03 June 2022

Constructive Feedback

Welcome back. Given my years and positions in academia and government, I’m well versed in giving constructive feedback, probably too well versed for some recipients. I never hesitated to offer feedback if I thought it could help. Apparently, that’s not the norm.

Studies have suggested that people withhold feedback to avoid negative outcomes for themselves or others, or due to lack of motivation. But a recently published study by researchers affiliated with Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley found that people may hold back simply because they underestimate the recipients’ desire for feedback.

I’ll summarize that recent study and hope you find it of interest.

Pilot Study and Experiments
The researchers conducted a pilot study and five experiments.

Pilot Study: Researchers with a blemish on their face (e.g., smeared lipstick or chocolate) approached survey-takers on a university campus. Of the 155 who reported noticing the blemish, only 4 told the researcher about it, demonstrating that people seldom give constructive feedback in a field setting.

Survey-takers' reasons for not providing feedback in pilot study (from www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-pspi0000393.pdf).
Experiment 1: The researchers recruited 721 adults through Prolific Academic and had them imagine either giving or receiving feedback about 10 different workplace situations (e.g., a rip in the seat of one’s pants, making an error in a report).

“Givers” consistently underestimated the “receivers’” desire for constructive feedback, an effect that was stronger when issues seemed more consequential. The imagined relationship between givers and receivers (friends, acquaintances or strangers) had no effect.

Predicted and actual desire for constructive feedback for more consequential scenarios (from www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-pspi0000393.pdf).
Experiment 2: The researchers had 403 adults from Prolific Academic interact in pairs to recall an instance when one participant had the potential to give or receive feedback and the other to give feedback on the recalled memory. Givers consistently underestimated how much receivers wanted constructive feedback.

Experiment 3:
To test how underestimating the desire for feedback might differ between people who know each other well, the researchers enlisted 50 pairs of friends, roommates or romantic partners for an online Zoom experiment.

One member of each pair was randomly assigned to be the giver, generating constructive feedback he or she wanted to share, and the other to be the receiver. Participants first predicted how they would feel giving or receiving feedback, then interacted, and finally reported how giving or receiving the feedback actually felt.

Givers again underestimated the receivers’ desire for feedback. The underestimation was predicted by the givers’ beliefs about the value for the feedback as well as by the givers’ predictions of their own discomfort.

Experiment 4: The researchers recruited 600 adults from Prolific Academic to test two potential interventions to reduce underestimating the receivers’ desire for feedback. One intervention asked givers to imagine someone else gave the feedback; the second was designed to promote perspective-taking by asking givers to simulate what it would be like to receive feedback themselves.

While both interventions led to more accurate predictions of receiver desire for feedback, the perspective-taking givers were significantly more accurate. This suggests that givers may be focusing too much on their own experience (anticipating discomfort and relational harm) or not fully considering the receiver’s potentially positive experience (e.g., the value of the feedback).

Experiment 5: The final experiment enlisted 102 pairs of students for one member of each pair to give feedback to the other member in a financially incentivized ($50) public speaking competition. Receivers who received more feedback had higher percentage score improvements between their practice and final speeches. Suffice it to note that givers underestimated the receivers’ desire for feedback.

Wrap Up
People may forego the opportunity to provide constructive feedback due to concerns about negative interpersonal consequences or lack of motivation. The study demonstrates another reason is that people consistently underestimate others’ desire for constructive feedback, especially because they underestimate the value of their feedback. 

Wise comment from Yoda (from memegenerator.net/instance/80945126/).
The researchers emphasize that feedback is key to personal growth and improvement and can correct problems that are otherwise costly to the recipient. Don’t hold back. Thanks for stopping by.

Study of underestimated desire for feedback in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-pspi0000393.pdf
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/946947
Prolific Academic: www.prolific.co/

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