As flawed beings with fragile egos making our way in a hostile, unpredictable world, psychologists have long recognised that we cope by deploying psychological defences. These often take the form of self-serving cognitive biases. For instance, we’re prone to the ‘better-than-average’ effect, whereby we think we’re better than most others at various skills from driving to maths; or we’ll tend to attribute other people’s successes to good luck, while seeing our own good results as a sign of innate talent.

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Getting defensive when we’re criticised, or when we make a mistake, is yet another of these self-protective mechanisms. As the politicians so often say: “mistakes were made, but not by me”.

So, when you give someone negative feedback or you criticise them or their beliefs, you are – perhaps unwittingly – threatening their psychological defences. By forcing them to recognise how they’ve erred, you’re likely to trigger extremely uncomfortable social emotions, such as a shame, guilt or embarrassment, or scary thoughts of rejection or loss of status.

A way for people to avoid these uncomfortable feelings and thoughts is to get defensive; to deny they did anything wrong, to double-down on the moral superiority of their view, or engage in the mental gymnastics needed to save face.

Support for the social and moral aspects of defensiveness comes from a study by psychologists at the Australia University of Flinders in 2020. The researchers showed that volunteers’ defensiveness (about past mistakes or possible moral transgression) was intensified if they’d just had an experience of being socially rejected – thus rendering their egos more vulnerable. Conversely, the volunteers acted less defensively if they’d had an earlier opportunity to express their moral values, which would have made them feel more secure about their moral standing.

One practical takeaway from all this is that when you’re giving negative feedback, it pays to consider the effect it may have on the other person’s delicate self-esteem. Therefore, focus your criticism on what they did wrong, not on their personality or character.

You can also take some of the sting out by concentrating on how their mistake can be fixed or how they can improve next time, that way they’re less likely to take things so personally.

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Asked by: Anusha Kapoor, via email

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Authors

Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.

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