Axiom: 4-to-1 – Compliment-to-Criticism Ratio

Is there a correct compliment to criticism ratio?

I’ve carried around the ratio of 4-to-1 for a long while now, but never really investigated it’s origins, or whether it has any basis in fact.

It’s an axiom and hence feels about right, but is it too simplistic? Why 4-to-1? So off I went to do a bit of research.

It turns out that the axiom has an interesting history. I’m going to keep it short, Wikipedia has a longer chronology.

Our brief history begins in 2005 when Marcial Losada and Barbara Fredrickson publish a paper in American Psychologist called “Positive effect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing” in which they outlined that the ratio of positive to negative affect was exactly 2.9013.

So not 4-to-1, ah well.

Barbara Fredrickson went on to write a book in 2009 titled: Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3 to 1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life. In the book she wrote:

“Just as zero degrees Celsius is a special number in thermodynamics, the 3-to-1 positivity ratio may well be a magic number in human psychology.”

The idea of a positivity ratio became popular and entered mainstream thinking, taking on names like the Losada ratio, the Losada line and the Critical Positivity Ratio. I’m not sure when I picked up the idea of a positivity ratio, but I suspect it would be around the 2009, 2010 time-frame.

Then in 2013 Nick Brown, a graduate student, became suspicious of the maths in the study. Working with Alan Sokai and Harris Friedman, Nick Brown reanalysed the data in the original study and found “numerous fundamental conceptual and mathematical errors”. This the claimed ratio completely invalid leading to a formal retraction of the mathematical elements of the study including the critical positivity ratio of 2.9013-to-1.

So not only did I get the wrong ratio, it turns out that the ratio is mathematically invalid anyway.

This is where axioms get interesting, scientifically the idea of a 3-to-1 ratio of positivity is rubbish, but there’s something about it that keeps the idea living on. Instinctively we feel that it takes a bucket load more positivity to counteract a small amount of negativity. We know that we hear a criticism much louder than a compliment.

We only have to think about it a little while, though, to realise that a ratio is a massive over simplification of far more sophisticated interactions. As we interact with people, one criticism can be nothing like another one. Imagine the difference between a criticism from a friend and one from a stranger, they are very different. The same is also true for compliments. Thinking on a different dimension, we know that a whole mountain of compliments about triviality is not going to outweigh a character impacting criticism.

Perhaps, worst of all, though, is no feedback at all?

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