Impacts of Positive or Negative Feedback on State-Authenticity, State-Flow, Self-Efficacy, and Meaningfulness
IN THIS ARTICLE
Authenticity, flow, and meaning are three important factors of an individual’s ability to achieve sustained long-term happiness (Seligman, 2002; Seligman, 2011). State-authenticity, state-flow, and participant self-reports regarding the achievement of flow and opinions about whether participation in the study was meaningful were assessed in the context of a simple drawing task. One hundred undergraduate participants were randomly assigned to receive either positive or negative feedback following this drawing activity that was designed to be personal in nature. The State-Authenticity Scale (Lenton et al., 2016) and the Flow State Scale-2 (FSS-2; Jackson & Ecklund, 2002) were used to measure state experiences of authenticity and flow, respectively. Closed-ended questions assessed self-efficacy of flow and activity meaningfulness. No significant differences existed in either scores on the State-Authenticity Scales (p = .408) or the FSS-2 Flow scale (p = .104), however, participants in the positive feedback condition were more likely to believe they had achieved flow than those in the negative feedback condition (p = .043). There was no evidence that positive or negative feedback impacted the perceived meaningfulness of the activity (p = .260) for participants. The current research indicates that positive or negative feedback may impact the belief that an individual is in the state of flow, even if the same feedback does not impact state-authenticity, actual flow engagement, or perceived activity meaningfulness.
Positive psychology is a relatively recent movement in the 21st century which focuses on human strengths and virtues and their role in living a life full of well-being (Seligman, 2002; Seligman, 2011; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Positive psychology was first spoken about by Maslow (1968) in his description of highly functioning individuals, but it was only recently when positive psychologists joined humanistic researchers in the promotion of human strengths instead of pathology (Waterman, 2013). Positive psychology promotes conditions for increased happiness and productivity (Scorsolini-Comin et al., 2013). From this perspective, happiness can be more than just a fleeting feeling—happiness can be experienced on a more permanent basis through the commitment and exercise of our signature strengths and virtues (Peterson & Seligman 2004; Seligman, 2002; Seligman, 2011). In fact, research has indicated that “too much” of one or “too many” of several signature strengths is not detrimental to well-being, but rather increases life satisfaction (Seligman et al., 2005). Positive psychology provides a vast array of opportunities for researching how to create flourishing individuals and promote individual well-being (Scorsolini-Comin et al., 2013).
According to Seligman (2002), the use of signature strengths promotes the best positive feeling when those strengths feel authentic to who we are and what we value. Full engagement in activities or experiencing flow while goal seeking are other ways to increase positive emotions, along with having the added benefit of actively creating meaning in our lives (Seligman, 2002). The ‘ideal self’ is the image of ourselves we hold that is the very best of our abilities and we can increase both gratification and happiness through use of these abilities (Seligman, 2011). Authenticity has been defined as a congruency between perceived experience and outward behavior (Wood et al., 2008) and authenticity positively correlates with increased positivity-offset, positive self-perception, well-being, and pro-social behavior (Baker et al., 2017). Wood et al. (2008) describes authentic living as behaving and expressing yourself in a way that is consistent with conscious awareness and this has also been linked with an increase in well-being outcomes.
By achieving greater autonomy within roles, individuals may become more receptive, cooperative, outgoing, and cheerful within those roles (Sheldon et al., 1997). Research indicates that authenticity may be one of the greatest indicators of positive mental health and perceived well-being (Baker et al., 2017; Sheldon et al., 1997; Wood et al., 2008). Despite this, research on how to promote authenticity has been neglected in the past, but increased in focus over the last two decades (Lenton et al., 2013; Scorsolini-Comin et al., 2013; Sheldon, 2004).
Park et al. (2004) found evidence that participants who agreed that a signature strength was authentic to them had greater life-satisfaction when using that strength. Other research has indicated participants often rate behaviors that reflect positive characteristics as more authentic than negative traits (Sheldon & Elliot, 1997). Participants also tended to rate their behavior as more authentic when they imagined behaving in a positive manner rather than a negative one, even when the positive and negative characteristics were equally congruent to who they were as a person (Sheldon & Elliot, 1997).
Trait-authenticity and biological personality characteristics often are explained as predispositions toward perceptions of well-being, positive experience, and positive or negative affect (Seligman, 2002; Seligman, 2011; Sheldon et al., 1997; Wood et al., 2008), however, this research operates under the Self-Concordance Model proposed by Sheldon and Elliot (1999). Sheldon and Elliot (1999) describe bottom-up theories of well-being as a sum of many positive experiences while top-down processing theories posit that global experiences and attitudes impact an individual’s perception of their experiences.
Authenticity has been linked with increased power and self-esteem (Lenton et al., 2016; Wang, 2015; Wood et al., 2008) and feelings that an individual’s need for autonomy and self-expression are met (Lenton et al., 2016; Lenton et al., 2013). State-authenticity (SA) is described as satisfying our need to feel competent (Lenton et al., 2016). SA works within Sheldon and Elliot’s (1999) Self-Concordance Model which argues that daily experiences of competence, autonomy, and relatedness promote well-being.
Recently, researchers linked authenticity with flow (Lenton et al., 2016), another essential aspect of positive psychology (Seligman, 2002; Seligman, 2011; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Flow is an important part of experiencing optimal psychological functioning and living the good life (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
Csikszentmihalyi (2000) described flow as a multi-dimensional construct consisting of nine distinct variables. These variables include balance between challenges and skill, when action meets awareness, clear goal awareness, unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, sense of control, loss of self-consciousness, time transformation, and autotelic experience (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Flow is an optimal psychological state of increased performance and increased perception of positive experience (Jackson & Eklund, 2002). Mindfulness, increased concentration, clear goals, opportunities, complete absorption, and immediate feedback with progress contribute to the achievement of a flow state (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Individuals can experience flow in any activity, even simple ones such as driving a car, using a vacuum, or working a cash register. Unambiguous feedback promotes the highest levels of flow engagement (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002).
Positive and negative feedback and its relationship with performance has been studied across populations. For example, Adhikari (2016) showed reinforcement of correct answers produced a significant increase in performance among Nepalese adults who were not literate. In another study of uneducated people who were not literate, reinforcement made it possible for participants to solve more advanced level tasks and perform at a higher rate (Upadhyaya et al., 2015). Positive reinforcement during an engagement activity could have a similar effect when attempting to reach a state of flow and was, thus, considered as part of the current study.
Feedback has also been studied as an important part of learning. Researchers discovered positive feedback was associated with an increase in performance on learning tasks and an initial positive feedback presentation created a substantial increase in the number of items learned relative to negative feedback (Arbel et al., 2014). Stinson and Belmont (2001) found children who received feedback showed higher performance, using a marble dropping test, than those who received no feedback, possibly indicating feedback was an important factor in motivation to succeed. Children preferred social feedback rather than self-feedback, indicating that individuals may need social feedback in order to make social comparisons to improve their performance (Stinson & Belmont, 2001).
Gibbons et al. (2016) found evidence that instrumental learning could be influenced by positive feedback. Behaviors which are followed with positive consequences are more likely to be repeated. These researchers used a 60/40 randomly assigned positive to negative feedback ratio so that participants would not be frustrated (Gibbons et al., 2016). Feedback stimuli included Wrong!, No!, Miss! Error!, Poor!, Precise!, Correct!, Right!, Accurate!, and Hit! (Gibbons et al., 2016). Participants were instructed to try and find the underlying rule or pattern of positive or negative feedback by pressing the left or right button on the screen within a certain time frame (Gibbons et al., 2016), however, no rule actually governed feedback as it was completely random. Experiment 1 indicated that negativity bias increases under ambiguity (Gibbons et al., 2016). The data suggests that instrumental learning from consequences of behavior is strongly driven by reward processes triggered by positive feedback (Gibbons et al., 2016). Receiving positive feedback appears to increase self-efficacy, thereby motivating children to try harder at learning tasks and resulting in greater achievement (Gibbons et al., 2016).
Seligman (2002) stated positive emotion in children could generate exploration which could, then, lead to a sense of mastery. Positive emotion broadens intellectual, social, and physical skills that children use later in life with positive outlooks producing higher SAT scores in high school students than being pessimistic (Seligman, 2002). Positive reinforcement before bedtime creates more positive dreams and Seligman also describes how a rare positive gift may be more effective in changing difficult or undesirable behavior than typical Skinnerian punishment techniques (2002).
Based on this information, our first hypothesis was that participants completing a personal drawing task under conditions of positive feedback would achieve the greatest level of SA. Hypothesis II was that participants in the positive feedback group would achieve the greatest amount of state-flow (SF). Lastly, we hypothesized those in the positive feedback condition would believe they had achieved flow and experience increased meaningfulness in the activity.
It must be pointed out that any result of the current study would not promote the use of unconditional positive regard or unconditional negative regard. Unconditional positive feedback or negative feedback have been shown to create environments where learned helplessness can fester (Seligman, 2002). The current research aims to understand the mechanisms of SA, SF, self-efficacy, and meaningfulness in relationship with either positive or negative feedback, without supporting using only one or the other in every situation.
Due to prior research of increased performance functioning after positive feedback (Adhikari 2016; Arbel et al., 2014; Upadhyaya et al., 2015), and its importance in the role of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), the current study incorporated feedback and examined its impact on SA and SF. The examination of these variables is relevant in that Lenton et al. (2016) recently showed a positive correlation between the two variables and that they are closely related in positive psychology and in achieving the good life (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002; Seligman, 2002; Seligman, 2011; Seligman & Csizkszentmihalyi, 2000).
There is a need for more research to support the claim that felt SA and SF are possible gateways of meaningingfulness within a positive psychology framework which enhance well-being and create fuller-functioning individuals within societies. SA was measured using a version of Wood et al.’s (2008) Authenticity Scale that (Lenton et al., 2016) adapted to look at authenticity as a state experience. Flow achievement was measured using the FSS-2 (Jackson & Eklund, 2002) which has evidence of being a reliable measure of SF with a rich assessment of all nine dimensions of flow. The FSS-2 was chosen as it is the most useful flow scale when studying applied research that observes how to increase flow occurrence (Jackson & Ecklund., 2002).
Participants were 106 undergraduate students at a small western liberal art’s university. Three participant data within the positive feedback condition and two among the negative feedback condition were excluded from analysis due to incomplete data, thus leaving a total of 100 viable datasets to analyze. The participants provided consent knowing they could withdraw from the study at any point in time and each was offered research credit as compensation for their time and engagement in the study.
Procedure and Materials
Participants were randomly exposed to one of two conditions, positive feedback or negative feedback, to determine if either condition was more likely to produce feelings of SA or SF in the task. The Authenticity Scale (Wood et al., 2008) was recently adapted to measure only state-authenticity (Lenton et al., 2016) and this version was used in the current study research (see Appendix A). Flow was measured using the FSS-2 (Jackson & Eklund, 2002) which has been shown to be a useful tool for assessing SF and the rights to distribute this measure were purchased from mindgarden.com before conducting the study.
Since self-efficacy and meaning are both central aspects of positive psychology and have a dynamic relationship with how we may achieve SA or SF, two concluding closed-ended questions asked whether or not participants believed they had achieved flow and whether or not engagement in the drawing activity was meaningful to them. These questions examined self-efficacy and the belief of meaningfulness in individuals.
Participants were informed the purpose of the current study was to examine which conditions facilitated flow at the highest rates. A Microsoft Powerpoint presentation on the topic of flow explained what flow is and how it can be achieved (Nakamura & Csikszentmihaly, 2002). Then participants were asked to choose a drawing that represented their, “classic childhood picture” which was intended to hold meaning to them as it was described as the go-to picture they would most often draw when they were younger and recreate it with the provided materials. Participants were asked to do their best before being provided a 24-pack of multi-colored Crayola crayons and a blank piece of paper.
Participants were given three minutes of drawing time to achieve flow. The role of the experimenter was to offer clear and concise goals and directions, as unambiguous directions and immediate feedback have been shown to produce the highest level of engagement (Nakamura & Csikszentmihaly, 2002). Each participant was told they would receive a sticky note with feedback based on their body language and engagement with the task. The experimenter circulated the room to “record” behaviors of flow during the drawing task. After three minutes, the experimenter gave feedback to each participant. Feedback conditions were, in fact, not based on experimenter observations, but instead randomly assigned to be positive or negative and provided to each participant regardless of their actual flow achievement or any observations of their engagement.
Feedback was provided on lime green sticky notes in one of two ways. Participants in the positive feedback condition received a sticky note with the message, “Good Job!” while those in the negative feedback condition received a sticky note which stated, “Keep Trying!” Participants were instructed to complete the State-Authenticity Scale which contained 12 quick questions (Lenton et al., 2016) after receiving feedback. Participants were then asked to look at their sticky note for 5 seconds and reflect on how they could better achieve flow. After this short reflection, they continued the drawing for an additional three minutes with their feedback next to them on the desk. Participants were tested in groups and privacy shields made from large manila folders blocked their view from possible exposure to feedback other participants had received and vice versa. After the final 3 minutes participants completed both the FSS-2 long-scale and responded to questions about their self-efficacy of flow achievement and task meaningfulness.
Due to the nature of our experiment and implications of how feedback could positively or negatively influence participants' positive/negative affect, perception of felt state-authenticity, or engagement after leaving this experiment, we debriefed all participants as to the purpose of the study before their departure. Participants were informed the feedback they received had nothing to do with their performance in achieving flow. They were assured that the feedback they received was not a reflection of their actions but, simply, randomly assigned. All participants were informed about the free counseling services offered at the institution in case any individual felt negatively about the feedback they had received.
Data was sorted by feedback condition. The alpha level for the current study was set at .05. Raw data was shown to be normally distributed using the Anderson-Darling (Anderson & Darling, 1954) normality test. Two sample t-tests were used to test for differences between feedback conditions in both SA and SF scales. A Chi-Square test was used to analyze responses to close-ended questions regarding the self-reported efficacy of achieving flow and whether the task was meaningful to participants.
Overall SA was examined by comparing the sum of scores on the SA scale by positive or negative feedback condition (p = .408). Subscales within the SA scale included authentic living (p = .492), accepting external influences (p = .440), and self-alienation (p = .108) and also showed no significant differences between positive or negative feedback conditions. No observable differences in SA existed, therefore, we failed to reject the associated null-hypothesis.
We hypothesized that positive feedback during the drawing task would increase rates of SF. Two-sample t-tests indicated no significant difference in total flow scores between positive and negative feedback conditions (p = .104). Each of the nine distinct elements of flow were also examined with t-tests and none were significantly impacted by positive or negative feedback. We failed to reject the null-hypothesis.
Self-Efficacy of Flow and Activity Meaningfulness
At the conclusion of both surveys, participants were asked whether they believed they had achieved flow and whether the task was meaningful to them. It was hypothesized that participants in the positive feedback condition would have higher self-efficacy as well as increased perceived activity meaningfulness at the finish. These two closed-ended questions were answered with either a yes or no response and the data was analyzed using a Chi-Squared test. A significant difference was discovered in the participant’s belief about whether or not they had achieved flow (p = .043). No observable difference (p = .260 ) was found within the participant’s belief of whether the activity was meaningful to them.
The current study examined the impact of positive and negative feedback and its impact on SA, SF, and the self-reported self-efficacy of whether participants achieved flow or found meaningfulness in the drawing activity. The results indicated the form of feedback had no implications on the achievement of SA or SF produced with a simple, but personal, drawing task.
Although actual flow and authenticity scores were not significantly impacted by the positive or negative feedback during the drawing task, the participant’s belief they had achieved flow was decreased by negative feedback. This indicates that the type of feedback received from an individual who seems to be an authority on the topic can negatively impact the self-efficacy of an individual in a flow engagement task. Negative feedback lowers self-efficacy in task achievement and, therefore, may be a detriment to individuals attempting to gain higher functionality through the use of positive psychology activities, including flow achievement.
Limitations of the current study include the length of time (6 minutes) given to participants to complete the drawing activity and the form of negative feedback provided. In an attempt to respect the participant’s well-being and avoid the induction of a negative emotional state, the words “Try Again!” were used instead of something with a more negative or potentially hurtful meaning. Gibbons et al. (2016) used error, no, miss, wrong, poor in their study of feedback processing. These words have a more direct negative meaning than what was used in the current study. The phrase “Try Again!” may not have been viewed by participants as very negative, or may have even been perceived as motivational, while “Good Job!” had a more clear positive meaning.
Another limitation is that all feedback was written on lime-green sticky notes. The color lime green may have been viewed in a more positive or upbeat perspective. The color was kept consistent between positive and negative feedback conditions to control for confounds related to the color of the sticky note, however, a more neutral white sticky note may have produced different patterns in the results.
The current study did not examine a condition without feedback as previous research indicated achievement was increased from any type of feedback over no feedback (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Future research in this area could examine the relationship of SA and SF with no feedback in addition to positive and negative.
It is also recommended future research of this type allow participants ample time to complete the flow task they are assigned to promote the flow achievement. Toward the aim of efficiency in time with participants, scheduled drawing time was reduced when the decision was made to educate participants about flow using the Microsoft Powerpoint presentation. The minimal time allowed for completion of the drawing activity may have impacted flow achievement under both positive and negative feedback conditions.
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State Authenticity Scale adapted from Wood et al. 2008 (Lenton et al., 2016)
Please read the statements below and select a number on the corresponding scale to indicate how accurately each statement describes you.
(1 = Strongly Disagree, 7 = Strongly Agree)