#SolutionsMonday: Wise Criticism and Behavioral Scripts

wise criticism

By Isaac Butler

Here’s a very common, very fraught, situation that often leads nowhere good: A white mentor (teacher at school, supervisor at work, etc) must give critical feedback to a person of color (a student, an employee, etc). In these instances, chances are very good that some combination of the following will happen:

  • The white mentor, out of fear of being perceived as racist, will give feedback that is insufficiently critical and dishonest. Not only does leave the person of color in the situation without adequate guidance for improving their performance, but it also leaves them feeling condescended to and patronized.
  • The white mentor will deliver a critique, and the negative aspects of that critique feel racially charged.

Given this, it is often difficult for people of color in workplace and educational settings to determine whether negative feedback is the result of bias, and whether positive feedback is a form of racial condescension. This uncertainty is called attributional ambiguity and can seriously hamper both improvement of performance and relationships between mentors and mentees.

Enter the wise criticism intervention. Developed by Geoffrey Cohen, the wise criticism intervention is simple, yet effective. Cohen’s research found that if teachers and supervisors communicate both high expectations for and confidence in students receiving feedback, the ability to hear and respond to that feedback improved.

In a follow-up test in 2013, middle school students were given feedback on essays they submitted. When black students received feedback with the note “I’m giving you these comments so you have feedback on your essay,” only 17% chose to revise and resubmit their work. When they received a note that said “I’m giving you these comments because I have high standards and I know you can meet them,” 71% of black students revised and resubmitted their essay.

Framing feedback in terms of wise criticism (also called high standards) helps people receive criticism by disambiguation. In other words, where before people might feel attibutional ambiguity (being unclear why they are receiving feedback) now, the ambiguity has been taken away, making it clear that the given notes are about standards, expectations, and belief in the student or employee’s ability to succeed.

Wise criticism is a specific form of a larger type of intervention: behavioral scripts. Studies show that behavioral scripts can be extremely helpful for white people to use in some interracial interactions. For example, Perception research advisor Philip Atiba Goff found in one study that when white subjects were given a “position” to present during interracial interaction, white participants no longer moved further away from their black conversation partners in comparison to white conversation partners. Knowing what to say lowered anxiety, making distancing behavior less likely.

Another test from 2009 studied the usefulness of providing “defined social scripts,” or dictating expected interpersonal behavior to white participants before they interacted with black people. They then observed the interactions, looking for behavior that causes avoidance in both black and white people. What they found was that establishing norms beforehand reduced white racial anxiety, suggesting that scripting is especially important during early interracial interactions. The researchers wound up suggesting that institutions should provide structured interactions for first encounters, using ice-breaking exercises and pre-determined questions.