You may have heard of the 4:1 rule; we should deliver four positive pieces of feedback for every constructive one. This recommendation is based in scientific research. Effective teachers follow this rule. So do high performing teams. Even happy marriages seem to follow this pattern. In fact, in some cases, the suggested ratio is even higher. In courses, I ask the class what they think the ratio is for marriages that end in divorce and they tend to guess 1:4 but research says that a 1:1 ratio is enough to steer people toward divorce court.
Why do we need so much more positive reinforcement? The answer is probably in our DNA.
Back in our caveman days, we benefited from short acting effects of reinforcement. When we found a piece of fruit that was delicious and nutritious, our behavior of going to that spot to find food was reinforced. But if that reinforcement sustained for too long and we didn’t find food there again for a while but continued to look, we might have ended up starving. We needed reinforcement to be short-lived so we would try something new if the previous behavior wasn’t working. It turns out that short-lived reinforcement makes our behavior more agile, we adjust based on where we are getting reinforcement.
Sometimes it can be frustrating to have to deliver so much reinforcement to shape behavior and keep it going, but the upside is that it means we can change behavior fast.
In contrast, cavemen and cavewomen benefitted from punishment having a long lasting effect. If they ate something that made them sick, it was good for them to have an aversion to it for a long time, it helped them stay healthy. If the impact of punishment was fleeting and they needed to keep testing to learn something was bad for them, they probably weren’t going to live for very long.
The short duration of reinforcement effects and the long duration of punishment effects was very functional for us back in our hunter gatherer days, but it is probably less functional for us today. Yet, this tendency still impacts us now. If most of our interactions with our boss are positive and just a few are negative, those few negative ones hold a lot of weight, maybe more than what seems logically fair from the boss’s perspective.
In addition, if our spouse screws up, we might be more likely to rehash the event a few years later than we would be to remember the nice thing they did for us the day before. This means we have to be really careful about how much punishment we deliver to others. The long lasting effects of punishment can sometimes result in substantial damage to a relationship that takes an enormous effort to repair. Of course, acknowledging the misstep and apologizing can make that process move much more quickly.