Criticism? Carpe diem!

These serendipitous juxtapositions appeared in my news feed yesterday, variations on a theme of framing disappointments as opportunities:

“To avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” – Elbert Hubbard

“Unless someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.”
– The Lorax

That is: Action inspires criticism, and criticism demands action.

We live in a world where there will always be criticism, of others and ourselves, by others and ourselves. The challenge is not merely accepting the reality of such criticism, but embracing, evaluating, and acting upon it, thoughtfully and productively.

In “How to Listen to a Recording of Yourself Without Getting Depressed,” Dr. Noa Kageyama outlines three attitudes to adopt (and associated actions to take) to yield a more helpful critique:

  1. Celebrate the bright spots.
    I would annotate this with reminders along the lines of, “That wasn’t always so easy for me [you],” or “I remember how I [you] had to work to reach that goal.” It highlights hard-won accomplishments as the product of effort rather than talent or luck.
  2. Cultivate a solution-focused mindset.
    For every problem you notice, formulate a plan to solve it. Recognize mistakes as temporary but necessary stopovers to help you survey the terrain, rather than final endpoints.
  3. Develop a more optimistic mindset.
    Focus on what can be done rather than what hasn’t been done.

I would also precede the feedback session by identifying (and writing out) the main goals up front, to avoid getting distracted by salient yet less-important features.

Without action as its counterpart, criticism by itself becomes a meaningless monologue.

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Belief in effort improves social relationships

Hans Villarica’s article about dealing with peer aggression describes a fascinating example of how a growth mindset, or believing that success comes from effort, can help with social relationships as well as individual abilities.

While I strongly object to the title suggesting this approach is to “fix the victims,” I do agree with the value of encouraging everyone involved to develop productive coping strategies, and the article describes compelling research demonstrating the power of believing that relationships can be repaired. According to the article’s summary of a study[1] surveying 373 second-graders:

those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teacher for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.

Further, a previous study[2] surveying 206 elementary-school children revealed that those with an incremental theory of peer relationships were more resilient to peer victimization. As summarized in the article:

Children who believed friendships are fixed, succeeding or failing without their involvement, tended to be more enamored with popularity and may be more vengeful as a result. On the contrary, those who viewed their friendships as works in progress tended to appreciate their peers more and interact more responsibly. ‘If children believe that effort is worthwhile, they’ll feel less threatened or helpless when they hit bumps in their relationship,” [psychology professor Karen D. Rudolph] says, ‘and they’ll be more likely to try to resolve relationship problems.

Conclusion: Believing that social relations can be repaired is worth the effort.

Now I just need to find out if someone has applied this approach to attachment theory.


[1] Rudolph, K. D., Abaied, J. L., Flynn, M., Sugimura, N. and Agoston, A. M. (2011), Developing Relationships, Being Cool, and Not Looking Like a Loser: Social Goal Orientation Predicts Children’s Responses to Peer Aggression. Child Development, 82: 1518–1530. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01631.x

[2] Rudolph, K. D. (2010), Implicit Theories of Peer Relationships. Social Development, 19: 113–129. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9507.2008.00534.x

Misplaced critical thinking

In Physics Today‘s Science controversies past and present, Steven Sherwood compares the current public response to anthropogenic climate change to the historical responses to heliocentrism and relativity. Even though theories of climate change pale in comparison to the others on the scale of scientific revolutions, he notes many fundamental similarities in their effects on people’s conception of the world. Here are some choice quotes that capture important scientific principles which tend to escape lay understanding and which may make acceptance of scientific theories more difficult. On scientific elegance and parsimony in model comparison:

Surely, the need for a new tweak to the model each time more accurate observations came along should have been a tip-off that something fundamental was wrong.

On deduction vs. observation:

the worked-out consequences of evident physical principles rather than direct observation

A common refrain is the disparagement of new paradigms as mere theories with too little observational basis.

On the backfire effect:

Instead of quelling the debate, the confirmation of the theory and acclaim for its author had sparked an organized opposition dedicated to discrediting both theory and author.

As [confirmatory] evidence continues to accumulate… skepticism seem[s] to be growing rather than shrinking…

provocative ideas… have shattered notions that make us feel safe. That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force.

why the backlash happens: the frailty of human reason and supremacy of emotional concerns that we humans all share but do not always acknowledge

On communicating scientific uncertainty:

“All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” (Einstein)

One of the most difficult yet fundamental principles of science is that we don’t and can’t know if we’re right. We can only get closer to what is probably right. Yet science is seldom conveyed or perceived that way. And what makes science so precious is its ability to show us, through inference and deduction, that which seems to contradict our casual observation and which most surprises us. This suggests caution both when employing discovery learning, as we cannot always trust ourselves to discover accurately, and when employing lecture-based instruction, as we are also unlikely to trust authoritarian telling that threatens our preferences for and sense of security about our world. Understanding the relationship between our flawed tools of reason—through cognitive science—and our imperfect tools of science—probabilistic inference, mathematical proof, model comparison—can help us learn better from both. — Sherwood, S. (2011). Science controversies past and present. Physics Today, 64(10), 39-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.1295

How feeling a lack of control influences learning

Before you read any further, first think about a time that you felt in control of an important situation.

OK, got it? Now go ahead and visit “How people respond to feeling a lack of control” (Ed Yong’s summary and commentary on Whitson & Galinsky’s 2008 Science paper).

(I suspect the psychiatrists here will tell me that they already knew this phenomenon and have used it to help their patients develop healthier attitudes and more productive habits.)

I think it’s interesting to consider how this phenomenon could be related to Steele’s research on stereotype threat and Dweck’s research on beliefs about intelligence as fixed vs. malleable. Someone who feels less control over a threatening situation may be more susceptible to perceiving false patterns that interfere with deeper learning. Steele’s and Dweck’s (and their colleagues’) manipulations (of presenting them positive but not overly demanding stereotypes, or encouraging them to think of intelligence as malleable) strengthen students’ feelings of control. Such an approach could help learning, not just performance, and through a specific mechanism.

J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845