I stumbled upon this post on Quora written by Marcus Geduld, explaining why some people react so negatively to criticism. He explains that it’s also important to understand the motives and mindset of the person offering the critique as well. It’s a two-way interaction.
People (and some other animals) seem to have an innate obsession with social hierarchies. We want to be valued by others. Anything that threatens our social rank evokes fight-or-flight instincts. That’s not going to change. Criticism is not necessarily a threat of this sort, but it can be. And whether it is or not from the critic’s point-of-view, the person being criticized may perceive it as threatening.
The first thing to keep in mind is the motive of the person being criticized. Let’s say he’s a question-answerer on Quora. Why is he answering a question?
1. To add to the knowledge base?
2. To add to the knowledge base and be seen as a smart, witty or ethical person?
3. To be seen as a smart, witty or ethical person? (He doesn’t really care about the knowledge base.)
If his motive is #2 or #3, his social rank is bound up with his answer. So he will naturally feel criticism, even if it’s not meant as personal criticism, to be an attack. Which will enable his fight-or-flight instinct.
Some people feel threatened but are able to overrule the feeling with reason: “It feels shitty, but I can tell he’s not criticizing me personally, so I need to be a grownup and accept it.” Others aren’t able to do that.
A small number of people have motive #1 in its purest sense. They will not even feel threatened. They simple care about knowledge. In fact, they’ll be thankful you pointed out a flaw in their thinking.
A lot of people will have mixed feelings: they’ll genuinely be happy to learn from you, but they’ll also feel threatened by your criticism. They are in the #2 range. People in the #3 range will leave or lash out.
In my experience, most of the #3s were damaged as children. They were ignored by their parents or teachers, and the only ways they could get attention were through displays of intelligence or wit. (The movie “Quiz Show” explores this syndrome.) When you criticize them, you’re slapping the little child that still lives inside them — not deep down inside them but right under the epidermis.
Next, it’s worth thinking about the motivations of critics:
1. Improving the knowledge base?
2. Improving the knowledge base and proving their intellectual superiority?
3. Proving their intellectual superiority. (E.g. belittling the person they are criticizing.)
Most of us have met some #2s and 3s. And the trouble is, it’s not always easy to tell if someone is a #1 or a 2/3. If a 2 or 3 from the first list meets someone he thinks may be a 2 or 3 from this list, the result is hurt feelings, flame wars and tears.
I admit that as a critic, I have been very guilty of #2 and #3 in the past, and I apologise if I may have offended anyone. It’s partially my fault. Unfortunately, I cannot go back and change the past, this is not Steins;Gate.
From now on I will continue to post interesting stuff about games, animation, movies, pro wrestling, and et cetera on the topics that interest me. But I will do my best to tone down my sometimes arrogant and superior-sounding tone. Let’s have fun learning, and learn to have fun.