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Chico State

The Persuasive Power of Criticizing with Care

Two photographs of Katie Mercurio, side-by-side; she looks angry on the left and calm on the right.
(Jason Halley / University Photographer)

Criticizing someone for their bad behavior is easy.

But asking a group of people to change—with any hope of a positive result—gets complicated.

It’s one thing to call someone out for a bad joke around the supper table, but the stakes get higher in the wild, where harm is magnified by the Internet and its choruses. 

Think of activists demanding justice for victims in their campaigns. Employees who call attention to unfair practices at work. Journalists putting a spotlight on harm in society. And business leaders speaking out on political topics. 

It isn’t pretty, but that’s accountability for you.

Enter finance and marketing professor Katie Mercurio, a highly versatile thinker who loves a social challenge. She and a team wrestled this conundrum through a series of experiments, involving over 1,400 participants, to explore the types of criticism that result in changed behavior.

“Nobody likes hearing criticism, especially when they’re in the wrong,” Mercurio said.

“And especially not when they’re branded as the villain who has caused people harm.”

Thankfully, she and her researchers identified a way criticism can be made more effective, namely when the criticizer shows they have concern for the welfare of the people they are criticizing and the issues they face. Mercurio calls this “dual-concern messaging.”

For example, when addressing an individual’s wrongful act, the person giving feedback also acknowledges and validates their perspective.

While fostering openness toward criticism, the study sets the stage for change in all situations—from conversations around the dinner table to volatile debates on social media.

Listen to Katie explain it in her own words: