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What Makes Criticism So Sticky?

Can you recall a time when your parents criticized you? It could be about your motivation for school or work, or a time you messed up on the soccer field. Chances are there’s a vivid memory that pops into your mind years, perhaps even many decades, later. It doesn’t even have to be over something meaningful. It’s the office worker who can’t let go of the small critique about her delivery during a practice pitch. The writer who lets a minor comment on the structure of a paragraph get wedged into his mind. Or the student who can’t move past the comment their friend made on the dress they were wearing. Criticism hits deep. It stings even more when we are already down.

New research out of The Netherlands provides a glimpse of what’s going on in our brain when we receive criticism. For the study, researchers took individuals experiencing mild depression and delivered parental praise or criticism while the participants were sitting in an fMRI scanner. First, depressed individuals had a blunted mood response to praise. It didn’t give them the feel-good reward. Second, they had increased activity in two areas in the brain (sgACC and hippocampus) in response to criticism, when compared to a control group. Third, they recalled criticism more than praise afterwards.

What does all this mean? Participants who were already down seemed to be biased towards the negative, holding onto the criticism while barely noticing the praise. When combined with the brain activation data, the authors suggested the participants “memorize” the criticism more. In other words, it is stickier.

Now it’s important to note that this research was in depressed individuals. But other work suggests that criticism is sticky in the classroom, and there is a bias towards negative information in both adults and children. This is because criticism often seems threatening to our sense of self, our competency, and our view of the world.

Here are a few tips on how to doll out or handle criticism a bit better:

1. Feedback sandwiches tend not to work. The classic managerial tip is to sandwich your criticism in between two positive comments. When researchers put this to the test, they found it was one of the worst ways to offer a critique. One study found that before a performance, no feedback did better than any of the other conditions. While after a performance, corrective-positive-positive was best.

2. There’s a sensitive window. In low stress states, we take feedback better. When our stress is heightened, though, any slight can trigger our threat alarm. This is why the aforementioned research showed no feedback before a performance is best! I call this the sensitive window. After a game, especially if we lose, we’re in a sensitive window. You can easily nudge someone towards threat and catastrophe, making them latch on to the critique. Timing matters. Be intentional.

3. Our mindset, expectations, and current psychological state impact how we interpret feedback. If the world is doom and gloom, if everything feels uncertain and threatening, we’ll interpret even the most innocent comments as threatening. We see this in research that shows the more cable news we watch filled with outrage and violence, the more likely we are to appraise the world as dangerous and threatening.

4. Figure out how to disarm. We need to get out of protect and defend mode before we start looking at addressing what went wrong. In sports, this is often why athletes socialize with teammates after a tough loss, and also why athletes often put space between the game and reviewing it, especially after a loss. One of the goals of a coach, manager, or leader is to figure out how to get people out of protect and defend mode and into a more responsive and open mode, and only then deliver criticism.


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