COPE CopeLine Supervisor

September 2018

Your Wellness & Work-Life Newsletter

Why are we so sensitive to criticism?

Research shows that humans are much more likely to recall and to be influenced by negative experiences than positive ones. "Some people do have a more positive outlook," says Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford University, "but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail."

The Brain

According to psychologist Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (Harmony Books), the outsized impact of criticism is a vestige of our caveman past, when our lives depended on being able to remember danger. Scientists call the phenomenon negativity bias, and it manifests itself in the parts of the brain where positive and negative stimuli are processed and stored differently. Two areas of the brain---the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex---work especially hard to process criticism, using about two-thirds of its neurons to focus on the negative. Bad feelings are placed in long-term memory more quickly than good ones; many positive experiences go straight to short-term memory and are only stored longer-term if they linger in our awareness for 12 seconds or longer.

In the Workplace

It should come as no surprise that researchers have found negativity bias in the workplace. Scientists have studied professionals to see what makes a day good or bad. The findings showed that when professionals made even the slightest step forward on a project, their day was good; however, a minor setback resulted in a bad day. Furthermore, they found that the negative feelings relating to setbacks were more than twice as strong as the positive feelings from steps forward when relating to the individual's happiness that day. "We found that of all the events that could make for a great day at work, the most important was making progress on meaningful work, even a small step forward," says Teresa Amabile, co-author of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011). "A setback, on the other hand, meant the employee felt blocked in some way from making such progress. Setbacks stood out on the worst days at work."

What Can a Supervisor Do?

This suggests, among other things, that the time-honored management tool, sometimes referred to as the criticism sandwich---offering someone a few words of praise, then getting to the negative feedback, and finally adding a few more words of praise---may not be nearly as effective as once thought. Professor Nass suggests managers offer praise after criticism, not before, so that the praise actually makes an impression on the receiver. And because most people can take in only one critical comment at a time, don't wait for the annual review to deliver a list of comments that may be construed as negative. Don't heap meaningless praise on employees or, for that matter, our children or friends, he says, but criticize constructively and sparingly.

If you have any further questions on managing criticism, contact COPE at or call 202-628-5100 to speak to an EAP professional.

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