good, I mean on the mark and not stupid. Because, of course, the criticism that hurts the most is the criticism that we know, deep down, is accurate.
Praise is nice but mostly rolls off my back while one solid criticism—even sensitively expressed–can put me in the fetal position.
Is this just me? I haven’t yet found anything in the literature discussing this. I found lots about different types of praise (praise of traits vs. praise of performance and why one is better than the other), and this interview with Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass, who simply states as fact that criticism carries more weight than praise.
When we hear something negative we immediately and literally forget what happened just before, and we remember much more what happened after. If I start out as a manager with effusive praise, which supposedly makes the coming criticism go down easier, the minute I move on to the negative things that praise is blasted from your brain, doesn’t make it into memory at all. You don’t remember it, and what are you hearing? Negativity. Even if you then hear some vague—“Basically you’re doing fine”—afterwards, what you remember is vicious criticism, because criticism always seems much worse than it is, and you are very unhappy.
But why? I’ve puzzled over this for years. Sure, I’ve learned to bounce back when criticism knocks me flat, but I’d much rather it didn’t have that effect on me at all. I wish I could simply hear it, digest it, and use it to improve without all the suffering. I wish I could get as much joy from praise as I get pain from criticism.
Is this related to personality? To pessimism? To parenting? Are there skills I can master to make criticism less painful, or to at least give praise similar power?
Perhaps it’s related to the Zeigarnik Effect, as discussed by a PsychCentral colleague in relation to relationships.
In short, the Zeigarnik Effect is our ability to better recall incidents that we have not processed completely. Once we have finished processing something and found closure, we are free to forget.
How does this relate? Praise is an open-and-closed case: Well done! and done. Criticism, on the other hand, requires a great deal of processing. First, shame. Then resistance. Then more shame. Then letting it in. Then (if you’re anything like me) a little more shame. Then analysis, and deciding if you accept or reject the criticism. And then, hopefully, growth and improvement, once I’ve crawled out from under the bed.
But hiding under the bed at all just isn’t productive.
Is the secret giving criticism less power or praise more power? Or is there something important about the greater impact criticism has than praise? Perhaps we just believe criticism more than we do praise?
Or is it just that I’m hopelessly neurotic?
Image by Matthew Miller via Flickr (Creative Commons).