Creating Intellectual Risk Takers

Monday, October 9, 2017

Julia Spandorfer, C’17, suggests that critical feedback makes a measurable contribution to childhood learning and willingness to take intellectual risks. Her senior thesis, “How Can I Improve?: Character Strengths and Openness to Negative Feedback in Childhood,” researches children’s openness to critical feedback. The thesis won the John P. Sabini Senior Thesis Award for the Study of Emotion, Character, and Responsibility. Spandorfer’s advisor was Angela Duckworth, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology and a 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow.

Spandorfer surveyed children and adults about qualities associated with 24 unique character strengths—including honesty, bravery, kindness, and love of learning—and graded themselves on a scale. After participants completed the questionnaire, they were asked whether they wanted to hear about one of their highest scoring character strengths, or whether they wanted to hear about one of the lowest scoring character strengths. 

In adults, Spandorfer says, “The key finding was that the crucial character strengths of honesty, judgement, and, at a marginal level, perseverance, were correlated with asking for mostly negative feedback. They wanted to hear mostly about where they could improve rather than where they were already doing well.” Children, however, rated themselves highly on all character strengths and preferred positive feedback. She hypothesizes that this may be due to the developmental process of egocentrism, where children tend to believe that they are unique and that others see them the way they see themselves.

Aversion to critical feedback, in children and adults, may indicate a fear of failure and resistance to challenges “It’s important for children to get more practice asking for critical feedback,” says Spandorfer. If parents and teachers can create that kind of environment, young people may better understand the value of that kind of information and begin to seek it out.

Spandorfer has accepted a position as a research coordinator in the Anxiety and Complicated Grief Program at the New York University Medical Center.