Criticism is a regular part of our daily life.¹ If criticism is given in good faith, it should be easy to give and accept. So why isn’t it? The answer lies in our brains. When we observe and give criticism, parts of our brain involved in social avoidance are activated.² Thus, criticism is a negative experience in our brains, despite its helpfulness. But luckily, there are ways to change this. But to understand how, we must first understand our brain’s response to criticism.
Gao and her team demonstrated that the brain inherently responds to criticism directed at people, even in a lab context.² The researchers showed participants pictures of faces alongside either critical or complimentary sentences. These sentences were either directed at an object or at a general person. When participants associated a face with criticism, they rated the face as unlikeable. Also, the right amygdala was less active as they viewed the face, as shown by an fMRI scan.² The right amygdala facilitates social preferences. When the amygdala is less active, an individual is experiencing a negative social preference. This results in a neural avoidance response which tells the individual to leave the said situation.² It is also associated with negative emotional reactions in general, which aligns with their dislike of the face.³
While the right amygdala was less active when viewing criticism, the medial prefrontal cortex was more active.² The medial prefrontal cortex is associated with the emotional regulation of one’s own mental state.⁴ It is also involved with self-referential behavior.⁵ When one receives criticism, they tend to focus on themselves.⁶ Self-referential behavior can help people learn from feedback. But it is also an avoidance behavior that is self-protective and decreases social connection.⁶
The medial prefrontal cortex is activated not only when someone is receiving criticism, but also when they are giving it.⁷ This implies that they are also acting self-referential as they give feedback. Leitner and colleagues proved that this behavior makes feedback less well-received. In their study, they trained participants to not refer to themselves as they evaluated another person. When people were less self-referential while giving criticism, they were perceived more positively.⁷ Self-referential behavior decreases social connection. When you avoid it, you appear warmer and kinder, even when criticizing someone.
Criticism is difficult to give, and it’s difficult to receive. But research shows that there’s a way to avoid the negativity. When you give criticism, you can only refer to that person and not yourself, training your focus on the other person. When you do this, others will perceive you as being warm and helpful, even as you give them criticism. And when you receive criticism, you may not be able to stop the knee-jerk negative reaction, but you can stop your own self-criticism in its tracks. By reducing our self-referential behavior, the language of criticism can become less negative.
1 Miedl, S. F., Blechert, J., Klackl, J., Wiggert, N., Reichenberger, J., Derntl, B., & Wilhelm, F. H. (2016). Criticism hurts everybody, praise only some: Common and specific neural responses to approving and disapproving social-evaluative videos. Neuroimage, 132, 138–147. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.02.027
2 Gao, S., Geng, Y., Li, J., Zhou, Y., & Yao, S. (2018). Encoding praise and criticism during social evaluation alters interactive responses in the mentalizing and affective learning networks. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 12, 611. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00611
3 Lee, K. H., Siegle, G. J., Dahl, R. E., Hooley, J. M., & Silk, J. S. (2015). Neural responses to maternal criticism in healthy youth. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(7), 902–912. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsu133
4 Dedoncker, J., Vanderhasselt, M.-A., Remue, J., De Witte, S., Wu, G.-R., Hooley, J. M., De Raedt, R., & Baeken, C. (2019). Prefrontal TDCS attenuates medial prefrontal connectivity upon being criticized in individuals scoring high on perceived criticism. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 13(4), 1060–1070. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11682-018-9927-8
5 Abraham, A., Kaufmann, C., Redlich, R., Hermann, A., Stark, R., Stevens, S., & Hermann, C. (2013). Self-referential and anxiety-relevant information processing in subclinical social anxiety: an fMRI study. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 7(1), 35–48. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11682-012-9188-x
6 Vanderhasselt, M.-A., Remue, J., Ng, K. K., Mueller, S. C., & De Raedt, R. (2015). The regulation of positive and negative social feedback: A psychophysiological study. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 15(3), 553–563. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13415-015-0345-8
7 Leitner, J. B., Ayduk, O., Mendoza-Denton, R., Magerman, A., Amey, R., Kross, E., & Forbes, C. E. (2017). Self-distancing improves interpersonal perceptions and behavior by decreasing medial prefrontal cortex activity during the provision of criticism. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 12(4), 534–543. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsw168