A 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that providing positive social feedback after performing a task makes people more satisfied with their performance. The researchers compared participants’ attitudes while completing a math task and again 12 hours later. Those who received positive feedback performed better and more satisfied than their peers, even after waiting several hours.

Designing the negative feedback

Small changes can lead to big changes

The investigators decided to design their negative feedback to be more of a whammy. One group received all of the negative feedback at once, while the other received it more subtly in small doses. To hit this delicate balance, they broke feedback into four “intermediate stages”:

Highly negative feedback. The investigators’ intervention instructed the participants to give themselves a low score for error for as long as they remembered, for as long as they needed to. Participants were then given a chance to take a self-intervention quiz to generate a quick feedback score about the accuracy of their error—in other words, to mock up the lowest score that they remembered they could achieve. The researchers found that it actually took longer to recall the low score than it did to identify the high score. “Your self-interrogation is a little quicker than your recall and you forget it more,” says first author Conny Du-Dong, an assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

Fairly negative feedback. Roughly a week later, the participants who had received all of the negative feedback took a similar quiz to help them identify any of the errors they had remembered. They were now asked to take a quick score on their accuracy—but while experiencing a higher score than they had remembered.

Perhaps the most direct feedback occurred within the “overall assessment” stage. Instead of having participants go through a long sequence of questions from one test to the next, the researchers built in random “corrections” that clearly identified the errors they had made throughout the day. According to Du-Dong, the most feedback people got was one correction to their overall score. This indicated that these corrections helped participants recall their mistakes. The investigators found that the feedback campaign did not have any long-term negative effects.

Making the quality of the feedback surprising

Disadvantaged people may be more upset by negative feedback

The researchers found that when people received the best of both worlds: receiving feedback that often but very briefly, and less direct feedback that was sometimes highly positive and sometimes very negative, they tended to recognize their errors. People who were less comfortable with certain negative feedback were more likely to come to terms with their mistakes. This finding points to a new way of thinking about corrective feedback, as opposed to being gratuitously defensive toward it.

However, when the feedback was opaque, meaning the assessment was vague, inconsistent, or unclear, the researchers found that it exacerbated the severity of the errors participants remember.

In these instances, the findings are striking. Du-Dong suggests that the anonymous feedback could be used to support something more invasive than praise: feedback that makes people reevaluate their actions. For example, if you work in an office where everyone jibes with each other, people may feel pressured to err in the direction of co-workers who are known to be superior to them. Subtle and indirect feedback can help them alter those attitudes, according to Du-Dong. “You don’t have to go that far, you don’t have to go to a meeting where you have to acknowledge a mistake, you just have to do what you can to be more thoughtful about that interaction,” she says.

During the experiment, researchers were careful to stress that that the threshold for being overly critical should be higher than it is for being overly positive. However, subtle feedback can create this uncomfortable feeling of being exploited, and the average person may not see any positive outcomes to it.

“There are things that we are unable to say directly because we are usually not feeling great about it,” says Du-Dong. “So finding something that can go unnoticed—something that is subtle but can be impactful—and is emotional for the individual is an interesting idea.”

This article originally appeared on