It’s Feedback Week! Yelling at Pilots is Good for Them!

The next few posts will deal with effective feedback and the impact of positive and negative reinforcement. I’ll start off with a story that I often tell in lectures.

There’s a well established fact among pilot instructors, in the Air Force, that negative reinforcement works better than positive reinforcement. Combat pilots  are very highly trained, go through an extremely rigorous selection procedure and have to maintain a very high level of personal discipline and fitness. The difference between success and failure, life and death effectively, can come down to one decision. During training, these pilots are put under constant stress, to try and prepare them for the real situation.

A pilot

This man redefines the phrase
"Highway to the Danger Zone".

The instructors have observed that these pilots respond better to being yelled at than being congratulated. What’s their evidence? Well, if a pilot does something really well, and is praised, chances are his or her performance will get worse. Whereas, if the pilot does something bad, or dangerous, and you yell at him or her, his or her performance will improve. Well, that’s a pretty simple framework. Let’s draw it as a diagram.

Now, of course, to see the impact of praise or abuse, you have to record what you did (the praise or abuse) and then what happened (improvement or decline). So we need to draw up some boxes. Ticks mean praise, crosses mean abuse. Up arrow mean improvement, down arrow means decline. A tick in the box that you reach by selecting the column that belongs to Praise (tick) and the row that belongs to Improvement (up arrow) means that the pilot improved after praise. Let’s look at a picture.

So here we can see that, much as an instructor would expect, when I’m nice to you, you get worse more often that you get better. You get better once when praised, compared to getting worse three times. But, wow, when I yelled at you, you get better far more often than you got worse!

There is, of course, a trick here. Yes, it appears that shouting works better than praising but, without giving the game away in the comments (or Googling), do you know why? (The data is a reasonable approximation of the real situation, so there are no hidden arrows or ticks anywhere. 🙂 )

Now, true confession, the picture above is not actually of pilot training – I don’t have an F18 on my desk – but it will be a reasonable approximation of the situation, although it comes from a different source. The graph above comes from a game called “Card Shouting” and I’ll tell you more about that in tomorrow’s post.

One Comment on “It’s Feedback Week! Yelling at Pilots is Good for Them!”

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