Mind Matters: The value of feedback

When Ed Koch was mayor of New York City, he would walk about town asking people how he was doing as mayor. Being New Yorkers, the people were willing to tell him, in graphic detail at times.

My university asks my students how satisfied they were with my teaching. Students give numerical ratings on this and that and write what they liked and what could be better.

One students told me to stop futzing with my watch when I teach. As a result, I bought a new watch with a band that fits a skinny wrist. Another said she or he would like to see me teach naked.

As a result, I laughed and laughed.

Not many students complete the anonymous online evaluation questionnaire. Low response rates are a constant limitation of customer feedback systems.

So a rising global company developed a method of gathering satisfaction information by installing in businesses a device with four large buttons showing emoticons that range from a happy smiling face to a sad face.

A person pushes a single button while walking by. Voila! Instant feedback about reactions to a fast food restaurant, a government public-service office, a public toilet in airport, or something else.

If the ratings are negative, the restaurant may need more employees at this time of day or the airport toilet may need cleaning.

The immediate feedback of the system reminds me of an episode of the British TV series Black Mirror, in which everyone gets rated by cell phone for every interpersonal interaction.  The rated person can then see the rating. The collective ratings of a person have big consequences for where a person can live, work, etc.

One woman in the episode tries hard to get high ratings, but events get in the way, and she cracks under the pressure. Locked up in a prison for low-rated persons, she happily engages in an exchange of insults with another low-rated person. That is life in a dystopia of excessive feedback.

Generally though I seek feedback on my work performance, and I suggest seeking it to my psychology students. I tell them that if a person wants to get good at archery, she needs to see where each arrow lands.

You might think that I now will ask for your rating of this column. Nope.

Instead, I will give you feedback. If you have read this far, my reaction is “smiley face”.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.