No One Likes a Critic

What science can tell us about criticism 

Andrea Ayres
Feb 7, 2014 · 7 min read

There I sat, in a plaid couch in the Writers’ Room in the middle of Coventry, England listening to my peers eviscerate a short-story I had submitted for critique.

“I don’t understand why I would continue to read anything about this character.”

“I couldn’t even finish it because of all the mistakes.”

This went on for another 30 minutes. After class I sulked back to my dorm room and binge-watched Star Trek for seven hours. I kept repeating the criticisms in my head. Were they correct? Was I a terrible writer? I found it difficult to write for days—okay, weeks after that.

I’ve thought about that particular moment a lot since I left school. So much so that I decided it was high time to go in search of answering the oft-debated question: Is criticism good or bad?

There is one constant to when it comes to criticism — people dislike it immensely. It doesn’t fit in with the perception we have about ourselves. Professor Paul Bloom of Yale puts it this way Intro to Psych course — “We believe we are terrific.” When things are going our way, it’s because we are amazing, smart, and talented. When things do not go the way we want, we blame factors beyond our control. This covers the very fundamentals of why we respond to criticism the way we do, but I wanted to know what actual affect it has on our brain.

Criticism is difficult for the brain to process

I will never forget the day that my sister told my dad she didn’t much care for his chili. It was too spicy and she didn’t want to eat it any more. This didn’t go over particularly well. He became visibly upset and went off on a tangent about cooking for a family of seven. The rest of us at the table didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but he sure did. Some people cannot handle even a minuscule amount of criticism, but that is by their brain’s own design. It’s part of how their personality works. Our personality has a lot to do with how we handle criticism.

To understand why we respond to criticism in the way we do, we have to look inside our own heads. That’s exactly what a team of researchers from the Netherlands decided to do using Magnetic Resonance Imaging.

Functional connectivity clusters of the neurotic brain when it is faced with criticism

The researchers at the University of Groningen highlighted four clusters of the brain responsible for stress processing and emotional regulation. They were particularly curious about how neurotic people responded to criticism. Neurotic individuals are characterized by their high emotional sensitivity and predisposition to a negative emotional state. The researchers found that neurotic people try very hard to assess their critics, beliefs, goals and perceptions in order to adapt their own behavior. This accounts for the increased yellow and red coloration in A and C. The neurotic brain also tries to reinterpret the criticism as to reduce its emotional impact.

Neurotic individuals take more time and must exert a greater effort to regain control of their emotions. Sometimes they are not able to do so — like in my father’s case — and that causes mood swings. The brain scan next to D highlights the emotional processing center of the brain. The blue and green sections are supposed to be telling the rest of the brain how to respond to criticism, but those connections have been diminished. This leaves the individual unable to regulate or control their negative emotions.

How we handle criticism goes to the core of who we are and how we function. It’s no wonder why we have such a difficult time with it. We all respond to criticism differently. That’s why blanket statements about criticism being good or bad don’t usually help us to communicate better. We have to know what a good criticism looks, sounds, and feels like.

Not all criticism is bad

First, let’s admit what we do already know: hostile criticism is bad, really bad. It results in poor response to treatment and higher relapse rates among all psychological disorders. On a smaller scale, it inhibits us from changing our behavior at work or in school. If we view criticism as hostile we are less likely to seek outside help and view our relationships as supportive. That doesn’t mean that all forms of criticism should be abandoned. Criticism is not one dimensional.

Non-hostile criticism is beneficial to our relationships.

In the case of this study, friendships with perceived non-hostile forms of criticism were said to be better overall relationships. The individuals within these friendships were also more likely to seek outside support. This is kind of a huge deal. Not only did the right kind of criticism improve the perceived quality of the relationship, it also made the people within that relationship more apt to seek outside help when they needed it. We rely on the non-hostile criticism to improve our relationships and lives.

We interpret criticism as either hostile or non-hostile based upon emotions displayed and our perception of how critical remarks are. If it sounds like this has a lot to do with personal preferences and tolerance levels that’s because it does. Researchers like Keith Renshaw are calling for a scientific distinction between criticism and non-hostile criticism.

If criticism is so complex, why not do away with it?

Praise alone doesn’t change behavior

If the opposite of criticism is praise, perhaps it would be better for everyone if we lauded individuals for what they did right. It turns out, that doesn’t work either. It does not help students perform better as this study showed. Students failed to understand what behaviors required modification when they received praise alone.

Praise can be equally harmful to progress.

How many times did your parents tell you that you were smart as a child? I’m going to guess a lot. It’s okay, most of our parents did that. This behavior isn’t actually helpful. It hinders children from realizing their potential and it reduces the amount of effort they output. The only thing it does is reinforce the need to appear smart. Children end up performing the actions or tasks necessary in order to be perceived as intelligent. Consistent praise also makes children less likely to make mistakes and take risks, an essential part of growing and learning.

We cannot rely on praise alone, just like we cannot rely on criticism alone. Instead, we have to find a happy balance between the two.

What do we want when it comes to being criticized?

What we all really want is a more compassionate criticism. We know that the right kind of criticism can propel us; that it can give us the edge we need. It can even unlock creativity by forcing us to approach a problem from a different angle. Simply put, it is necessary for success. Here are a few tips for how we can all do a better job of administering and taking criticism:

6 steps for how to improve how we give and receive criticism

1. Understand the effect critical remarks have on others. (Remember the brain scans?) This goes much deeper than hurt feelings.

  • Not everyone can handle criticism, do regular check-ins. Ask them how they are doing, or if they would like to talk about anything.
  • If you have a hard time accepting a lot of criticism, don’t be afraid to tell that person. “Thank you, let me think about this, and I will get back to you.”

2. Assess your relationship.

  • How close or distant you are with an individual may hinder your ability to give constructive criticism.
  • Peers have trouble trusting other peers when it comes to critique. That means that their feedback must provide more evidence in order to be considered legitimate.

3. Give non-hostile criticism. This kind of criticism builds stronger relationships and trust. Focus on empowering, not belittling.

  • Ask the person what they want to accomplish, find out what motivates them. Use this to help you give more constructive feedback.
  • Be open about what works the best for you. Some people prefer to have weekly in-person meetings, others prefer to correspond via e-mail.

4. Be considerate.

  • Respect the persons individual tolerance for criticism, give them time to process each critique and a chance to respond.
  • Listen to what the other person has to say.
  • Put yourself in their position and ask how you would feel being given the same criticism.

5. Always acknowledge what the person did well, give specific examples for how to improve.

  • “I really like what you did here, how about we do that here too.”
  • “This example was great, let’s use more of these.”

6. Take what you need and leave what you don’t. Not all criticism is going to be useful to you and that’s okay.

  • Don’t discount all of what someone says just because you didn’t agree with part of it.
  • It’s ultimately up to you to decide what criticism is useful to you and which is not. Be honest with yourself about what that is.

When I think back to the critique given to me by my peers I realize how essential it was to my growth as a writer. It wasn’t easy. It took time for me to develop an understanding for how best to integrate their critiques into my writing habits. What you find is that it gets easier and you learn to accept what you need. Well-placed criticism can free us from our hidden constraints. And that’s a good thing.

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This post originally appeared on the ooomf blog

    Andrea Ayres

    Written by

    Comics. Video games. Culture.