Monday, September 3, 2012

A Preface to Confidence

Tomorrow is the monthly Insecure Writer's Support Group post, and I will have a word or two to say about confidence, what it means, and how to get it. The last few months have been interesting for me, because it seems that just as I started talking about reviews and the overly positive reviews that have been flooding the bookwaves, so did a lot of other people. "Real" people that get to talk about these things on Slate and in the New York Times and a score of other places. I've been reading these articles which have echoed my thoughts on the matter, which has been nice, because, initially, I thought I might be off my rocker. Not only have people been talking about it but there have been being some serious studies done on the tsunami of (almost only) positive feedback flooding our world. Recently, NPR had one of these psychologists on one of their shows, so in preparation to tomorrow's post, I figured I'd let you guys listen to it, since it doesn't fit into my post the way I want it to. So go listen to this. It's short.

And, because they talk about it, I just want to mention something related to this "sandwich" method of delivering negative news. A totally separate study (which I don't have the link to) recently found that about 80% of people have virtually no retention of things they view as negative. The study had to do with gambling addiction, the economic collapse of '08 and other things of that nature. We look back and wonder how "we" can lose so much, but, going into a situation, most people (because 80% is most) literally can't see the possible negative outcomes, even when presented with them. Especially when presented with them as an option weighed against some possible positive outcome. The negative outcome completely evaporates from their minds.

All of that to say that another study showed that that whole "sandwich" way of delivering negative criticism (No, that's not redundant, because a criticism is looking at something in a critical manner, which, then, delivers positive criticism and negative criticism. Potentially.) is completely ineffective, because, well, 80% (or more) of people can't retain the negative part of whatever was said when it's presented with the positive stuff.

I'll leave that for you guys to work out. Or you can come back tomorrow and see what I have to say about it.


  1. You're making an important point here. If all we hear is a "sugar coated" version of our own performance, we can't improve and we have an unrealistic view of our abilities. In schools today this is a big problem.

    There is a cultural difference on how we view past negative outcomes. The Irish never forget how bad something was and we almost always dismiss the positive. Now that doesn't mean we won't gamble or drink after making a mistake, it just means we are more prone to remember the bad and forget the good.

  2. The whole idea of sandwiching was to keep the negative from being a personal attack. Guess the sandwich fixings have grown thin over the years.
    Glad you're still posting for the group! We need encouragement as well as grumbles. (As apparently we won't remember the grumbles anyway...)

  3. That's really interesting. I know that when I receive feedback in the sandwich method, I tend to focus on the "negative," not the positive (don't get me wrong~ any positive comment are really nice, but they don't really help me improve my writing unless they point out a specific device that I then know to use again)~ aka, areas that I need to work on. I've always been like that, especially in sports. I could get a million compliments after a game, and would say thank you, but internally I'd dismiss the compliments and only focus on the errors I'd made and analyze (and angst over) how I'd messed up. That said, I know that it's important in the emotional longevity of many writers to receive that encouraging "bread" feedback while in the learning stage~ otherwise they might lose motivation. So I think the sandwich method is still valid in some critique situations, but as for reviews...well, that's simply up to the reviewer. I don't think you can/should impose rules on people delivering their opinions.

  4. What do you mean by "real" people? If you are saying that just because those other people have huge platforms to shout from makes them "real" then I think you are wrong. I for one thing even the smallest voice is quite "real".

    Anyway, I'm always listening to NPR. There's so much good stuff on there. And of course, I'll be back tomorrow to check out what you are saying.

    However, just to offer up some evidence that negativity does pay off, in politics negative attack ads purchased by Mitt Romney did in fact go a long ways in securing him the Republican nomination for president.

  5. The idea that we can't really hold onto our comprehension of a negative possibility when presented against a possible positive outcome explains a lot about gambling, for sure. I wonder, though, what the relationship between negative/positive has to be for us to overrwite the negative. For example, if I'm going to win a million dollars or get a spectacularly cool job, I'm going to pretty much secretly believe I'm going to get it until fate (or probability) proves otherwise. But when the positive is less enormous - say, the possibility that I will have fun at a party versus the possibility that I will be bored and/or lonely - I tend to have a VERY hard time not getting disproportionately anxious about the negative. So I wonder if the size of the payoff has anything to do with it.

  6. Anne: It is a big problem in schools. More schools are going to a non-grading system which, coupled with the new group work ethic, makes it difficult for students to know when they're not pulling their weight. I've read a number of studies on the issue.

    Alex: The thing is that a negative will frequently be seen as a personal attack whether it is or not. It's like being said to be being "mean" for delivering a negative review when that review is composed of objective measures as opposed to name calling. People do need encouragement, but encouragement needs to be divorced from feedback. They're two different things.

    Jess: Some people, especially perfectionists, are drawn to the "negative" because they need those negatives in order to improve. Less than 10% of the (US) population is composed of perfectionists, though (despite the number of people who like to claim they are).

    Michael: I used the quotes to make the point you are now making. If I thought they were real and I am not, I wouldn't have used the quotes. The point, though, is that I've been saying these things for a while, and, now, I'm seeing them in big publications. Of course, it doesn't matter if I say them, because who am I? But when there are articles in the NYT about the lack of honest reviews in publishing, you know there's an actual issue.

    And as for the political thing, that's totally not the same thing. Those negative ads are seen as a total positive from the people giving them, and they aren't affecting Obama at all in the sense of receiving actual feedback about his performance. They are political attacks meant to sway other people, not Obama.

    Jericha: Actually, yes. One of the things that has been repeatedly shown is that the larger the payoff the more willing someone is to shrug off the negative consequences, even if they are catastrophic consequences. Many of these studies I've been reading are from people trying to understand what caused the housing bubble and the economic collapse of '08, and what they are finding is leading them to believe that no matter what we learn about these things, there is nothing we can do to prevent them from happening, because the higher the stakes get, the less likely the participants are willing to consider what will happen if they lose.

  7. I think writers single-handedly make up that other 20% We're neurotic as hell. :))

  8. I love that line in "The Incredibles," when the dad says, "They keep thinking up new ways to celebrate mediocrity!"

    I get the whole "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." But I don't see how that applies to professionals. We don't get better if we don't get criticized. And everyone is afraid to!

  9. YAY! I love IWSG posts :) I'm very glad I joined. I'm looking forward to that post tomorrow :D

    And also, here in England they want to get rid of competitive sport in schools because it's apparently upsetting for kids when they lose. Make of that what you will...

  10. L.G. Unfortunately, my experience doesn't say that as most writers I've dealt with will dismiss concrete examples of errors in favor of "this is so awesome!"

    Bess: I love that movie! I think most people miss the point and think the movie is saying everyone is special (despite the blatant statements to the contrary) when what it is really saying is that everyone -can- be special, but most people aren't.

    And you're right about people being afraid to be honest. If you speak out in an honest, objective way, people accuse you of being mean and, well, all sorts of things.

    ravena: That's already going on here, too, but, right now, it's just in little leagues and such. Games with no scores and only winners.

  11. It's certainly been interesting to see people outside my writer-blogger buddies and IRL writer-friends talking about these things.

  12. No matter what anyone says, positive OR negative, the only way to get better at anything is to do it over and over and over again. I look back at stuff I've written years ago and I think, wow, that was really rough and I clearly see how it has improved. Still, at the time it was written, I thought it was God's gift to the written word. To me the only critic worth listening to is yourself. If you're totally honest you know what needs improvement and you know how to do it. And the only way to 'know' this is to practise.
    I like getting input from other people but their comments, whether good or bad, are taken with a grain of salt. Editing mistakes, grammar stuff I take seriously. The rest, I let sift, I think about it, and see how it fits in with the feeling of what I was trying to put down on the page. With creative writing, no one can tell you how to achieve that "feeling." It's your voice and nobody else's. Thus there's no right or wrong, merely lack of practise.

  13. Callie: It's being talked about more and more about all sorts of things. Like, back in the spring when my daughter was playing softball, I was seeing a lot of stuff talking about issues with leagues that don't score their games so that there are no losers.

    Cathy: I agree with you and I don't. Sometimes we don't enough to know what we're doing wrong, even with the writing. For instance, in my creative writing class today, I had a boy turn in a story. The character in the story was carried off by a dragon, yet he was unconcerned by this. "Oh, hey, a dragon carried me off." He let the dragon do something to him that turned his eyes purple, and he got freaked out by the purple eyes. To some extent, he does just need practice, but you also need someone tell you when you have issues so that you -know- you have issues.

  14. I definitely believe that 80% of people will ignore the negative. I just hope they remember that even if criticism points out flaws, that doesn't mean it's negative.

  15. Jeanne: Well, the whole connotation of criticism has become negative, which is too bad, because it's not what it means.

  16. I'm glad I scrolled back to find this post. I didn't realize this was such a widespread topic of late, but I'm glad more people are thinking of this especially in the arena of professionalism and work.

    I still plan on doing a follow-up of sorts to the posts you had done on the topic. I had planned on using it for a #IWSG post last month and then this month, but I keep pushing it forward. Maybe I'll do it in October.

    Great topic.

    A Faraway View

  17. Lee: Yeah, I didn't either. Or maybe it's just been going on for a while, and I'm only now noticing it because I'm talking about it, too. Either way, it's interesting to see. I have some article links (a few of the better ones), if you're interested.

    And I'm all for a follow up! Let me know when you're doing it.