Negative feedback is a major barrier to achieving meaningful progress towards our goals. In fact, negative feedback can prevent us from having any goals at all. We see this in the seemingly unsolvable problems within our inner cities or in Appalachia. In her new book, psychologist Ayelet Fishbach illustrates the impact of positive and negative feedback through the example of the cruel animal experiments conducted by the psychologist Martin Seligman.*
It is unnecessary to recount the experiments. What is important is that dogs who experienced a painful environment that they could not control would not even try to escape when given the opportunity, they just endured, whimpering. Seligman called this “learned helplessness.” Since helplessness can be learned, it can be unlearned. What matters is how we frame negative feedback.
According to Fishbach, the difference comes down to experience and commitment. When we lack experience, we see negative feedback as a sign of failure. Experience, when combined with commitment, gives us the confidence to seek out constructive criticism. Ultimately, we develop expertise, which reinforces commitment and provides us with the confidence we need to learn from our setbacks.
One of the suggestions in Fishbach’s book that I like the most is the maintenance of motivation by helping others who are struggling themselves. This may seem counterintuitive, but “research suggests that giving advice can help you regain motivation and restore confidence.” I paid particular attention when I read that “to give advice, you have to search your memory to figure out what you’ve learned about how to (or not to) go about your goal. This memory search reminds advisors just how much they know. Further, in the process of giving advice, you form specific intentions and lay out concrete plans of action, both of which increase motivation.”
I know from experience that giving advice helps clients move forward and helps us become better advisers. Financial planning naturally leads to what Fishbach calls the “learning mindset.” When we get into this mental state, we leave behind “learned helplessness” and embrace a desire to improve. Progress provides us with positive feedback and is the first step on the pathway to success.
Financial planning is the framework within which we can measure progress and analyze setbacks. Our job is to mentor our clients and provide the positive support necessary for long-term success.
FISHBACH, AYELET. Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation. S.l.: MACMILLAN, 2022.