In the psychological sciences we are all, to some degree, consumers and purveyors of both criticism and praise. Several years ago I realised that my ability to successfully listen to, and act upon, such feedback would help me develop the solid foundations from which to build a career. It is ironic, then, that the event that led to this epiphany was the lack of foundations in a spaghetti tower I was trying to build. Most baptisms occur by fire – not by being showered by the uncooked ingredients of a carbonara. A second irony was that this all occurred while I was doing very badly at Psychology experiment.
The incident I speak of took place at the start of my final year of my undergraduate degree. I was taking part in a class on ‘Cultural Evolution’ and our teacher took the opportunity to involve us in a study she was conducting. We all sat around the outside of a large table, a generous portion of rigid pasta and soft play-doh was dispensed to each of us, and a stopwatch produced by our leader. Each individual was given a minute to construct the tallest tower they feasibly could. What was truly interesting, however, was that we built them sequentially – observing the successes and failures of those that came before us. After a few early ‘mutant’ efforts, including my tragic earthbound attempt, the height of our towers steadily grew. We began to realise that this was not a competition between ourselves – this was improvement as a group. The final tower was over 1.5 metres high. Not bad for a packet of Tesco’s value pasta and a squashy child’s plaything.
In hindsight our experiment distilled at least three factors which I believe are key to successful feedback in the real world, beyond the ‘pasta play-doh’ paradigm, hence my decision to incorporate the experience into this essay. If it helps you may want to read the words ‘pasta tower’ as interchangeable with the word ‘work’ in the following passages (a sentence you are not likely to ever read again!).
Firstly, feedback should not leave a bad taste in the recipient’s mouth – at least not initially. My tower was one of the first to be built: the single pasta strand I had placed at the top worked well and provided an additional lightweight foot to the structure (and was used in successive towers) however the weird cubic ‘pseudo-greek’ pillar configuration it was built on was doomed to failure. Had my colleges viewed the inevitable collapse as an all-out dead end our progress would have stalled. My point is that unlike the plethora of pasta based products available feedback doesn’t always taste nice so it is a good idea to help students develop a taste for it. To provide entirely negative feedback is inappropriate for people new to the field – even if the subject of criticism is a very poor piece of work. I have found one of the better ways to receive feedback is to have...