“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.” Buddha
To explore the influence of feedback ‘spillovers', we ran a laboratory experiment where participants completed two unrelated computerized tasks, one after the other. In each task, participants were paid a fixed rate per correct answer (piece rate). After the first task, one group were given feedback on how they did in the first task in relation to their peers while the other group were not told anything about their relative performance.
We found that participants, who received positive feedback in the first task, had higher confidence in performing well in the second unrelated task compared to those who received negative feedback. We also found that participants who received positive feedback in the first task chose to swap piece rate for tournament pay (that is, to compete) in the second task more often, even though the tasks were unrelated.
As a result of the choices they made following the feedback, some participants earned less because they chose to compete after they received positive feedback. In addition, some participants who received negative feedback chose not to compete and also earned less as a result.
We found an interesting gender difference in how men and women respond to feedback from a previous task. Women who avoided competition in the absence of feedback, responded to positive feedback in the first task by choosing to compete in the second. However, men who normally preferred competition responded to negative feedback in the first task by choosing to compete less often in the second. So when there is feedback, even from an unrelated task, women’s and men’s preferences for competition can be aligned. A number of studies have previously shown that relative performance feedback can eliminate gender gaps in competitive preferences, but our study also demonstrates that the feedback does not necessarily need to be informative. Feedback from an unrelated task may also influence men’s and women’s preferences for competition.
Our experiment does not allow us to explain why feedback influenced beliefs and preferences across the two unrelated tasks. However we speculate that feedback may either influence our beliefs in our own ability compared to our peers or it may change our taste for competition. When we get positive feedback we are more likely to feel ‘on a roll’ and confident in our own abilities. Whereas when we get negative feedback, we may start feeling more defensive about our ego and shy away from competitive situations. These two mechanisms, changing our beliefs about our abilities versus changing our preferences for competition, will result in the same outcomes. Yet it would be interesting to learn which mechanism operates more strongly to cause ‘spillover effects’ between tasks.
This experiment was the first to use two unrelated tasks to measure ‘spillover effects’ between tasks caused by feedback. So, we hope our results will open new routes for further research. It would be interesting to explore the influence of negative feedback when given alongside praise, and also to consider what happens when feedback is presented as an area for improvement rather than a failure.
There is no doubt that receiving feedback influences people’s confidence and choices. So is feedback one of the most effective ways to improve performance or can it do as much harm as good? Perhaps that depends on how the recipient of the feedback feels after hearing it.
As Maya Angelou said, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.
To read more, see our Discussion Paper
'Impact of Relative Performance Feedback on Beliefs, Preferences and Performance across Dissimilar Tasks' by Lingbo Huang and Zahra Murad
Discussion Paper Number: 02/2016