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Dodging negativity bias in a critical work culture

Academic culture is critical. Criticizing each other’s work is how scientists improve hypotheses and theories. Criticism is an important part of advancing knowledge.

In any given week academics are force-fed criticism from student evaluations, peer-review of papers, presentations and workplace development reviews. I dish out my fare share of criticism too, though hopefully it’s mostly of the constructive flavour.

But academic culture is perpetrated by human individuals, who have feelings. Sometimes all the criticism can get us down.

Here’s my thoughts on dodging the negativity bias.

Negativity bias

When the criticism seems overwhelming we may be experiencing ‘negativity bias’, which is the tendency to be more aware of negative than positive feedback.

We were discussing in our lab group how to be supportive of students who were facing tough parts of their PhDs. My student suggested we be more aware of negativity bias.

But it wasn’t clear to me what to do if we feel this bias, other than to be aware of it.

Recently I was faced with three doses of criticism, one positive, one ambivalent and one negative. I received peer reviews on a paper I had submitted to a journal.

(The positive one thought the paper was well written, the negative one thought it was poorly written. This seems to be a common problem for me, if anyone has any insights on why, I’d love to hear. Maybe its just that some people don’t like the writing style of an Australian who went to school in the 90s, whereas others don’t mind that style?)

The negative review left a bad taste and I wasted my ride home that day thinking about it. Even though I could have equally well ridden home feeling great about the positive review.

But then I found being more aware of my own negativity bias did help. It helped in two ways: thinking differently and acting differently.

Thinking differently

It is easy to tell someone to think differently, but quite hard to do. We have to train our minds to think differently.

Being more aware to think less about it negative thoughts

One way is to try to think less about the negative criticism. But in trying not to think about something we tend to think about it even more.

So the trick (from meditation practice) is to be self-aware of what you are thinking. Every time you think the negative thought, acknowledge it and then let it go. Keep doing this over and over, eventually you will stop thinking the negative thought.

It can help to have a visualization to go along with this process of acknowledging and letting go. A classic is thinking of the thoughts as leaves floating down a stream. You see them, acknowledge them, then let them float on by.

(I’m a marine biologist, so I imagine I’m scuba diving in blue water. Ctenophores are the thoughts drifting by, I watch them, then let them drift away.)

Impersonalize it

The next trick is to try and make the criticism impersonal. The person may have legitimately been trying to help improve your work, only they didn’t know how to deliver the advice in a more constructive way (or sometimes they didn’t put much care into phrasing their criticism).

I’m not saying to try and suppress any emotion you feel about the criticism. Certainly acknowledge your feelings. But then try to reword the criticism in a more constructive way.

I often ask myself on reading paper reviews “what is the real problem here”? For instance a review may criticize your paper for having insufficient data. Perhaps the real problem is that you’ve overstated the findings of the paper, relative to the data at hand. So scaling back your discussion of the study’s implications may be the more direct solution to this issue.

Now I’ve turned the criticism into a solution, and I feel better.

Why do you care anyway?

If negative criticism gets you down, you might go into a negative thought spiral. As an (extreme!) example: A reviewer criticizes your study’s analysis. You start to think you’re useless at analysis, and therefore a useless scientist (maybe its imposter syndrome too?). You’ve wasted years of study and your whole life on this career choice.

But, we can turn this negative spiral around and make it positive.

To do that, ask yourself the same question about why you care three times. This helps get to the root cause.

As an example: A reviewer criticizes my study’s analysis. Why do I care? Well I want to get the paper published. Why do I want to get the paper published? Because I put so much work into it. Why do I care that I put so much work into it? Well I want validation that my career choice and all the time I devote to it is worthwhile.

This process then helps me see that there are other things I value in my career, beyond publishing papers. Like seeing my students succeed, or seeing my science helping conserve nature.

So criticism of an analysis is a set-back, but only a small one in the scheme of things.

Acting differently, finding the sublime

Feeling small in the scheme of things can be helpful to escape negative thoughts too.

Have you ever been awed by a starry sky, a mountain range, a kelp forest or an old growth forest? You feel so small and insignificant in the scheme of things, and it’s somehow comforting.

You had a sublime experience.

Feeling sublime can help us get out of our heads and grow past negative thoughts.

Of course, now I have a career and young children I can’t get to the sublime nearly as much as I’d like. But if you can, I recommend you make the most of it.

Critical AND supportive

My final word is think about how your own criticism might be interpreted. What you might not mean to sound harsh, might come across that way. Writing an email or a review? Write it once, then put yourself in the receivers shoes and read it again.

Think about the consequences of their work too and make sure the criticism is in proportion to the consequences. We’re all guilty of getting a bit too ‘excited’ about being critical when we spot a mistake. Was a student’s writing sloppy in it’s preparation? Well tell them, but you don’t need to go to town on it, after all, it’s only some bad writing and not a flaw in a crucial life-support device.

Science does progress by criticism and academic culture needs that. But the progress will happen more effectively if we’re kind to people when we serve them a dish of critical thought.

Contact: Chris Brown

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