The Killing Fields of Criticism

There used to be a popular notion in the practice of psychology that you could give criticism to a person by separating the behavior that someone is doing from who they are as a whole person. The theory evidently is that by doing this you preserve the person’s self esteem, that is, they won’t feel bad about themselves when their behavior is criticized. Someone had this wild notion that a person’s behavior is somehow separate from themselves so you can mess with the behavior all you want and the core of the person will go unaffected. Ok I am Johnny on the playground, and I want to score a goal really badly. I run up to the person with the ball and trip them so that my self interest can be served. The old notion would have us believe that I just have to change my behavior of tripping because the core of me is this perfect child that doesn’t need to change on the inside, that somehow inside I already know how to play enthusiastically and also think like a member of team and play by rules. I think that the idea is that if you stop the negative behavior, stop the tripping in this case, and give the child a new behavior, that he is somehow going to change.


The first half hour that I ever entered school I was given a pair of scissors to cut on a line. I just remember how much of a blur the first days were and how overwhelming the new experience was. So the teacher gives me some scissors and asks me to be a choo-choo train staying on the track by cutting across the paper on a line. Well, you can imagine the outcome. Being overwhelmed with wandering attention my train derailed. So what does this brilliant teacher do? She makes sure that I know that my train went off the track.

If you have ever watched the national team from England play soccer, you will be able to see just how devastating criticism is. The English press puts constant pressure on the national team to perform better. They criticize the players and coaches constantly putting them under enormous pressure to succeed. The national teams usually react to the criticism with what science has already discovered about performance. They always usually find a way lose when they are in a pressure situation.

Criticism is the act of seeing a behavior that is negative, according to the criticizer’s point of view, and then expressing it. The way I think about it is that it is the lazy person’s way of getting attention and advancing. For a writer or journalist using criticism as his main tool means that he advances on the backs of other people’s mistakes. It is the easy road. It is how journalists kill other people’s spirits out of their own self interest of getting to the top. Politicians, social climbers, parents, and people trying to move up corporate ladders all do the same thing. Criticizing gets a lot of fast attention, it makes others look really bad, and it destroys people’s spirits. It also takes the pressure off of your own performance and puts it onto others.
The more difficult road, the road less traveled, starts and ends with the belief that people have unlimited potentialities that can be actualized. It believes that change is possible. How many of us have been called into our boss’s office to be told how we screwed up and to not let it happen again or else when what we need to hear are acknowledgments of positive observations and the belief in positive change.

And then there is the ever popular acknowledgment of an event that goes like this from the leader. “Well that was a great event. Congratulations. There is just one little small thing.” And then the leader goes on for 5 minutes about the small thing. What is it about leaders who think they have the right to criticize every little thing? Why has the research on the effects of criticism gone so unnoticed when it has been consistently shown to cause such major damage? It must be about laziness and the lack of self control and self discipline.

Here are some interesting things from the research on criticism on why constructive criticism doesn’t work. 80% of the people who are criticized go into a negative non-resourceful state when they are criticized. Of the 20% who don’t feel really bad from criticism only 10% can keep the criticism dissociated so that they can judge whether or not to use it. This means that almost everyone takes criticism personally even when the criticizer says I don’t want you to take this personally. Most people just feel bad and get more non-productive from criticism.

There is also some interesting research on work in elementary school classrooms and in marriages that found that the magic number for positive encouraging comments in ratio to correcting or more negative ones is at least 4 to one. That means four positives to one correcting. When the ratio was 2 to 1, students felt like the classrooms were very negative. Marriages where the ratio is 4 to 1 last much longer than those where the ratio is much lower.

This does not mean that there is no place for critical comments, but they don’t seem to have the intended effect unless the environment is 80% positive. So maybe, instead of losing self control and blurting out negative comments, it may be good to practice some self discipline by keeping our big negative mouths shut and opening up the positives ones.

2 Comments on “The Killing Fields of Criticism”

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