Feedback is critical to behaviour change: The evidence from neuroscience

Individual feedback is a powerful tool for promoting behaviour change, and neuropsychological research provides insights into the underlying mechanisms. Feedback influences behaviour by engaging various brain regions associated with learning, motivation, and emotional regulation. This post outlines are key findings from neuropsychology that explain how feedback promotes behaviour change.

Positive feedback feels good

Feedback, particularly positive feedback, activates the brain’s reward system, primarily involving the release of dopamine. The striatum, a critical part of this system, is highly responsive to feedback that signals reward or success. When individuals receive positive feedback, it enhances their motivation and reinforces the desired behaviour through a reward prediction error mechanism. This process helps in encoding the behaviour as rewarding, the dopamine release reinforces the behaviour, increasing the likelihood of its repetition (Schultz, 2002), (Costa et al., 2016).

Conversely, constructive criticism activates brain areas involved in error detection and problem-solving, prompting individuals to adjust their behaviour to avoid future mistakes.

High quality feedback promotes reflection

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a crucial role in processing feedback and implementing behaviour change. The PFC is involved in executive functions, such as planning, decision-making, and inhibitory control. When individuals receive feedback, the PFC helps to interpret this information, integrate it with existing knowledge, and make adjustments to behaviour accordingly. Effective feedback engages the PFC, promoting reflective thinking and deliberate behaviour modification (Miller & Cohen, 2001).

Negative feedback promotes corrective action

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is involved in monitoring actions, detecting errors, and evaluating outcomes. Negative feedback or feedback indicating a mistake activates the ACC, which signals the need for behavioural adjustment. This error detection mechanism is essential for learning from feedback and improving performance over time. The ACC helps individuals recognise when their actions do not align with desired outcomes, prompting corrective behaviour (Holroyd & Coles, 2002).

How we feel impacts how much we change

Feedback often evokes emotional responses, which are processed by the limbic system, including the amygdala. Positive feedback can elicit feelings of pride and satisfaction, while negative feedback may cause disappointment or anxiety. The ability to regulate these emotions is critical for using feedback constructively. The PFC and ACC work together to manage emotional responses, enabling individuals to stay focused and motivated even when receiving corrective feedback. Effective emotional regulation ensures that feedback leads to adaptive changes rather than defensive reactions (Ochsner & Gross, 2005).

We remember feedback

The hippocampus is involved in the consolidation of long-term memories, including those formed through feedback. When individuals receive feedback, especially feedback that is repeated and consistent, it helps to encode the related behaviours and outcomes into long-term memory. This process is essential for sustained behaviour change, as it ensures that individuals remember the feedback and apply it to future actions (McGaugh, 2000).

The practical implications

Neuropsychology research indicates that feedback is most effective when it is specific, timely, and actionable. Specific feedback enables individuals to understand precisely what behaviour needs to be changed and why, while timely feedback ensures that the behaviour is still fresh in the individual’s mind. Actionable feedback provides clear steps for improvement, facilitating behavioural adjustments.

Organisations can leverage the power of feedback to drive individual and collective performance improvements. Here are some actionable strategies:

Feedback should be timely and specific

Providing immediate and specific feedback is crucial for engaging the brain’s reward system and facilitating error detection. Timely feedback helps to strengthen the association between behaviour and outcome, making it more effective for behaviour change (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

Feedback should be balanced

While positive feedback motivates and reinforces desired behaviours, constructive feedback is essential for growth and improvement. Striking the right balance is crucial.

Combining positive and constructive feedback can optimise motivation and learning. Positive feedback reinforces desired behaviours through the reward system, while constructive feedback engages the error detection and correction mechanisms, promoting improvement (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996).

Encourage a feedback culture

Creating a supportive environment that fosters emotional regulation can enhance the effectiveness of feedback. Encouraging a growth mindset and providing emotional support helps individuals to process feedback constructively and remain motivated (Dweck, 2006).

  • Encourage regular, open, and honest feedback. Make it an integral part of your organisational culture.
  • Equip leaders with the skills to provide effective feedback, including delivering specific, timely, and actionable feedback.
  • Foster an environment where individuals are encouraged to seek feedback and reflect on their performance. Self-assessment tools can aid this process.

Keep giving feedback

Repeated and consistent feedback aids in the consolidation of behaviour changes into long-term memory. Regular feedback sessions can help individuals internalise feedback and apply it more consistently in their actions (Ericsson et al., 1993).

In conclusion

Feedback can be an essential part of creating an engaging and high performance culture. The research shows that when it is done well, feedback can result in sustained positive behaviour change.