A quick guide to the the psychology of feedback. Why feedback is crucial in promoting behaviour change

When it comes to encouraging people to change their behaviour – what they say and do, and how they say and do it – feedback is critical. This post is a quick guide to the psychology of feedback explaining why feedback is essential for promoting sustained behaviour change.

Nobody changes their behaviour spontaneously

Just imagine a manager who has a team member who consistently underperforms or just tends to behave in a way that the manager finds frustrating.

It is likely that the situation has persisted for a fair while without changing. The manager is likely to become increasingly frustrated, they probably complain to their own boss, and they probably complain to their partner when they get home! Yet nothing changes.

This is because the way we behave is ingrained in our habits and tends to be quite stable. In the absence of any other information if we feel it works for us then we will continue doing what we’ve always done.

Something needs to be done to break the cycle.

The formula for change. The three A’s of change

For behaviour change to really become reality three things need to be in place:


As human beings we are often unaware of how others perceive us. Combined with the fact that the way we do things tends to be habitual and stable, the only way we can begin to consider changing the way we do things is when we are aware that the way we are currently doing things is not working. Either for us, or other people.

Awareness is simply about holding up the mirror so we can confront the truth of the impact of our actions.

Feedback is a powerful way to raise awareness.


Having our awareness raised through feedback might not be pleasant, it is likely to be a shock, but it is the starting point for change.

Feedback that is delivered skilfully (link) allows us to fully understand the issues, to explore alternatives and ultimately accept that we need to start considering doing things differently.


Only once we are aware of the impact of our behaviour, we have accepted that something needs to change can we begin to consider what to do differently going forwards.

How does feedback work?

Feedback operates within a feedback loop, often referred to as the “feedback loop cycle.” This cycle consists of several stages:

the psychology of feedback, feedback loop

When we receive feedback, we compare the feedback with our self-concept or self-perception.

If the feedback contradicts our self-concept, it creates cognitive dissonance – a state of psychological discomfort caused by holding conflicting beliefs or attitudes.

To resolve this dissonance, we are motivated to change our behaviour to align with the feedback.

This process highlights the role of cognitive dissonance in driving behaviour change following feedback, as people seek to reduce the discomfort by altering their actions to match the feedback they received.

The Importance of Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy, a concept introduced by psychologist Albert Bandura, refers to an individual’s belief in their ability to execute a specific behaviour or achieve a particular outcome. Feedback significantly influences self-efficacy.

Positive feedback can boost an individual’s confidence in their abilities, leading to increased motivation and effort in pursuing a certain behaviour.

Negative feedback, on the other hand, might initially lower self-efficacy. However, how this negative feedback is framed and delivered can influence whether it diminishes or enhances motivation.

Constructive feedback that offers specific suggestions for improvement, rather than merely highlighting shortcomings, can help individuals see the possibility of improvement and subsequently boost their self-efficacy.

This is why it is crucial to deliver feedback effectively.

The importance of Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

The psychology of behaviour change through feedback is also tied to the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within, driven by personal interest, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, arises from external factors like rewards, recognition, or avoiding punishment.

Effective feedback can tap into both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Positive feedback can fuel intrinsic motivation by providing a sense of achievement and satisfaction.

Constructive feedback, delivered in a supportive manner, can guide behaviour change by highlighting areas for improvement while also providing a clear path for achieving desired outcomes.

Feedback and goal setting are closely interconnected in the realm of behaviour change.

Feedback provides the information individuals need to assess their progress toward their goals.

It serves as a reality check, enabling individuals to adjust their goals and strategies based on their performance.

When setting goals, individuals often experience a phenomenon known as the “goal-gradient effect.” This effect suggests that individuals become more motivated as they approach a goal, which is where feedback comes into play.

Regular feedback that tracks progress can accelerate the goal-gradient effect, encouraging individuals to increase their efforts as they see themselves getting closer to their desired outcomes.

Social and emotional aspects of feedback

The emotional and social dimensions of feedback cannot be underestimated in the psychology of behaviour change.

Positive feedback not only reinforces desired behaviours but also strengthens the emotional connection between individuals and their actions.

Negative feedback, while challenging, can foster resilience and a growth mindset, where individuals view setbacks as opportunities for learning and improvement.

Additionally, the source of feedback matters. Feedback from trusted individuals, mentors, or experts can have a more significant impact on behaviour change due to the influence of social validation and a desire for approval.

In conclusion

The psychology of how feedback results in behaviour change is a complex interplay of cognitive processes, motivation, self-efficacy, and emotional factors.

Effective feedback takes into account the individual’s self-concept, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, and the nuances of goal setting.

By understanding these psychological mechanisms, individuals can harness the power of feedback to drive meaningful and sustainable behaviour change in various aspects of their lives.