How You Respond to Positive Feedback Might Depend on this One Trait
In five minutes, arrange the five letter below into as many words as you can. You don’t have to use all five letters. Good luck.
How many did you get?
Like so many problem-solving experiments conducted over the years, the answer depends not on intelligence or skill but perspective, feedback, and circumstance. Small manipulations, such as offering money to participants for generating more anagrams, or revealing the average number of anagrams other participants completed, can drastically sway results.
In recent years, social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, the associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia Business School, has used the anagram puzzle to study how people focus. Across dozens of experiments and articles, Halvorson has revealed that we approach problems in one of two ways.”If you are promotion-focused, you want to advance and avoid missed opportunities. If you are prevention-focused, you want to minimize losses and keep things working.” Which one is more effective?
Halvorson teamed with Jens Forster and Lorraine Chen Idson to find out. In an experiment conduct several years ago, they gathered 109 participants and divided them into two groups. Those in the promotion condition received four dollars and the chance to earn an extra dollar if they scored above the 70th percentile on the anagram task. Their peers in the prevention condition received five dollars, but if their performance dropped below the 70th percentile, they risked losing a dollar.
On paper, each condition was the same: every participant would receive at least four dollars. The difference is how Halvorson and her team framed the experiment. In the promotion condition, success meant gaining a dollar; in the prevention condition, it meant avoiding losing a dollar.
This subtle manipulation had a big impact. Halfway through the experiment, Halvorson told every participant that they were performing either above or below the 70th percentile (the researchers randomly assigned the feedback). The participants in the promotion-focused group took positive feedback well–it boosted their expectations and motivation–while those in the prevention-focused group did not. Their motivation actually decreased. When the news was bad, the responses flipped. In promotion-focused group, expectations of success and motivation went down. Expectations in the prevention-focused groups dropped dramatically but motivation surged.
This finding suggests that when we focus on gaining something, positive feedback helps us persist until we complete a problem. If, on the other hand, we dwell on the possibility of failure, negative feedback can also stimulate motivation and boost performance. We’re more willing to stick with it when we think there’s something to lose.
“Aren’t we supposed to banish negative thoughts if we want to succeed?” Halvorson asks in her book Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence (co-authored with E. Tory Higgins).
“Not if you are prevention-focused or are pursuing a prevention-focused goal. Because if you are, optimism not only feels wrong–it will actually bullshit and dampen your motivation. If you’re sure that everything is going to work out for you, then why would you go out of your way to avoid mistakes or to plan your way around obstacles or two come up with plan B?”
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