The big mistake most people make when they receive negative feedback

Nobody enjoys getting negative feedback. When we receive an unflattering performance review from our boss or get turned down by a date, it’s human nature to try to feel better by dismissing the judgment as unreasonable or biased. And so, last month, when a federal judge blocked US president Donald Trump’s executive action banning travel to the US from seven Muslim-majority nations, it was no surprise that the president took to Twitter to criticize the “so-called” judge and dismiss the ruling as “ridiculous.”

But what if the negative feedback comes from a unanimous group rather than from one individual? In that case, it’s trickier to dismiss. One would have to argue that all members of the group are unreasonable or biased in the same way. Because a group often brings diverse perspectives, a unanimous group opinion would seem to sit on a broader, more stable foundation, making it harder to topple. And yet Trump was equally quick to disparage the unanimous ruling of a politically diverse three-judge panel that subsequently concurred with the original judge’s ruling. He buckled down by reintroducing a substantially similar version of his proposed ban, which was in turn subjected to a temporary block.

How was the Trump administration able to dismiss the ruling of the three-judge panel with such apparent ease? Perhaps by reducing the three judges to a single voice. In our research, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology last year, we found that people who receive negative feedback from a unanimous group often respond by thinking of the group’s members as similar to one another, transforming them into the functional equivalent of a single individual. An easy way to write off unanimous negative feedback from a group, we found, is to regard the group members as alike—“They’re all that kind of person”—and then dismiss the feedback as easily as if it had come from a single individual.

In one study, we surveyed college undergraduates who had applied for a prestigious campus job. We found that students who were rejected viewed the members of the selection committee as more similar to one another than did those whose application had been accepted. One can just imagine a rejected applicant’s thought process: “If the members of the selection committee all think the same way, it’s easy to see how they all could have missed my wonderful qualities!”

In another study, we told participants that their sense of humor would be evaluated by three different computer systems. Those who were randomly selected to receive negative feedback from all three computers regarded the systems as more similar to one another when it came to judging humor than did those who received positive feedback from all three. In both studies, those who got a unanimous negative evaluation regarded their evaluators as very similar, allowing them to dismiss the criticism with relative ease.

To test whether a similar strategy might be influencing reactions to the three-judge panel’s decision about Trump’s travel ban, we conducted an online survey of 401 individuals from across the United States on the day after the panel’s ruling. Consistent with our earlier work, we found that Trump supporters thought the three judges were significantly more similar to one another in their judicial perspectives than did those who were not Trump supporters.

Trump supporters—unlike non-supporters—also felt the three judges would be likely to make future legal judgments in lockstep with one another, as if they thought as one entity. On average, Trump supporters guessed that the three judges would agree with one another on 64% of all future legal decisions. Those who oppose Trump guessed that the figure would be only 51%. This tendency was true whether or not we reminded our respondents that the three judges do differ in at least one important way: two were appointed by Democratic presidents, and the other was appointed by a Republican.

It’s easy to find more examples of this self-defense mechanism, such as Trump’s populist impulse to lump all of his critics—Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Clintons and Bushes—into a single, homogenous category of “the elites,” or his tendency to collapse many diverse news outlets into a singular, monolithic enemy: “the media.” Of course, the same strategy may drive some liberals to regard all Trump voters collectively (and dismissively), as “the angry working class” or “a basket of deplorables.” If our critics are all alike, it stands to reason that we can safely disregard their criticisms.

This strategy may work wonders for rationalizing bad news and soothing a bruised ego—but it has downsides. Dismissing negative evaluations out of hand means that one has squandered a chance to learn from them, leaving one susceptible to making similar mistakes in the future. More ominously, viewing the individual members of a group as indistinguishable from one another in order to dismiss their judgment may pave the way towards devaluing them entirely. It can be a short step from “they’re all alike” to “they don’t matter.” At a moment when so many people seem to disagree on so many important issues, it is necessary to remember that all individuals—even those who disagree with us or regard us negatively—are unique.

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