Five-to-one Odds Says It’ll Work

01 Track 01Five to One Odds Says It’ll Work

This is part three in a series on managing, or parenting, in a way that you correct without corroding. If you’re like me, you’ll find lots of room for improvement here.

The formal field of “positive psychology” is about 12 years old. Positive psych continues to grow out of the premise that we should drop our obsession with pathology and instead spend some time looking at what works. And what works in multiple contexts – child-rearing, marriage, work, and school (nice list, eh?) – is a preponderance of positive over negative comments.

Professor John Gottman‘s fascinating research on successful vs failed marriages quantified the difference. Based upon quantitative research, Gottman found that in marriages that end in divorce, the average ratio of positive to negative feedback was relatively even, 8:10 positive-to-negative. And if you read the title of this RFL, you’re guessing correctly that in strong marriages, the ratio was 5:1 positive-to-negative comments.

Similar research with parents and teachers has demonstrated that a 5:1 ratio generates statistically significant differences in children’s well-being (in one study obliterating socio-economic factors).

So, how are you doing against this 5:1 standard? Steven Ray Flora set up experiments where teachers and youth workers actually logged their “+ and -” comments to kids. One group observed a 2.5:1 ratio, and the other a 1.5:1.  At the end of the experiment many made comments that they were “shocked” “amazed” and “surprised” at how low these initial levels were.  They thought their normal behavior was way more positive than it was.

After doing these baseline logs, then hearing about the research on the positive effects of 5:1 praise, these groups of teachers and youth workers both upped their levels,  logging about 4.5:1 positive-to-negative. They not only reported that the students performed better, but they also reported that they themselves felt they performed better. What a wonderful side-effect!!! I’d encourage you to try a couple day’s log to establish a baseline. And then see how you can up your numbers to improve performance (and make things more fun around here!)

The added benefit to the 5:1 ratio is this:  Who are you more inclined to receive constructive criticism from:  Someone who criticizes you as much as they praise you? Or someone who is generous in demonstrating their support of you?  I don’t think we even need a study to know the answer that giving more positives is a way to open others up to constructive criticism, and so to

Lead with your best self!


If you’re interested in Gottman’s fascinating research, check out his book on why marriages succeed and fail:

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  • Good morning Dan,

    Does this experiment involve all ethnic groups, all economic levels? If this experiment does not involve the low income minority families then the numbers will probably change. If this study only targets upper class majority people then this experiment results are fiting.

    To many times are minorities and low income families are not intergrated with all other groups to be counted in unless we are doing a census for the census bureau.

    You can’t put your exclamation point on poverty stricken families.

    Thomas K. Burke

    • Tom,
      The one study I talked about actually did deal with low income children. The results were that the positive-negative ratios were way more important than socio-economic status.

  • Since Ed Joyce brought the principles of positive reinforcement through strength identification and enhancement to ski instruction at Sunday River Ski Resort in 1991, I have found legitimate positive affirmation the single most important tool in my coaching, staff development, teaching toolbox. Little The frame of reference provided by positive affirmation provides encouragement to leverage success and integrate aspiration into daily life. Whether dealing with colleagues, campaign volunteers or flex force workers, or my own family, recognition of strengths and contribution is an essential tool. Ken Blanchard picked up on it in his “Whale Done ,” around the turn of the century, I think.

    As far as the low income issue is concerned, reading Ruby K. Kayne’s A FRAMEWORK FOR THE UNDERSTANDING OF POVERTY, addresses the issue in terms of the “Three Voices.”
    Her Parent Voice is described as “authoritative, judgmental,…directive, demanding, punitive..the parent voice can also be loving and supportive. ” The latter is, perhaps less frequent in too many relationships and too many households

  • “I’m okay, your okay.”

    Since all work is done through relationships, it is best to take care to manage & preserve positive relationships with those people you live and work with. A couple maintains their positive relationship by not criticizing the other person: that’s why the 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions works in maintaining a long relationship.

    That said, a key question is where does a person “hear” the constructive behavioral feedback necessary to perform better in their world? Since they don’t regularly hear “straight talk” from their partner, spouse, significant other, father, mother, best friend, boss, peer, etc. who guides them along their life’s journey?

    One answer is by having a relationship with someone they respect (like a teacher, mentor or coach) who cares enough about the person to guide him or her toward allowing their perceptions to evolve. This can happen by simply asking “How is that working for you?” to surface a destructive default behavioral that opens the door to self-awareness; which may lead to the person making better behavioral choices in the future.

  • I have noticed when dealing with people who find it easier to be critical and provide minimal positive feedback, I alter my normal interaction with them. I give no feedback or find myself being uncharacteristically negative in return – like a toxic feedback loop. Or, I avoid interacting with them at all to the extent I can avoid them. I don’t believe it effects my other relationships. At least, I hope it doesn’t.

  • Rich,
    That’s an interesting, candid self-reflection. A “toxic feedback loop.” Is a powerful, ugly and apt description. Thanks for jumping in.

  • Mr. Mulhern,

    What great news. I’d never heard anything like that, I’m glad they did that study, and I’m glad you shared the results with us. Reading this RFL gave me a real “wow” moment, and I had to borrow from one of my favorite musical reviews to describe it: “with an effect as if one wall of a room had suddenly disappeared, to reveal a completely new view”. How else to say it? It’s like being invited to a great meeting, and not having a ride to get there, and realising that you’ll be fine if you just leave early and walk.The last RFL was great, too, but just remembering how terrible I’ve felt doing illegal things and sitting in jail makes me feel toxic and want to “unhook”. Too bad there’s no chance to just offer 5:1 positive feedbacks to the ghosts of misplaced or uninformed criticism and patch the relationship up with them; we only owe it to ourselves to set ourselves at ease, even if that means living haunted by the poor results of bad leading, broken promises, and fired off words.

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