how does this add up?

Why does one negative comment have so much power over all of the positive feedback one receives? Why can one negative response spoil so much positive in a matter of seconds? There must be tons out there on this, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

This applies in all sorts of areas and I suspect many people react similarly although I would love to hear if there are those who don’t. Possibly it’s related to self-esteem, but I’m not sure to what extent.

Examples can come from all sorts of areas. Let’s say you get a bunch of compliments on how well you look and then one person makes a comment that you perceive to be negative (e.g., that it looks like you’ve gained weight if you’ve been trying to lose some, or that you look really thin when you’ve been trying to put on a few pounds) and that one comment then negates all of the positive and probably any/much positive that follows. Or let’s say you get a bunch of positive comments on a paper or a talk and then there is one negative critique (not the constructive kind, the asshole kind), which then seems to carry much more weight in one’s self-evaluation than all of the good feedback combined.

This is relational, of course, or one would at least think that aspect would matter as well. That is, it would be reasonable to give more weight to feedback we get from someone we know and respect compared to someone we know and don’t respect as much, or someone we don’t know at all. But is that what we do? Maybe in some situations that’s true, but certainly not all. It’s too easy to give equal weight to negative feedback no matter the source.

How long is it reasonable to be down about a negative comment especially when it is not given constructively? What does it take to remind ourselves that the negativity likely reflects something about the person expressing it much more than the target of the attitude? What’s a good approach to pushing the negative into the back of our minds so it’s not up front every time we think about the area under critique?

7 thoughts on “how does this add up?”

  1. I recently did some research that ended up being, in part, about efficacy-based self-esteem. Your post makes me think about that, imposter syndrome, and a really great book I read in an hour and a half on a plane the other day. As in, if you’re not sure of your own merit in whatever it is you’re doing, it’s pretty difficult to self-attribute positive accomplishments (and comparably easy to internalize fear-confirming negative feedback). The book speaks to this whole issue quite eloquently and without religion or any other kind of mysticism.


  2. I don’t know the answers to your questions. But I certainly know the experience of having one negative comment spoil a large amount of positive feedback, kind of like a gallon of milk would be spoiled by a drop of blood. I’ve had semesters of undergrad qualitative course evaluations that have been all positive except for one person, and, of course, that’s the evaluation which I can still recite back verbatim.


  3. Having puzzled over (and struggled with) a similar tendency for years, I’m hoping that someone will comment with brilliant answers to your questions.

    Just to add to the mix, I’m curious also about how our ways of processing feedback may relate to traits like “resiliency” or, shall we say, “chutzpah.” I recently watched a friend’s 9 month old daughter attempt repeatedly to climb over a wall of pillows that we’d built around her play area in the living room. Her determination and seeming delight in the challenge (even as separate from its eventual mastery) were wonderfully stunning to behold. Following, I’ve thought a lot about how to nurture that orientation in children (and, indeed, in graduate students).


  4. Sara, I have thought about this in parenting, too. I even bought a book. The gist of the message was, “be perfect, but don’t stress about being perfect, because that’s too much pressure.” So, you know, just do that.


  5. I think that the power of the negative comment comes from the “social discounting” we do on the positive comments we receive. When we receive a positive comment from someone, we are aware of the fact that the comment creates a social bond between us and the person making the comment and that this social bond may provide the commenter with other benefits. Back when I was single, complimenting a woman on her looks could be a prelude to flirtation (or more). At the current time, telling my wife she looks sharp is part of my continuing attempt to be a supportive spouse and maintaining a happy household. Complimenting a senior faculty member on their paper could be a prelude to gaining the opportunity to work with this person. Etc. Etc.

    On the other hand, a negative comment is not only a rejection of the particular work in question, but of the possibility of any social connection with the person whose work is being criticized. Indeed, this is why we may perceive negative comments as being more “honest.” The commenter seemingly has no ulterior motives other than delivering their truthful insights.

    A few points of evidence for “social discounting”:

    * Consider how difficult it is to find language to give a “neutral” comment. If you tell a person that they look “average” or “normal”, the person will most likely take this as a negative comment, even though the objective meaning is neutral. What we generally say when we want to give a neutral comment is “good”, “fine” or “solid” (which are weakly positive comments) and then we let the receiver discount them back to neutrality.

    * Consider the script when you feel compelled to give a negative comment to someone with whom you want to maintain relations. “You know Jeremy that I think the world of your keen insights and consider you are a marvelous sociologist, BUT…” In short, we remind the person of all the positive things we think before we deliver our bad news.

    I am not sure how we work “social discounting” into helping ourselves overcome the negative impact of negative comments. Maybe, it is by reminding ourselves (as the original post notes) that there may be reasons to discount negative comments as well. The negative commentator may have their own ulterior motives (such as increasing their own self-importance) for saying what they say.


  6. If you weigh positives and negatives, someone in your situation clearly has much more evidence in favor of a job well done than not. While it’s not easy to do, it’s important to focus on the evidence you have, rather than trying to extrapolate.

    It doesn’t help that we see the world in black or white, so if you weren’t all good then you must have been awful, or if you didn’t succeed then you must have failed. This all or nothing thinking can be really unhealthy.

    I don’t have the answers, but working on cognitive distortions like all or nothing thinking (it wasn’t perfect so it sucked), mind-reading (they just said it was good because they’re being nice), etc. can be helpful in at least channeling thinking about these things into positive experiences rather than debilitating ones.


  7. “Why does one negative comment have so much power over all of the positive feedback one receives? Why can one negative response spoil so much positive in a matter of seconds? There must be tons out there on this, but I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

    Well, one possible place might be the well-established psychological phenomenon called “negativity bias,” which refers to the greater salience and impact of negative information compared to otherwise-equivalent positive information. Negativity bias is manifest in forming impressions of other people (learning a negative thing about a person affects one’s impression more than does learning an equivalently-extreme positive thing), decision-making (a similar disproportionate impact of negative information compared to positive), preferential detection of negative stimuli (very-briefly-presented negative words are recognized at lower exposure times than are positive words), and so on (some citations below). But who knows whether knowing about negativity bias offers any protection against its potential unhappy consequences?

    Dijksterhuis, A., & Aarts, H. (2003). On wildebeests and humans: The preferential detection of negative stimuli. Psychological Science, 14, 14-18.

    Hamilton, D. L., & Zanna, M. P. (1972). Differential weighting of favorable and unfavorable attributes in impressions of personality. Journal of Experimental Research in Personality, 6, 204-212.

    Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: The negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 887-900.

    Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5, 296-320.

    Skowronski, J. J., & Carlston, D. E. (1989). Negativity and extremity biases in impression formation: A review of explanations. Psychological Bulletin, 105, 131-142.

    Taylor, S. E. (1991). Asymmetrical effects of positive and negative events: The mobilization-minimization hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 110, 67-85.


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