When I (Nicole) was in high school, I won the lead role in a romantic comedy called The Rivals. I played a meddling aunt named Mrs. Malaprop, who was determined to marry off her niece. There was one line in particular intended to bring down the house: “You know, my dear, in general, when a woman is mischievous, she’s very mischievous.” I practiced it dozens of times, in front of many friendly audiences and, by opening night, felt ready to deliver it. But that night, the line didn’t get many laughs. Afterward, one of my teachers pulled me aside and told me that I had been saying the word “mischievous” incorrectly (pronouncing it “miss-CHEEV-EE-us” instead of “MISS-chuh-vuhs”). I couldn’t believe that none of the dozens of friends who had watched me practice gave me that feedback earlier!
And yet the two of us can also recall situations where we had the opportunity to give helpful feedback and chose not to, with similarly cringeworthy results.
In one instance, a graduate student visited my (Juliana’s) university for a high-stakes day of interviewing to potentially obtain a faculty position. As part of the day, the student was scheduled to meet with every faculty member for 30 minutes each. I had the first meeting of the day with the student and was excited to discuss research. During the discussion, I noticed that the student made a few egregious errors, including attributing a paper to the wrong professor at our school. I wasn’t sure whether to immediately correct their error, and decided not to. I later learned that the error came up again during the student’s meeting with that very professor. Needless to say, that professor was not particularly impressed by the student’s interview performance, and I felt bad I hadn’t given the feedback to the student when I had the chance.
Experiences like these led us to wonder: Why do people hesitate to give others constructive feedback (like not telling the visiting student about their incorrect paper attribution), even though there are times when people clearly want feedback for themselves (like wanting someone to tell us when we mispronounce a word)?
Why do people hesitate to give others constructive feedback, even though there are times when people clearly want feedback for themselves?
According to existing research on this topic, people avoid giving feedback for two primary reasons. First, they don’t want to hurt others’ feelings or embarrass them, and second, they don’t want to be seen as the bearer of bad news.
But the two of us, along with our coauthors Jennifer Abel and Francesca Gino, thought there may be more to the story. We thought that maybe people hesitate to give others feedback because they simply don’t recognize how much other people want to hear their feedback.
We examined this possibility in a series of field and lab studies, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. We tested the desire to give and receive feedback in all sorts of situations—with strangers and close friends; when the feedback was less consequential (like mispronouncing a word) and more consequential (like making an egregious error during an interview). We found that, in almost all of the situations we tested, people underestimated how much others wanted to receive their feedback. We also tried to figure out why and if there was a way to close this feedback gap.
An initial study: Would you tell someone if they had a mark on their face?
As an initial attempt to see how much people received versus wanted feedback, we sent research assistants around a busy college campus with chocolate on their face and a chocolate bar in hand. These researchers approached students sitting around campus and asked them to take a survey in exchange for a cash payment—but they were really tallying up how many people told them they had chocolate on their face (or marker, or makeup in two other conditions we tested). Not many students told them about the mark on their face. In fact, out of 155 people who admitted noticing the mark on the researcher’s face, only four people (2.6 percent) told the researcher about it.
Maybe people hesitate to give others feedback because they simply don’t recognize how much other people want to hear their feedback.
When we asked people afterward why they didn’t tell the researcher about the mark on their face, a lot of people (about 40 percent) said they didn’t think the researcher wanted to know (e.g., “she wouldn’t want me to tell her”), providing preliminary evidence for our hypothesis. (Another 37 percent of comments focused on reasons related to oneself, e.g., “It wasn’t my business” and “I didn’t want to be rude,” and the remaining 23 percent of comments contained other reasons, like “I was in a hurry” or “the researcher looked busy.”)
Underestimating the desire for feedback
To more directly test whether people underestimate others’ desire for feedback, we subsequently ran a series of experiments in which we randomly assigned participants to be either the feedback-giver or the feedback-receiver. In one online experiment, we asked participants to imagine themselves in workplace situations in which they needed feedback or could give feedback.
Some of the situations were less consequential, like having a stain on your shirt, and some were more consequential, like being rude to colleagues. We asked the feedback-giver: “How much do you think the other person wants feedback?” And we asked the feedback-receiver: “How much do you want to receive feedback?”
In almost every situation, we found that people underestimated others’ desire for feedback. And the more consequential the situation, the more people underestimated the desire for feedback. The graph below shows the gap between the predicted desire for feedback and the actual desire for feedback in all 10 situations we tested.
The feedback gap in couples, close friends, and romantic partners
Next, we wanted to know if the effect we found in our online survey also appeared when people were giving live feedback. We recruited close friends, roommates, and romantic partners to give and receive real feedback. In total, 100 pairs gave (and received) live feedback via Zoom. In each pair, the person assigned to be the feedback-giver first thought of their feedback topic and then predicted how much their partner would want to hear their feedback.
Meanwhile, the person assigned to be the feedback-receiver first heard the feedback topic (e.g., about their exercising habits) and then reported how much they actually wanted to get the feedback from their partner. The types of feedback people gave included telling a friend they text too much during their time together and suggesting a romantic partner should exercise more.
In almost every situation, we found that people underestimated others’ desire for feedback. And the more consequential the situation, the more people underestimated the desire for feedback.
On a scale from 0 (not at all wanting the feedback) to 10 (very much wanting the feedback), the assigned feedback-receivers reported that they strongly wanted the feedback (at a mean of 7.0, standard deviation of 2.1 on the scale), whereas the feedback-givers didn’t think the feedback-receivers strongly wanted their feedback (predicting a mean of 5.2, standard deviation of 2.2). When giving live feedback to someone they knew well, the feedback-givers still underestimated how much the other person wanted their feedback.
Finally, we asked participants to make a choice about whether they wanted to get (give) the feedback. Among feedback-receivers, 86 percent said they wanted to receive it, but only 48 percent of potential feedback-givers wanted to give it. Despite participants’ reported preferences, we still had all of them give and receive the feedback. Interestingly, the receivers rated the feedback as even more valuable after the conversation was over compared to their predictions before the conversation. This suggests that people aren’t making a mistake in saying they want feedback—they really do value it.
What happens when it pays to give feedback?
We also tested whether givers would underestimate the desire for feedback even when they knew that their feedback could help another person to receive a substantial financial reward.
We recruited participants into the lab to compete in a public speaking competition. One person was assigned as the speaker, with the chance to win $100 cash. The other person was assigned to give them feedback on their practice speech, with the chance to earn $50 if their partner won the competition.
Among feedback-receivers, 86 percent said they wanted to receive it, but only 48 percent of potential feedback-givers wanted to give it.
People tended to give a lot of positive feedback (“You seemed confident, especially considering you just wrote the speech”), but they also gave negative feedback (“You used the word ‘like’ a lot when it was not needed”) and neutral feedback (“I feel like everyone can just use more hand motions in general”). Constructive feedback was also common, with about 4 such statements happening in each feedback conversation (mean = 3.7, standard deviation = 2.4; e.g., “I should suggest you try to slow down during your speech and work on your pacing”).
Again, the feedback-givers underestimated how much their partners would want their feedback. But this study also showed something new—receiving constructive feedback was helpful. People who received more constructive feedback on their practice speech ended up doing better on their final speech. So even in a situation where feedback has the potential to be immediately helpful and provide a substantial payout, people still fail to recognize how much someone would want their feedback.
How do we make people recognize how much others want their feedback?
Across all of these studies, even though they examined different types of feedback with different relationships between the giver and receiver, we consistently found that people underestimated others’ desire for feedback. But we still didn’t quite know why people did this or have a way to get people to recognize how much others want feedback. So in our final study, we tried to test some different interventions to increase the likelihood that people would offer feedback.
With a group of online participants randomly assigned to be feedback-givers or feedback-receivers, we tested two possible interventions. In one, we asked participants assigned to be feedback-givers to put themselves in the shoes of the other person before predicting how much the other person wanted feedback. For example, we asked these participants to consider: “If you were in the situation, how much do you think you would have wanted someone to tell you about the situation?” In the other intervention, we asked feedback-givers to try something else: imagining someone else (not them) would give the person feedback.
Briefly imagining how much you would want the feedback if you were the other person might help you realize how much they want the feedback, and may make you more likely to actually give it.
In both of these conditions, after participants had gone through the exercise of either taking the perspective of the other person or imagining another person giving feedback, they predicted how much the other person wanted feedback. We also asked a third group of feedback-givers to just predict how much the other person would want feedback, without doing anything else (the control group). Then, we compared each of the feedback-givers’ predictions with the actual desires for feedback reported by potential feedback-receivers.
We found that both interventions made potential feedback-givers more accurate in predicting receivers’ desire for feedback, but the perspective-taking intervention—imagining what you would want if you were the potential feedback-receiver—was particularly effective. However, neither intervention closed the gap between givers’ estimates and receivers’ reports completely. Even after perspective-taking, people still underestimated receivers’ desire for feedback, although their predictions were closer to receivers’ ratings than were feedback-givers’ estimates in the control group. In other words, the interventions helped—but still didn’t fully close the gap between givers’ predicted and receivers’ actual desire for feedback.
So, should we give feedback to others?
Our studies suggest that people want our feedback more than we realize. If you ever find yourself hesitating about whether to give someone feedback, you might try out one of our tested interventions: briefly imagining how much you would want the feedback if you were the other person. This might help you to realize how much the other person wants the feedback, and may make you more likely to actually give your feedback.
Perhaps if Juliana had imagined herself in that visiting student’s shoes—about to interview with a faculty member whose paper they had misattributed—she would have corrected them. Our studies suggest the student probably would have been very grateful for the feedback.