The Plusses of Negative Pressure

Driver's ed teachers are a punitive lot. Mine placed an open bottle of coke on the floor of the car and threatened to flunk me if I spilled a drop.

My wife's driver's ed teacher made her park the car on a hill, then got out and put his wrist watch under one of the back wheels. Climbing back into the front seat, he challenged her to drive away without damaging his watch.

Framing success around the need to avoid negative consequences can be an effective psychological tool.

The threat of negative consequences can make you buckle down, concentrate, and commit yourself fully to a difficult task.

The Exceptions

But it turns out not everyone responds well to negative pressure, especially eight-year-old children.

Eight-year-old children have a radically different learning strategy from twelve-year-olds and adults. Eight-year-olds learn primarily from positive feedback ('Well done!'), whereas negative feedback ('Got it wrong this time') scarcely causes any alarm bells to ring.

Twelve-year-olds are better able to process negative feedback, and use it to learn from their mistakes. Adults do the same, but more efficiently.

Using fMRI technology, scientists observed that eight-year-olds hardly respond at all to negative feedback.

But in children 12 and 13 years old, and also in adults, the opposite is the case. Their "control centers" in the brain are more strongly activated by negative feedback and much less by positive feedback.

Should You Correct Bad Behavior?

Developmental professionals will advise parents to ignore children's bad behavior and reward their good behavior. But we all know this is sometimes easier said than done. Bad behavior can be so irritating that we can't stand it.

Some parents want to correct bad behavior because they think it's their responsibility to correct the child's misbehavior. Ignoring it could feel like tolerating--even rewarding bad behavior--which could mean failing to do one's parental duty.

Despite how reasonable this sounds, it turns out that most experts agree. For eight-year-olds, skip the punishments. They don't register.

The reason is pretty simple. Information that you did something wrong is more complicated than information suggesting that you did something well. So younger children may simply have an easier time processing simpler, positive, information and a harder time processing negative feedback.

Learning from Mistakes

Learning from mistakes is more complex. To learn from mistakes, you have to ask yourself what precisely went wrong and how did it happen, and what do I need to change. It takes more analysis to figure out what you did wrong than what you did right.

It seems the punitive driver's ed teachers were on to something. We all got our driver's licenses when we were sixteen, when we were old enough to take negative feedback.

So the open can of coke and the wrist watch behind the rear wheel were psychologically sound approaches. They threatened us with spilled coke and damaged jewelry, which were shameful failures we wanted to avoid.

I flubbed my first test. I went around a corner too fast, and spilled coke onto the carpet at my teacher's feet. He gave me a second chance, and I managed to drive more smoothly.

My wife can't remember what happened to her, but I'm suspicious. I bet her teacher went behind the car, took off his watch, and only pretended to lay it on the ground.

But knowing her, class salutatorian and high achiever, she didn't allow a tire to come within a hair's breadth of the imagined watch. She didn't need to make mistakes in order to get things right. But most of us do. It's a cliche, but it's true: We learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.

The threat of negative consequences can create positive outcomes, but only if we get negative feedback, and ponder the error of our ways.