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Feedback, Good or Bad, Can Backfire

Perhaps contrary to common wisdom, when people involved in complex decision-making tasks get feedback, it actually makes their decision-making worse — whether the feedback was positive or negative.

When people are performing difficult or demanding tasks, receiving feedback overloads them with too much information, distracting them from making a good decision, said study author and cognitive scientist Dr. Magda Osman of Queen Mary, University of London.

“We found that people’s performance got worse when they had to make sense of the feedback they were given while also performing the main task,” she said.

“The role of feedback is overemphasized. People typically think that any form of feedback should improve performance in many tasks, and the more frequently it is given the better performance will be. ”

“However what needs to be considered is how complex the task is in the first place, because this will determine how much feedback will actually interfere with rather than facilitate performance.”

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, involved about 100 people who were given the task of choosing how best to either predict or control the state of health of a baby.

Osman notes that her findings can be applied to a variety of complex situations.

“The introduction of smart energy meters into the home to monitor the amount of energy you’re consuming seems like a nice ‘green’ idea to help you consume less energy, but the complexity of the feedback people receive may not necessarily help them to reduce their energy consumption,” she said.

“If the energy meter keeps changing and people are unable to track what appliances are on, how could they possibly learn how to lower their energy consumption?

“People are already being bombarded with high levels of complex information with the influx of new technology into our lives and the increasing reliance on information from the smorgasbord of apps we have at our fingertips,” she continued.

“It is bound to take its toll on our ability to make good choices in difficult decision-making situations.”

Osman additionally warns that employers need to be aware of the type of feedback they are providing to their staff.

“We have shown that feedback really doesn’t help people who are making complex decisions,” she said. “People in management positions need to give their staff more time to analyze and evaluate things in detail when dealing with difficult situations so they can come up with solutions without any distractions in order to get the best out of them.”

Osman acknowledges that her findings are at odds with other researchers, including Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., who wrote in his popular book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that feedback is good.

“My work shows that feedback alone is not enough to ensure success in decision making,” she said. “I may not be popular for my research into the role of feedback in complex decision-making tasks but I hope it will make some people think twice about whether they could potentially hinder people’s performance with the feedback they provide.”

Source: Queen Mary, University of London 

Feedback, Good or Bad, Can Backfire

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Feedback, Good or Bad, Can Backfire. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 15 Aug 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.