While negative feedback is often painful, people are more likely to accept criticism and take steps toward changing their behavior when they take a broad “forest instead of the trees” view. They also need to believe that change is indeed possible, according to a new study published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
“People are defensive when they are told about something they did wrong,” said lead researcher Jennifer Belding, Ph.D., from Ohio State University. “Listening to negative feedback requires self-control because you have to get past the fact that hearing it hurts and instead use the information to improve over time.”
In the first of three experiments, 85 undergraduate students at Ohio State University (47 female, 38 male) were randomly divided into two groups. The first group was encouraged to think in a broad view, which is known as high-level construal; while the second group was encouraged to think in a narrow view, or low-level construal.
The big-picture group was asked to name a category for 20 different objects. For example, these participants would say that a soda is a type of drink.The narrow-view group was asked to pick a specific example for each object. These participants might have said that an example of a soda is a Coke.
After reading about the dangers of skin cancer and tanning, participants were asked if they now wanted to reduce their risk by using sunblock and other means. Participants who enjoyed tanning were more motivated to change their behavior if they had been encouraged to think in a broad perspective.
According to the findings of a second experiment, people also need to believe change is possible to motivate them to alter their behavior. This study involved 133 undergraduate students (58 female, 72 male, three unrecorded).
In this case, one group read a message suggesting that skin cancer could be prevented through applying sunblock and avoiding tanning, while the other group was told that skin cancer was caused by predefined characteristics, such as genetics and ethnicity.
Then when participants were given the option to read about skin cancer prevention tips, those with a family history of skin cancer spent more time reading the materials if they had been told that skin cancer was preventable.
Two more experiments conducted online with more than 600 participants had similar results. People who liked to tan were more motivated to seek information about skin cancer prevention tips if they had been encouraged to think in a broad view and if they believed skin cancer could be prevented.
“Thinking about the big picture is going to make people more open to negative feedback when it’s something you can and should improve,” Belding said.
The research findings have important implications for a variety of scenarios. While delivering negative feedback to an employee, for example, a manager should speak broadly about why these improvements are needed and how they are possible before addressing specific steps, Belding said.
Screaming and blaming never helps because it makes employees more defensive and less likely to change their behavior, she added.
Furthermore, it would be helpful if health education campaigns focused on the big picture and assured people that change is possible — this would help motivate people to take action, Belding said.
The study was published online in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.