Sparring Mind

Behavioral Psychology Blog

Don’t Let Critics Pick You Apart

Last week, I published what was undoubtedly one of my most controversial articles ever on the dangers of supernormal stimuli.

Nearly 100,000 people viewed the post in 24 hours, and I got dozens of positive emails from readers who really enjoyed it. Needless to say, that was great.

But with any sort of popularity comes ample criticism, and this article was no exception:

—I refuse to believe this bullshit.

—This article was crap when it was posted yesterday and it’s still crap today.

—Why are people sharing this nonsense?

As someone who’s published online for years (relatively thick skin), comments like these still bother me sometimes.

It’s hard not to feel a little foolish when even just a small group of people are calling you a fool. Praise be damned, negative feedback always seems to stand out in these instances.

To make matters worse, I saw that someone had shared my article with Dr. Kevin Mitchell, and he had retweeted it. I was worried because sometimes he’ll share things for commentary, not because he enjoyed it (in a “Hey, look at this silly article” sort of way).

I figured I’d just confront this head on—I decided to send him an email. I tried to stay calm, but my poker face wasn’t so great in this instance.


For some reason I immediately expected the worst. I guess that’s what recent criticism tends to do. It prepares you for a future flurry of insults, even when you have no idea what the outcome will actually be.

Here’s what he actually had to say:


That’s super tiny, read the full email here

Thanks for your note. Actually, I quite liked that post — that was why I retweeted it. Perhaps the original tweet was meant ironically, I don’t know – I took it at face value. I was vaguely familiar with the idea of supernormal stimuli prior to reading your post but learned a lot from it. I know people object to the whole “reptilian brain” thing but the basic idea is sound, whatever about that particular term. Anyway, I enjoyed it – well done. (Great comic too!)


A respected neurogeneticist really liked my article, and here I was worrying about what random people thought on Twitter and Reddit.

Why do we end up doing this to ourselves?

Negativity stands out like a sore thumb, even when it’s the minority.

It’s not that you should be deaf, blind and dumb to criticism, but I think with creating something lends the need to be careful about who you choose to listen to.

This is a topic I thought would be worth exploring—what makes so-called “haters” hate, and does the web play any role in bringing out the critic within us?

Why Haters Have to Hate

Criticism is a good and necessary thing despite what the fragile ego may think.

One has to wonder about the labeling of haters in the first place. Are there any grounds to assume that there are people out there who truly find fault with everything?

Personal observation might point to “Yes,” but so does the research. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers sought to examine the nature of predispositions towards topics the subjects knew nothing about.

They found a reliable trend in the responses of certain participants. Despite being asked about a myriad of unrelated topics—and asked again about new topics at a later date, to confirm they weren’t just in a bad mood the first time—they found two groups who seemed to be ‘likers’ and ‘haters’.

The ‘likers’ tended to rate most things positively with zero external information, and the haters… well, you see where this is going. From the study:

So someone’s attitude toward architecture may in fact tell us something about their attitude toward health care because both attitudes would be biased by a disposition to like or dislike stimuli.

In other words: the “dispositional attitude” of certain participants had the very real effect of influencing their opinion about things they knew nothing about. They ended up liking with no reason to, and hating things in the same vein.

So there are certain people who are simply prone to focusing on the negative features of things, even if there are positives.

This is what I would describe as an Option B personality: the person that always has to go against the grain.

No matter what you create, a small group of people will spite you for it, without reason.

I hope that opens a new perspective for you, because you need to recognize that even with the supremely good creations of the world, somewhere out there a person ruled by their negative disposition is going to find something wrong with it. And that’s okay!

Subjectivity is the nature of creativity. Nobody owes you praise or even silence, and as someone who makes something you’ll need to accept this very important truth:

You can’t be everything to everyone.

Not everyone needs to like what you create. You should perhaps be most fearful of eliciting a “meh” reaction. Truly creative works naturally lead to the formation of split opinions.

And surprise, despite what we all like to say, research shows that people are generally averse to unusual ideas: “Although [most people] say they want creative ideas, the evidence suggests creativity gets rejected in favour of conformity and uniformity.”

If you aren’t seeing any hate, are you really dreaming big enough?

Criticism is something you can avoid easily — by saying nothing, by doing nothing, and by being nothing.

—Elbert Hubbard

Give a Person a Mask

A lot has been said about how the Internet affects our social interactions and communication with one another, but what’s the deal with the web and “empowering” haters? Is there any truth to that?

Psychologist John Suler proposed what is perhaps the best known analysis of the phenomenon in the Online Disinhibition Effect. It lists six primary factors as to why we may treat others differently online than we do in person:

  1. You don’t know me. Anonymity protects the critics “real life” reputation and shields them from retaliation and owning their actions.
  2. You can’t see me. Face-to-face interactions tend to have more empathy because we can see the person we are engaging with. It’s hard to feel ashamed when you don’t even know who’s affected. You’re just a screen to me, not a person.
  3. See you later. I don’t have to deal with your instant response, or even wait for it! I can dump my thoughts on you and never return.
  4. It’s all in my head. Suler argues that online interactions can distort reality. I can make up whatever attributes about you that I want, justifying my actions.
  5. It’s just a game. The overused response of critics who do sometimes get called out: “It’s just the Internet, man!”
  6. Your rules don’t apply here. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been guilty of this! I’ve closed out of support live chats after I received my answer, without a word of thanks. How rude would that be in person? If you could reach through the screen right now, I’d tell you to give me a smack.

When you shed your identity, do the usual constraints of your behavior simply melt away?


by Penny Arcade

Since “comments” are a growing form of communication on the web for creatives, I thought we’d take a closer look into that.

This study noted that anonymous comments were more likely to be contrarian and extreme than non-anonymous ones. Another study found that enabling anonymous comments often made people more uncivil: 53% of anonymous commenters were uncivil, as opposed to 29% of registered, non-anonymous commenters.

As a writer, I’ve certainly noticed that locations where users go by login names rather than their actual name (Reddit, HackerNews) generally have far more vitriolic commenters.

When anonymity isn’t the issue, I’ve found a trend in the commenter not expecting to ever hear from the author. When I’ve followed up with people like this, just to see their reaction, it’s almost always apologetic and tries to backpedal on the initially exaggerated response.

Another issue is “piling on,” or the mob mentality. Popular Science decided to shut down their comments for this very reason, explaining that:

Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story.

This is an example of social proof in action. People often check comments to confirm their own bias, or to see what other people are saying so that their opinion “fits” with the winning side.

If the top comment happens to be a negative one (even if it is wrong or unjustified), it’s already too late: grab your ticket, all aboard the hate train.

The Lasting Impression of Negativity

Why is criticism often able to drown out even an abundance of praise?

Professor Roy F. Baumeister explored this topic on the basis of emotions in is his paper Bad is Stronger Than Good. He found that generally speaking, bad emotions, impressions, and feedback are “quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”

Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University and author of The Man Who Lies to His Laptop, posits that negative emotions stick because they are more likely to be dwelled upon:

Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.

“Hey, great job on this!” “Nice,” you think to yourself, and then you move on with your day.

“You have no business [doing X ], this is absolutely awful.” Cue thousands of thoughts racing through your mind. No wonder you can brush off dozens of compliments and stress over a single hateful comment.

This leads to imposter syndrome (“I’m a fraud, everyone’s going to find out I’m not good enough”) from people you’d never expect.

Steve Sobel, the software developer and creator of the Reddit Enhancement Suiterecently shared why he is often overly critical of himself thanks to a small handful of negative comments:

For every 100 “thanks for RES” messages I get, all it takes is one “X part of RES is shit and you’re a garbage developer and have no business writing software” to level those out.

Hate is stronger (and arguably easier and more common) than praise. That’s just the nature of the beast.

I don’t sit and count all the positives vs. the negatives… to be honest, I shrug off the positives as “well that’s nice but any monkey could’ve made this thing, I’m just the twit who was bored enough to actually go DO it,” and the negatives as an affront to my ability as a software developer.

Is that a right or fair way to do it? No. But in the moment that’s what my brain does.

(Baumeister found on average, it can take at least 5 positive events to make up for a single negative one.)

Sound familiar?

If you ever deal with something similar, first remember that some people are going to hate what you make no matter what. You have to be the bigger person, forgive them, and move on.

If it’s online, also remember that this probably isn’t how they would act in person. Be the bigger person, forgive them, and move on.

Last but certainly not least, you have decide whether or not to respond at all.

That’s what I’d like to address next.

How to Respond to Critics

Sometimes you should talk back.ha

I mentioned above about how when I personally reach out to overly negative commenters, they almost always apologize for their initial language.

That said, you need to first take the time to decide whether or not you should be responding at all.

(If you do, do it with a smile –>)

Here are my suggestions:

  • Do NOT respond. Anything that is stupidly short (“This is shit.”) is the equivalent of some loser heckling a comedian at a comedy club: are you going to stop the show for that? In addition, if a comment is overtly hurtful, racist, degrading, or anything in between, delete/ban with impunity and feel no remorse for doing so.
  • Maybe respond. A comment that makes a few logical critiques and is elaborated on, but it is still an attack, is up to you. I sometimes respond to these.
  • Always respond. Critiques with fair points and a reasonable tone should almost always be responded to. I prefer a personal email, because one-on-one is always better for these situations.

Opinions are like… well, you know. They’re easy to have, and come with very little repercussions. Creating takes guts. It’s why so few people do it, especially on the web.

That’s why you should only respond to people who you feel are owning their opinion.

(As they say, most of the ‘boos’ are coming from the cheap seats.)

For those criticisms that do deserve a response, you need to keep two things in mind: (1.) Always be friendly (2.) Focus on the goal: what this critique will allow you to understand that will help you improve your craft.

No one ever improved their skill within an echo-chamber of praise.

A good critique is a form of “failing forward,” or getting your mistakes acknowledged and explained, which in turn makes you better at what you do.

This is a business-like mentality that I’ve learned from working on Help Scout. You have to listen to customer feedback to improve a piece of software, and creatives should at least be open to feedback for improving their work.

That’s the one problem with articles about haters that I’ve encountered—the “don’t listen to haters” mentality is taken too far, to the point where you are encouraged to outright ignore all criticisms and critiques.

You can’t chalk everything up to people “hatin’ on you.”

They key is to simply understand that:

  1. You’ll never avoid hateful commentary in it’s entirety. You should ignore hurtful people and fly-by-night trolls; they don’t deserve your time.
  2. You need stay friendly to anyone you choose to respond to.
  3. It is your job to decide whether a critique is valid and is useful to your work, or is just another hater hatin’.

Be very careful with who you choose to listen to.

And that includes yourself!

You are probably your own biggest critic, like I was when I assumed I was going to get a negative response from Dr. Mitchell.

Sometimes you simply need to tell you to just shut the hell up and get back to work.

And as for the rest of those haters out there…

I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.

—George Bernard Shaw

I look forward to your hateful emails about this article. 🙂

Join 20,000+ other newsletter subscribers