How the brain takes criticism

CBS News

If Oscars are the pinnacle of Tinsletown praise, negative reviews by film critics surely are the depths. Worse yet, the sting of criticism has a proven staying power, giving new meaning to the song lyric "You must remember this." Tracy Smith reports our Cover Story:

In the 40 years that he's been writing books and movie reviews, critic Leonard Maltin has earned a slew of accolades. But those aren't what he remembers.

"I save all the reviews my books have gotten over the years. And I can cite the negative ones for you pretty much from memory," he said.

And the positive ones? "Not so much."

The fact is, criticism sticks. Beneath every designer outfit on the red carpet there'd better be a thick skin.

When asked how he takes it when a movie of his is panned, actor Christopher Walken replied, "You know, it's hard."

Kevin Kline said, "They're not writing them for us, and it's stupid for us to read them."

Kathy Ireland recalled, "A critic said I had a voice that could kill small animals. Not a real confidence builder!"

And that kind of pain is hard to shake for any of us. So why are the unpleasant things so unforgettable? Scientists call it negativity bias. The theory is that bad news makes a much bigger impact on our brains, and it's been that way since the caveman days, when our lives depended on being able to remember, above all, what could kill us.

"We're still walking around with this Stone Age brain right between our ears, with these ancient circuits in it," said psychologist Rick Hanson. "So as a result, people are much more likely to remember bad news about somebody else, than they're likely to remember good information about somebody else - thus, negative ads in politics."

Hanson, author of "Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence" (Harmony Books), wrote about ways to get past our built-in urge to think the worst. The trouble is, he said, "We've got a brain that's really good at learning from bad experiences. And it's relatively bad at learning from good experiences. That's why I say that the brain is like Velcro for the bad, but Teflon for the good."

And few people understand the power of bad as well as a film critic.

Smith asked Leonard Maltin, "Do you think about people's feelings when you sit down to review something?"

Sometimes, he replied, "because I've been criticized, too. But if I've just seen a really terrible movie that has offended me to the marrow of my bones, I'm not going to be thinking so much about their feelings."

Is there a line he won't cross? "There are times when I'll see a movie with an actress who is purported to be beautiful, and I don't like her looks. That's a line I don't think I should cross, and yet somehow I feel perhaps I should address it."

"Have you ever crossed that line?" Smith asked.

"I hope not," he said.

For others, there really are no lines. John Simon was a longtime critic for New York magazine -- a Harvard Ph.D. who maintained that anything up on the stage or screen was fair game for criticism.

In 1977, he reviewed Liza Minelli's Broadway show, "The Act," and criticized everything, including her face, writing that she had "blubber lips unable to resist the pull of gravity . . . and a chin trying its damned-est to withdraw into the neck."

There's so much more: in his review of 1976's "A Star Is Born," Simon wrote that Barbra Streisand's nose "cleaves the giant screen from east to west," and "zigzags across our horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning."

Smith asked Simon, "Do you think about people's feelings when you write reviews?"

"Maybe a tiny thought, but not much," he replied. "I feel that a critic cannot afford to worry about how his review will affect an actor or a director or a writer. He has to write what he believes is the truth, and let the chips fall where they may."