If You Like Something, Say Something
A lighthearted look at our serious need for reinforcement from others
Posted Jun 12, 2013
People just love positive reinforcement. Starting at least as far back as Dale Carnegie, the message in book after book has been this: Let people know you like what they’ve done. The late great psychologist B.F. Skinner made the concept of positive reinforcement the centerpiece of his whole theory, and he was right about its importance.
The problem is that we don’t use it enough. Well, maybe you do, and if so, that’s great! I really mean it. Let me be the first to reinforce you for reinforcing people. But in my experience, many people hardly ever think about it.
Now I’m not saying you should lie. If someone shows you a piece of art they have done, and you have to excuse yourself to gag before you can speak, you don’t have to say it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. But at least try to find something in it you like. Maybe the painting has a nice frame. Or perhaps there’s one color the artist has used you find less offensive than the others.
When I taught college, I graded a lot of term papers. And let me tell you this: All those things you’ve heard about the decline in students’ writing ability? They’re true! I strongly believe that if you had judges rate writings by high school graduates of 50 years ago and today’s college graduates, the older people’s writing would get higher ratings.
So there I was, each semester, faced with piles of term papers, many of which were really not very good at all. But simply to criticize did not go along with my philosophy about reinforcement. So I would always find something to praise before launching into my many-pointed critique. I might write, “I appreciated your numbering your pages,” or “Thanks for using a high-quality staple to keep your pages together,” or “I like your font.” Only then would I say something like “Unfortunately, your writing is so ungrammatical and unclear that I couldn’t understand almost any of it.” Or “While I am not happy you plagiarized from published sources, at least this did provide the only good writing in your entire paper.”
Since grading term papers is a privilege (and yes, I’m being ironic) granted to relatively few of us, we have to look for other opportunities to reinforce. But, believe me, these are plentiful. People are always sending us things they’ve written, original videos or CDs, or photos of their grandchildren. And all they want is some indication that you received what they sent and, at very least, have not found it nausea-inducing. What I can’t stand is when I give someone something, like a CD of my wonderful songs, and never hear anything from them at all. Being someone whose self-esteem has the solidity of overcooked pasta, I become convinced that they have listened to it, hate it, and just don’t have the heart to tell me.
If so, that’s fine. Just do what I do. Find one thing you like and let me know. You could say, “I listened to your CD, and I really like that song about the sheep.” Now, if I’m stupid enough to ask you how you felt about the other 15 songs on the CD, you can be honest and say they were horrible, and made you wish you were hard of hearing. But at least let me know you listened to at least one track.
I suspect that one reason people don’t reinforce those whose creative work they really like is they think such people – like the TV actor you happen to meet -- get tons of reinforcement already and so will find your praise superfluous and annoying. I don’t think so. That fear is similar to the one that most young guys have about asking beautiful women out. Everyone is afraid to ask them out, so the beautiful woman sits home on Saturday night, while her less attractive peers have an active dating life. Similarly, a lot of highly talented people think they have little talent because everyone is afraid to say anything.
So go ahead. Next time you see an actor whose performances you’ve enjoyed, say something. The worst that will happen is that the person will be obnoxious about it. This happened to me once. A few years ago at a party I saw an actor, who wasn’t really famous but had been in about 50 movies, including some in which he’d had a major role. As a matter of fact, I had really enjoyed his performance in one film in particular, and I told him this. He barely nodded his head as he walked right past me. The psychologist in me concluded that he felt he had never gotten as far as he’d hoped, and that he saw praise from a total stranger like me to be faint recompense for his failure to truly “make it.” My compassionate heart reached out.
The non-psychologist in me wanted to give him the finger and tell him where he could put the Academy Award he had never won.
But his reaction was the exception. Most people whom we reinforce are happy to hear it. Of course, be polite and calm. The standard line we use for actors is “I really like your work,” and most enjoy hearing this -- as do musicians, writers, and dermatologists. This tends to be far less off-putting than a crazed fan reaction, such as “Omigod, omigod, you’re Danny DeVito, aren’t you?! I love you. I have photos of you all over my wall. I think about you constantly. Please, an autograph, please – just write, ‘To Igor, who simply worships me.’ ”