The Brain: Positive Feedback Versus Negative Feedback

Guest Blog by Ruddy Adam (I love to contribute with illustrating graphics to his posts.)

Over the past twenty-years there have been a ton of studies done on positive feedback versus negative feedback, for the purpose of learning and productivity. They and other studies tell us a lot about what our brains love — and what they hate.

Most people today would say, “Obviously, positive feedback is better than negative.” But that absolutely has not been the philosophy executives and teachers and leaders were taught to carry out for over a hundred years — in fact, until recently — and I fear the latest findings still haven’t sunk in deeply enough to take hold across the world, as of yet.

Management and leaders and bosses being aloof with their company’s workforce, not fraternizing with them, paying them as little as possible, and placing them in cold, austere surroundings was the regnant theory for generations. No music. No art. No windows. Short breaks. Eat on the run. Get in early and stay late. Never a positive word or a pat on the back. Those were the conditions our ancestors worked under — and they still exist in some places in the US, especially the school of thought regarding no positive feedback.

Our brains are slightly different from us — the person — in that they have not much of a neutral point — they either love or hate. The brain is kind of an either or independent rascal, though for the last fifty-years scamsters have been trying to make it purely neutral, mainly so they can get by with anything that pleases them or suits their particular agenda.

I can attest that for over 35-years of writing articles the most gracious people give more positive feedback than negative — and are by far the most well-mannered, generous, happiest, healthiest, and most fun people to be around. They make far more positive comments than negative. When they do offer a varying point it’s usually just that — a point — while they are grateful for the work itself. That’s still positive feedback.

Positive thinking people never just discard out-of-hand or slough off a whole piece in an email. Neither do they ever hit me with, “Oh yeah, I already knew that; I don’t need that kind of study.” They will work by point, and are always far more positive than negative. Positive people who have not reduced their choices in life and have not reduced their philosophy down to the belief that they know all they need to know about everything automatically accept the fact that they can always learn something new and that it’s often good to review things they already know. After all, what better way is there to learn than rote?

Good bosses and leaders concern themselves with how they give negative feedback when they must — and certainly there are times when they must.

We have a large number of military folks, most of whom are retired now, though we have a few active people. I’m sure the retired enlisted men will enjoy this — knowing there is an officer who thinks about how to keep those under his command happy.

One of our military folks is a very intelligent-thinking (as several are) high-ranking officer (now retired) whom I’ve known since he was active. We discussed long and seriously perfecting a method to correct people, or as he used to say, “Call them on the carpet” — partly because I was writing a series of articles called, “How to Run a Small Business and Survive and Thrive.” The help was mutual — I needed info for my pieces; with what would build into thirty managers in his company, he needed to hone his leadership style in the business world.

I like him a lot because although the military has a chain of command that would have allowed him to pass down “on the carpet work” to others, he liked to be hands on with his officers — to keep them from intoning that old, cynical adage military people often say: That — “you know what tumbles down hill.” He thought it better that the people he had charge of not think he was one to start the tumble — so he handled as much as he could himself.

Now, think what he was up against: military officers, many of whom he was at the Academy with, most of whom he was friends with, some of whom he was promoted over, and some of whom, as he said, “can have egos large enough to cover the Equatorial Parallel.”

I got to him quickly one time after reading a study that said the human psyche needs five positives to overcome one negative — when dealing with the average person. It truly excited him. After some discussion, we decided that — from our experience — three would do for very intelligent, well-rounded people. For the most part, that was the type of person he was dealing with. There may be some politics involved, but you don’t get in one of the academies, rise to the rank of captain or higher unless you’re above average.

So he created the “Layer Method” (which evolved into the “Meat and Three Method”), in which, when he had to correct or criticize a fellow officer, he started out with a soft laugh and which helped to create a congenial atmosphere (# 1 positive) and a serious positive comment about the person’s work (# 2) — which he spent several minutes on. And this had to be a true positive, because he’s not dealing with people he could con. Most military officers aren’t going to fall for a lot of razzle dazzle.

After that (in the center) came the meat — the part the brain is going to take negatively if not structured very smoothly — this portion he polished until he could couch it in such a way that it almost seemed positive. He moved away from that position as quickly as possible, because he has to assume he’s dealing with people that a short word directly to the point is all that’s needed.

That kind of leader gets results — and he has. His business has thrived over the years through thick and thin, and he has a very small turnover of workers.

The brain loves positive feedback; it hates negative feedback. Studies on worker productivity and student learning show that exactly. The brain loves a happy, positive workplace. Companies that keep their employees happy receive more loyalty and generate better productivity.

By positive or negative feedback, this is — in general — what I’m referring to: The good retired officer came with two initial positives (a smiling, congenial atmosphere with some small talk; then something positive about their work). Next, he moved to his central point by using a carefully couched negative (a correction or criticism), and then finished up with another positive (something good about their character). Three positives — one carefully arranged negative.

When responding to the people who contact us the most, and those are certainly our most intelligent and normally the most gracious people, I use this same method — and always add a gracious word letting them know I appreciate their response. And I certainly do!

Research That Shows Positive Feedback Strongly Trumps Negative Feedback

Out of all of the studies I’ve seen, it seems to me that some of them out of the UK were the most thorough — the least biased in any direction. Some done elsewhere truly show higher results, but these were (in my opinion) the best of the lot — leaving little to zero to chance that anything other than a tiny amount of bias could slip in.

Even so, every one of them shows the same results. Truly, in every area from work, to sports training, to learning, to relationships of all types — positive feedback by far trumps negative feedback. These studies give us many things to lean on and learn from regarding worker productivity and learning and happiness. They definitely give us things we should apply to our personal lives. Or, we could simply follow my mother’s great wisdom: “Sugar, you catch more flies with honey than salt.”

On the positive side, studies showed that a continuous stream of mostly positive feedback resulted in a 30% increase in productivity (6 times higher than the normally expected increase) — and a much higher percentage of happy, satisfied workers. (In personal relationships these figure multiply greatly and exponentially.)

On the negative side, they showed that a continuous stream of mostly negative feedback resulted in a 5% increase in productivity (about the same as the normally expected increase) — and a much higher percentage of unhappy, dissatisfied workers.

Workers overwhelmingly rated a friendly, positive workplace over more money. I have been knowing about this one for many years, and, as a result, the young people I have helped and am helping, I encourage them to first find something they enjoy doing, and second go toward something they’re good at doing. If they’re good at doing a thing and enjoy doing it, there is a much higher chance of success.

Google has put out more effort than any other company I know of attempting to make its employees happy — and the company has certainly succeeded. Not that they can please everyone — it’s illogical to think that any human can do that. Well, in fact, God can’t even do that! So, He has more sense than to try. It’s enough to say, “The doors are open; come in if you will.”

Freedom comes first. Freedom allows Google employees to move away from constant routine — something the brain despises — and to try new things, to innovate, all of which tells employees that Google trusts them. People want to be trusted; the brain takes trust as a positive. Freedom tends to inspire people; it makes them happy; they look at it as a positive — and their brain takes it that way.

The result of this freedom: a 37% increase in loyalty and workplace happiness — which in turn results in better productivity.

Your brain loves positive feedback.

Your brain loves positive feedback.

Similar results turn up in retail sales. Where retail workers treat their customers well, by speaking to them and offering help in a pleasant way — and most of all by smiling — sales increase and so do customer return rates. The numbers showed that large retailers would benefit more than enough to pay a “happy greeter” to stand at the front doors — greeting people in a cheerful manner. Two of the more successful stores ever, Walmart and Costco, to name a couple, have indeed done so — in some places of the country.

On the other hand, stores where workers showed no interest in their customers until pushed into it and then helped them in a chilly, unconcerned manner, showed little to no increase in sales, along with similar results in customer returns. This type of aloof, sterile atmosphere — if not changed — can easily predict future bust outs. Investors ought to keep that in mind when qualifying a company they’re looking to invest in.

Customers interviewed after leaving the negative feedback stores, often said they wouldn’t return even to participate in a sale. Wow! That just about says it all, does it not?

Contrary to fictional movies (which often have an agenda) the stern, staid, stoic teacher does not get the best results. As all humans do, students in all things tend to thrive in a positive atmosphere in which a teacher presents them with a mostly positive stream of feedback. When they do have to correct or criticize, they work on doing it in such a way that it does not harm their students — much the way our former officer did. Great bosses and great leaders know — intuitively, innately — to do this very thing.

One of the first great industrialists, Henry Ford, paid his workers far higher wages than relative companies, and sought to make them satisfied. He believed that a satisfied worker is a good worker. Ford was doing this back in the teens of the last century when many production companies were still paying their workers in script — and treated them as if they were scrap to be tossed out when used up.

Gallup studies show that satisfied and happy employees score far higher on the following characteristics versus those who are not happy and satisfied — and in turn produce a much more loyal customer base.

  • Productivity: Over 50% more than unhappy employees.
  • Recall of How to Perform Their Duties: Over 50% more than unhappy ones.
  • Health & Safety: Over 50% more than unhappy workers.
  • Per-Employee Profitability: Over 30% more then unhappy people.
  • Gaining and Maintaining Customer Loyalty: Over 55% better than unhappy workers.

As noted, and it’s worth repeating, there do exist, as we all know, those people you just can’t make happy no matter what you do. They’re never going to give you positive feedback no matter what you try, no matter what you do for them. For several reasons, most often how they’ve treated their brains, and too, sometimes they’ve inherited a grumpy personality, there is no moving them away from negativism. They are married to it — and will not divorce it. They won’t change. They are No-Change Normans or Normas — and not one thing you try to get them to do to change will they try.

Even animals respond well to positive feedback. When I was a kid I learned from one of my tutors — a retired colonel who had been stationed in Germany for a while — a Germanic method of training dogs. It required you to begin with instruction and then correction and finish with praise — an equal amount for the first two days. Then you double the praise every two days. Finally, you rarely (if ever) have to use the correction (which can be a word or a slight leash pull).

Years later, in 1974, I was given an eight-week-old Doberman and by the time he was twelve-weeks-old, he was completely trained by voice and hand signal commands to sit, lie down, stay, go to his bed or chair, to eat or not, to go on guard alert, to attack, and to stop. All his long life (22-years eating only raw eggs and hamburger meat) the old soldier loved praise and responded to it by following commands perfectly.

Personal relationships also thrive on positive feedback and a positive atmosphere. Couples who consistently give each other positive feedback and try to keep a positive atmosphere in their home have more than a five fold better chance of having a happy, long-lasting relationship than couples who do not pass positive words back and forth and have a mostly negative atmosphere in their home. Couples in counseling to save their troubled marriages who can start giving each other positive feedback and get rid of the negativism in their homes have an almost 80% better chance of saving their marriage than those who cannot do those things.

Being gracious and saying thank you falls in the same category — and help relationships of all types survive and thrive.

Across the board we find study after study showing that saying good things to people helps every type of relationship.

So then, how can all this help us?

Certainly, in all our relationships we should strive to give as much positive feedback as possible. We need to receive positives just as we need to give them. The brain loves positives; hates negatives. You can’t repeat that enough — to yourself, your family, and others whom you love and respect.

I’m going to keep reiterating this fact: the brain does not differentiate between giving out a negative or receiving one. Your brain takes a lick no matter which one it is: giving or receiving.

Out come the negative, feel-bad chemicals when you give or receive a negative. You make worse decisions, you are less happy (even grumpy and depressed), and you have a greater chance of getting seriously sick with some type of degenerative disease if this continues.

Similarly, when you give out a positive, a compliment, or a good word, or let someone know that you appreciate him or her, your brain accepts that as a good thing, as does the receiver. If the receiver smiles and takes it in a good way, then your brain receives a double blessing. Out come pouring the positive, feel-good chemicals. You make better life decisions, your relationships are better, you are happier, and you have a better chance of staying healthier longer.

If you’re in a constant negative atmosphere, where the feedback is largely negative, realize that your brain is receiving thousands and thousands of metal blows day after day after day. That damages the way the brain works (some scientists use the term, “it rewires” the brain, just as depression does) — it causes negative thinking, mental reductionism (reducing your option focus usually to one thing, and “that only” and “nothing else but that”), all of which lead to cynicism — and that in turn leads to broken relationships, a life of loneliness, all types of maladies and diseases from mental ones to physical ones.

Therefore, for our well-being and for the well-being of those around us, and our friends, and acquaintances, it surely behooves us to be as positive with and to them and to others as we can possibly be — and to be grateful and let others know that we are appreciative and thankful for them and what they do. And goes especially for our mates and our parents and children and our families.

In later pieces we’ll look at several ways we can stay positive and protect our brain and our health.

For our health, I remain, Ruddy Adam



2 thoughts on “The Brain: Positive Feedback Versus Negative Feedback

  1. Positive feedback is a thing born of love and respect…… you will always get positive feedback not just because you pose so naked and sensual……. but because I have a love for your wonderful writings and that sweet smile and total respect because you are so classy and a good friend here……. let me send positive to some one else…….hubby you are a beautiful person to share her with us in only the classiest of poses…… beautiful couple so happy to have found you here…… positively will praise both of you and enjoy the friendship

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