Most of us have done it – told someone their performance was great when it was in fact woeful. But whose ego were we protecting? Theirs or our own? A new study has teased these possibilities apart by inviting 263 undergrad participants to read and provide feedback on an essay by another student on media violence and aggression.
Some participants were told they’d be providing the feedback face-to-face, others were told their feedback would be provided anonymously, and a third group were told their ratings of the essay would not be fed back to the writer. Additionally, the participants answered questions about their own self-esteem and they were given information about the writer’s self-esteem, which was presented as either low, medium or high.
The findings provided strong evidence that we mostly withhold negative feedback to protect ourselves, not to protect the person we’re judging. If people’s motives were selfless then arguably the feedback provided should have been just as positive regardless of how it was delivered. In fact, students in the face-to-face condition provided the most positive feedback, but only if they had low self-esteem (specifically low self-liking, as opposed to low feelings of self competence). “If one accepts that people with relatively low self-esteem are expected to place greater emphasis on wanting to be perceived as likeable or attractive to others, then this lends support for the self-protection motive,” said the researchers, led by Carla Jeffries. By contrast, undergrad participants with high self-esteem gave the same kind of feedback regardless of whether it was delivered anonymously, face-to-face, or not at all.
There was further evidence of a self-serving motive. Students with low self-esteem who were told their ratings would not be fed back to the writer tended to give particularly critical ratings – it’s as if judging the essay harshly made them feel better about themselves. “A particularly harsh assessment creates a downward social comparison and, in turn, a gain for one’s self-esteem,” the researchers said.
The results did throw up some modest evidence of altruistic motives. Ratings by low self-esteem students were more generous in the anonymous condition versus the undelivered feedback condition. Seeing as their identity would be concealed in both cases, this suggests they gave inflated feedback in the anonymous condition purely to protect the feelings of the writer. However, this empathy only went so far – none of the participants moderated the tone of their feedback in line with the writer’s self-esteem scores.
Jeffries and her team said their findings could have implications for organisations. For example, bolstering people’s self-esteem prior to their rating another person’s performance could help them to be more honest. “The data … speak to the importance of developing cultures that encourage frank and fearless feedback giving and non-defensive feedback receiving,” the researchers said. “Strong and positive feedback cultures might help overcome some of the fears of feedback-givers, and reduce the tendency for feedback to be adjusted as a function of who is watching.”
Jeffries, C., and Hornsey, M. (2012). Withholding negative feedback: Is it about protecting the self or protecting others? British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.2012.02098.x