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Positive Feedback

About a year and a half ago, I had the opportunity to see something from a different perspective. Having done several degrees in Psychology, I understood the concept of positive reinforcement and all of B.F. Skinner’s work. In a very simple way I understood it as such (feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to relive intro psych):

Positive reinforcement is about increasing the likelihood of a behaviour by providing a rewarding stimulus. So for example, if I want my dog Jett to sit in the future, I will reward her sitting now with a treat. That should reinforce sitting and increase the likelihood that she will sit in the future.

Comparatively, negative reinforcement is also strengthening the likelihood of a behaviour but this time, it is by removing a negative or unwanted circumstance. For example, if stretching or doing yoga (the behaviour) reduces tension in my body (the unwanted circumstance), then the likelihood of doing yoga is increased by the removal of the unwanted tension.

Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment, which is different in that punishment is an attempt to decrease the likelihood of a behaviour. So for example, if I yell and scream at someone to stop something, I’m trying to decrease the likelihood that that person will do that same thing again.

And for completeness, there is also extinction, which is ignoring an undesirable behaviour in order to reduce its likelihood of continuing in the future. So when Jett barks and I don’t want her to, my best bet is to ignore, rather than reward, that behaviour so it will extinguish. In this situation, reward can come from merely paying attention to her.

Positive feedback is latent in much of our expectations these days at work, in sport, in relationships, etc. Positive feedback is the idea that we receive good, positive words of encouragement to support our good habits, choices, actions, thoughts, decisions etc, and increase the likelihood that we will continue to do these things.

I didn’t get this concept. Not until about a year and a half ago. Not while I worked as the mental skills trainer or assistant coach for the Dalhousie Women’s Hockey team. Not while I spent 4 years captaining/coordinating a competitive women’s ultimate Frisbee team. Not while I was supervising a dozen undergraduate students’ research. Not when I started working as a Life Coach. Not for the first 32 years of my life.

Not only did I not get this, I thought I was providing positive feedback and to be honest, didn’t get what people were always “whining” about. I thought the fact that I was giving advice on how to be better was positive feedback. I thought that the fact that I was helping people improve and get rid of the negative things about themselves for the sake of being better was positive feedback. I thought that every time I wanted to change myself into something better that I was invoking positive feedback. People around me would ask for positive feedback all the time and I thought I was delivering it.

I was wrong. I was wrong because I failed to acknowledge that people need a good foundation of knowledge of what they are good at. Unfortunately, many people don’t have this. This is also known as “lack of self-esteem”. And even those of us who pride ourselves with a good dose of confidence, lack self-esteem somewhere.

Ideally, we could embrace our good qualities: What we do well, why we are good, and what we like about ourselves. If we have no security in these things we are not firmly grounded. Our foundation is shaky. And these good qualities are liable to get washed away or extinguished during the change and then we end up floating around like loose leaves from the trees in autumn, ready to wither away.

I learned about positive feedback at my yoga teacher training. I learned a lot at that training, more about psychology and the mind than I thought I had left to learn. As each of us teachers-to-be did our practice teach I had many many critiques floating around in my head (of myself and others). “She should do this better. That wasn’t very good. She really needs to learn how to do that. She should try this next time.” And then we got to the same point we did with every teacher where we each offered one positive comment about what we felt our peer did well in his/her demo class. The head teachers offered “potential improvement points” along with their positive feedback and even then I was shocked at all the things they “missed”! Finally, by the end of the 15 of us to-be-teachers presenting ourselves in front of the group to be critiqued, I understood what we were doing. I understood, for the very first time, Positive Feedback.

I still struggle with positive feedback. I forget that people like to hear it. I forget that I even like to hear it. For many reasons, I learned that critiquing, or rather criticizing, myself was the way to become “better” and that’s how I stayed functioning despite years of formal psychology education. I’m sure this way of functioning contributed to my achievements but now I’m more sure that this way of functioning was in fact impeding me from even greater achievements.


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