GUEST POST: Two Myths about Feedback (and Why the Myths are Wrong)

GUEST POST: Two Myths about Feedback (and Why the Myths are Wrong)

By: Stacey R. Finkelstein

Stacey @drstaceyf is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Zicklin College of Business, Baruch College, City University New York. She received her PhD and MBA from the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business in 2011. Broadly speaking, she conducts research on consumer welfare. In one line of work, she focuses on processes related to self-regulation – how individuals prioritize short-term goals (e.g., eating tasty food; wasting resources) and long-term goals (e.g., eating healthy; conserving resources). For instance, she has explored when healthy food labels make people hungry (1), when negative feedback is motivating as a function of expertise (2), and how relationship depth impacts the provision of negative feedback (3). She has also explored how risk attitudes impact medical appointment scheduling behavior (4) and the impact of choice architecture on consumer’s savings, organ donation, eating, and shopping decisions (5), (6). She is currently on the Editorial Review Board of the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.

Note from the Learning Scientists: We previously published a post about a large literature review on feedback. We now continue the conversation with a post about two common myths related to feedback - and the evidence against them.

Myth 1: People don’t want to receive negative feedback

Whenever I discuss my research on feedback with strangers, I ask for their beliefs about feedback. For the most part, these beliefs converge on one core idea: that people don’t like negative feedback. It’s not pleasant to hear and it’s not fun to give. I typically hear others say if you have to give negative feedback, sandwich it between two pieces of positive feedback (the ubiquitous “Sandwich Model.”). Indeed, many popular press articles in the business and teaching domains espouse this belief. While the belief in supremacy of positive feedback is well-intentioned, but I’ve now conducted more than 30 experiments on feedback, and this belief is false. Here’s why:

Motivation Matters:

The “Sandwich Model” assumes that people always want to feel good and maintain a sense of positive self-esteem. This assumption leads to the idea that people should ask for positive feedback from others, and that we should give positive feedback to someone when they ask for it. Yet, we find that there is another important motive that people have when seeking and giving feedback: self-improvement (2), (7), (8). In fact, when engaging with feedback, the self-improvement motive often dominates the self-esteem (feeling good) motive. If people genuinely want to do better and you aren’t telling them when they make a mistake, they can’t improve.

The Meaning of Feedback Varies Over Time

Our work suggests that positive feedback signals commitment, i.e., that goal pursuit is fun and valuable, or that one can attain their goals. In contrast, negative feedback signals lack of effort (9). It informs people of where they need to spend their time in the future and offers insight into how people can improve (2), (7). Notably, our focus is on constructive feedback. If you simply tell a student they are bad at something, they will likely be discouraged and de-motivated. However, if negative feedback is constructive, these negative emotional experiences are likely to be mitigated. Importantly, positive feedback should also be constructive. It should point out in what areas someone is performing well and what behaviors they should continue to perform in the future. All too often, positive feedback is filled with empty praise.

Prior work in our lab finds that once people are committed to a goal, they are more open to receiving negative feedback on lack of accomplishments and “missed” actions. Experts tend to be committed to a course of action. They are people who have accrued a body of knowledge or skills in a domain because they like what they are learning or because they perform well in the area. Because experts have accrued a large body of knowledge, we find that novices and experts think about feedback differently.  Novices focus on asking whether their goal is fun, valuable, or attainable (that is, they focus on assessing commitment), whereas experts focus on asking they are investing enough effort. Compared to experts, novices prefer positive feedback because it affirms commitment. Compared to novices, experts prefer negative feedback because it signals effort is needed.

In one of our studies, American students taking either beginner or advanced-level French classes were asked whether they would prefer an instructor who emphasized what they were doing right (focusing on strengths) or what they were doing wrong (focusing on mistakes and how to correct them). Beginners overwhelmingly preferred an instructor who would give positive feedback. Advanced students, on the other hand, preferred a more critical instructor who would help them develop their weaker skills (2, Study 1). Our research therefore suggests that people who are experts in a domain – those who have already developed knowledge and skills – actively seek out negative feedback. They aren’t afraid of it and it certainly doesn’t damage their self-esteem. Furthermore, feedback providers seem to intuitively understand that constructive negative feedback helps these experts get ahead. In a study in the business domain, we found that when feedback providers gave feedback to a coworker who had been on their team for a long time (versus a short time), they spontaneously provided more constructive negative feedback about weaknesses and how to improve (3).

In learning contexts, advanced students who are secure in their abilities will be open to negative feedback and be more responsive (in terms of effort) if they receive constructive negative feedback. Students can (and should) also receive tailored feedback as a function of whether they are perceived to be confident in their skills versus needing more encouragement to signal that course material is fun, valuable, or can be mastered.

Myth 2: People understand the feedback you give

There is a body of research that attests that people predictably misunderstand other people’s perspectives (10). I have had Business majors engage in simulations where one person is tasked with being the “boss” who must provide (constructive) negative feedback to their “employee” about their performance, while the second person is the “employee” who receives the feedback and estimates their performance at work. At the end of the simulation, I have the “boss” and “employee” (who received the feedback) rate the feedback that was given, the employee’s performance, and the likelihood that the employee will receive a raise. Inevitably, a fundamental gap emerges: “bosses” think they are giving more negative feedback than employees, who tend to view the interactions as neutral in valence. Further, “employees” think they are performing better than they are according to the boss. What this reveals is that even when we think we are providing negative feedback, the feedback recipient might not perceive it as being negative. There are a number of reasons why this might happen – we might couch negative feedback in qualifying statements (i.e., “you sort of did this”) or we might bury it under layers of positive feedback (following the much-loved but ultimately horribly misleading Sandwich Model).

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Regardless of the reason, it is important that the correct information is conveyed to feedback recipients. When giving feedback, it might be wise to conduct an informal motivational audit and ask yourself what the recipient's motive might be and how you can provide constructive negative feedback if such feedback is warranted. The latter is especially important given that many people's innate tendency is to bury negative feedback. The feedback that you provide should also change over time. As your relationship with the feedback recipient deepens (i.e., you know them for a full semester), you might notice they are more open to receiving constructive negative feedback.


(1) Finkelstein, S. R., & Fishbach, A. (2010). When healthy food makes you hungry. Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 357-367.

(2) Finkelstein, S. R. & Fishbach, A. (2012). Tell me what I did wrong: Experts seek and respond to negative feedback. Journal of Consumer Research, 39, 22-38.

(3) Finkelstein, S. R., Fishbach, A., & Tu, Y. (in press). When friends exchange negative feedback. Motivation and Emotion.

(4) Liu, N., Finkelstein, S. R., Kruk, M. E., & Rosenthal, D. (2016). When waiting to see a doctor is less irritating: Understanding patient preferences and choice behavior in appointment scheduling. Management Science.

(5) McKenzie, C. R., Liersch, M. J., & Finkelstein, S. R. (2006). Recommendations implicit in policy defaults. Psychological Science, 17, 414-420.

(6) Cravener, T. L., Schlechter, H., Loeb, K. L., Radnitz, C., Schwartz, M., Zucker, N., ... & Keller, K. L. (2015). Feeding strategies derived from behavioral economics and psychology can increase vegetable intake in children as part of a home-based intervention: results of a pilot study. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 115, 1798-1807.

(7) Fishbach, A., Koo, M., & Finkelstein, S. R. (2014). Motivation resulting from completed and missing actions. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 50, 257-307.

(8) Trope, Y., & Neter, E. (1994). Reconciling competing motives in self-evaluation: the role of self-control in feedback seeking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 646-657.

(9) Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (1990). Origins and functions of positive and negative affect: a control-process view. Psychological Review, 97, 19-35.

(10) Epley, N., & Caruso, E. M. (2009). Perspective taking: Misstepping into others’ shoes. In K. D. Markman, W. M. P. Klein, & J. A. Suhr (Eds.), Handbook of imagination and mental simulation (pp. 295–309). New York: Psychology Press.

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