Feedback: Keith Campbell
ICE Conversation Series Episode 010

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Produced by Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE), an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. All rights reserved. For more information visit: http://ideasforcreativeexploration.com/podcasts/

Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! This is our conversation series about critical evaluation across disciplines, and in previous episodes we've spoken with dancers, poets, musicians, and visual artists about what happens when people give and receive feedback on their creative work. In each of these interviews, we've inevitably touched upon some psychological aspect, whether it be group dynamics, emotional responses, or personality traits. So it's time to speak with an expert, and to explore some of the mental conditions that affect critical feedback. Our guest is Dr. Keith Campbell, a professor of psychology here at the University of Georgia. He's an expert on relationships, self and identity, and best known for his research about narcissism and society. Here's Keith:

Keith Campbell: Part of the way you learn about yourself or your own work is by getting observers, some sort of outside feedback. Whether it's from individuals or whether it's something more objective, that's a way you can learn about yourself. It can lead to problems because often what we hear from other people we don't like to hear, and in that case we can either say the other people don't know what they're talking about, they're not good reviewers, they're morons, or you deal with the pain and sort of change the way you see yourself or what you do. But it is - I mean, how do you know about yourself? You know about yourself from using other people, sort of reflections. If you want to feel good about yourself, you want to hear things, typically, that are positive. If you want to learn about yourself or get an accurate view of yourself you have to be open to things that are positive and negative. And so, they're different. When it comes to negative feedback, it can be a challenge to feeling good about yourself, and so, the ego, that's sort of that part that wants to get the positive evaluation, gets in the way. So either you can try to remove that by thinking about it more in a third person, more detached, more mechanically, or you can do it over time. Often what happens with reviews is, people get feedback, they get very mad, they blame other people, they want to crush them like grapes, they wait a couple days, and then after that emotional, ego-based response has withered away, then you're able to look at it more dispassionately and hopefully learn something from it. It's a challenge because you want to, everybody wants to think they're good, but growth means often realizing what your weaknesses are and it's a challenge we just deal with.

MC: What are some factors that affect feedback in a group setting?

KC: Well, if you've got a group of people who are in front of each other, if I'm a person in the audience giving feedback, part of my goal might be to give good feedback, part of my goal might be to look smart to the girl that's sitting next to me, or to my advisor, or to somebody else whose opinion matters to me. Part of it might be to make the presenter look bad just because of some personal antagonism, so there can be multiple goals in those things and ideally a group will sort of engage, dial in, or engage on what's better feedback or worse fedback. It doesn't always happen that way, but it can work over time. Definitely people have multiple motivations, just like talking in a classroom, any place people shoot their mouth off in public.

MC: Do you think there's an advantage to doing those activities over time with the same group?

KC: I think there could be because you'd start to learn who to trust, who not to trust, who's always going to say something just to sound smart, who's going to be quiet and not say something because they're somewhat introverted and they don't really like talking in this setting but maybe over time they develop comfort. So often, if it's a public act there are going to be people who are introverted who just won't be the ones who talk and they often have the best ideas, or, potentially. So I think there'd be some sort of utility for doing it over time as long as the group norm, and I haven't studied this, I don't know if anybody's really studied this, should be really interesting, but as long as the group norm is to be honest with people, rather than, you know, you start getting too close to people, you don't want to give them negative feedback. So it's that fine line between being really blunt, at least, maybe sugarcoating it, a sort of Tootsie-Roll with a blunt middle and sugary coating, and keeping that going but also keeping that trust and the relationship and things over time.

MC: So is the quality of feedback simply at the mercy of the mix of personalities in that group?

KC: Well, I think it's personalities, but also abilities, I mean, some people just have really good insights into some parts of activities, some have good insights into others. To give an example, if I'm doing any sort of science, and it's probably the same in the arts, there's, you know, the best way to do the science, there's also "what's going to sell?", and we have the same issue, again, art has to sell, science has to sell, you have to get people interested in it, you have to get editors interested in it. Some people are good at figuring out what's going to sell, some people are good at figuring out what's right, some people are better with statistical methods, some people are better at the way you describe what you're doing, the story, the narrative you tell about research. So people can bring different things to the table.

MC: Engaging in critical feedback also engages a range of emotions. What are some of the typical responses and how do they affect the process?

KC: Well, when you get - and this is especially the case with negative feedback - most people can get positive feedback and some love it and some get a little shy, but most people don't hate it. With negative feedback there's two basic families, or paths, of responses we could make, and one of those is what we generally call "internalizing," might be feeling shame, depression, or guilt, or some sort of negative emotion, "God, I'm a loser, why can't I do anything right?" "I screwed up again." "That person said I was dumb." "My work didn't matter." The other path is more "externalizing," which would be anger, hostility, blame, external blame, not self-blame, so, "that reviewer's an idiot, I can't believe he said that, I'm going to find him and I'm going to ruin his career by ..." I don't know how, don't have to get that elaborate with it. "I'm going to do it anyway, and how dare these people not understand my hidden brilliance?" Both those responses are pretty common in people, and often you can do both, you get depressed and then you get angry and then depressed and then the emotion sort of goes away over time, I mean, some people, you know, you can hold a chip on your shoulder for a while. Typically the emotions fade faster and then you look at the content and then you say "How do I respond to these?" Often when people review your stuff, they have something, even if you think they're cretins who don't understand what you're doing, they often have something important to say and you just have to learn to look at it a lot more dispassionately. It's sometimes a challenge, it is for me, I tend to be a little emotional, but, you know, it's not necessarily useful.

MC: It sounds like allowing some time for those reactions to dissipate can be really useful.

KC: Yeah, I think a good practice is, you know, you get reviews, or you get feedback, and you read it and you just let it sink in for a day, and then you go back. Sometimes asking somebody else for an opinion who is not so ego-involved, you get these reviews, and "Man, these people are out to get me," and you show your colleague who says "Yeah, they are, but they had a few good points, maybe you can think about those," and so it's a way of getting your ego out of it so you can take the good parts of it. And reviewers, aren't necessarily, they don't know more than you do, typically. Typically people are reviewing your work less if you're an expert in what you're doing, so it's important to listen but not a hundred percent.

MC: One of the recurring themes of this interview series has been an experience, often early in one's artistic training, of an authority figure being very cruel or dismissive while giving feedback. How can we make sense of those situations?

KC: I think there's a couple, and you know, you hear those stories from people and there are a few responses that people could give. One is, "I'm gonna dedicate my life to prove these hostile authority figures wrong," and it can be a great motivator over time. You also hear the, sometimes unfortunate thing where people just think, "I'm quitting, if this smart person doesn't respect my work I'm leaving the field." That, I think is, hey, sometimes you shouldn't be in the field, but often people are dismissive of really good work because it's sort of new and if people stick with it long enough they'll manage to push their stuff through, so I think it can go either of those ways. In science, and I don't know if it's the case in art, getting ideas out there is often a bit of a war of attrition. You just push ideas, try to do what's best, over time they make it or they don't, but it's not one piece of feedback from one person, isn't, shouldn't be the make or break for a career. Again, with some people it can be a real motivator.

MC: Are there any connections between feedback and creativity and your own research on narcissism?

KC: Yeah, I get a lot of negative feedback and I tend to act like a child a little bit, then I tend to say "OK, how do I deal with this?" and then I've found it's really pushed me to do better work and push a little more deeply into what I'm doing, so, you know, your enemies become your best friends in terms of research. The other thing is, often, you might be personally upset because somebody says negative things about your work and they feel the same way, you know, I do it to other people, too. People love a fight, and celebrities have figured this out, they kind of have this "frenemy" thing so they Twitter bad things about Kanye West and he says something bad and it gets in the press - academics works the same way, you get these little academic fights and everybody pays attention to it, so sometimes it really helps your work get out there to have people actively disagree with you. You just hope they'd be nice outside the disagreement. Sometimes people have trouble with that. People like debate, and even if, you know, a lot of what we do is, the idea that "Your idea is wrong," "Their idea is wrong," but at least you're defining the debate and that can be very useful, just for the field over time. Those are some of the good things about critique.

MC: So, knowing some of the psychological components of feedback, how can people get the most value out of critical dialogue? Do you have any advice for people who are giving and receiving feedback?

KC: You know, one of the - it's sort of a bigger question I guess, but one of the things that happens when you get negative feedback, you can take it in a couple different ways. One you can say, gee, there's something about me that makes me bad at this, and what we call a stable internal attribution, there's something about me that's bad. "Hey, your painting's horrible," that means I'm a bad painter. Or you could say it's something that I have more control over, it's something changeable, maybe I didn't work as hard as I should have on that painting, maybe I should have thought about more things, maybe I should've thought about less things, and if you approach feedback as something you can respond to by changing what you do, you're gonna do better than if you think it's just a general condemnation of your ability as a scientist, as an artist, anything, and the same goes for giving feedback. You don't tell your kids, "You're an idiot," you say "You're acting like an idiot but you have the possibility of not being an idiot," and it's the same in feedback. You say, "Look, you missed it on this one," not "You're a horrible artist and you're never gonna be any good to anybody, have you thought about a career in finance?" you say, "You know, this isn't working. Maybe you could work it a different way, work it somehow, but there's a way you can get through this and get something better." I think anytime you can focus on something that's a changeable quality people will do better with negative feedback, and the same goes with positive feedback. When you tell people, and we know this from studies with kids, you tell them they're great, "you're a great artist," it kind of kills motivation in some ways because you go, "Well, I'm done. I'm gonna paint these puppy dogs playing poker around the table for the rest of my career 'cause I nailed it!" But if you say, "God, you really put some of yourself or some effort and some time into your craft, this is great," people will keep putting effort and time into their craft and hopefully get better.

Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Hanna Lisa Stefansson and featured music by The Noisettes.

Recorded on October 21, 2013.
Transcription by Lisbeth Wells-Pratt