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Humans Are Wired For Bad Than Good

Try to embrace the advantage that our negative capability confers — most especially, the ability to see reality straight and, so, to adjust course and survive.


“Evil is always possible. Goodness is a difficulty.” — Anne Rice

For me, the bad experiences often occur when I am dreaming.

Yes exactly, infact one of the my most recurrent dream I have is : I am writing a high-school test — time is running out and I am only half-way through — and I am going to fail again.

I had so many “good” experiences in high-school, why do I remember the “bad” ones? Turns out, we all do.

People have a tendency to attach a much higher weight, or valence in psychological lingo, to bad things rather than to good.

Negative events affect us more than positive ones. We remember them more vividly and they play a larger role in shaping our lives. Farewells, accidents, bad parenting, financial losses and even a random snide comment take up most of our psychic space, leaving little room for compliments or pleasant experiences to help us along life’s challenging path.

“This is a general tendency for everyone,” said Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University. “Some people do have a more positive outlook, but almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”

There are physiological as well as psychological reasons for this.

“The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres,” said Professor Nass, who co-authored “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships” (Penguin 2010). Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, he said. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.

Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, captured the idea in the title of a journal article he co-authored in 2001, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” which appeared in The Review of General Psychology. “Research over and over again shows this is a basic and wide-ranging principle of psychology,” he said.

As the article, which is a summary of much of the research on the subject, succinctly puts it:

“The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. Various explanations such as diagnosticity and salience help explain some findings, but the greater power of bad events is still found when such variables are controlled. Hardly any exceptions (indicating greater power of good) can be found. Taken together, these findings suggest that bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena.”

Professor Baumeister and his colleagues also note, losing money, being abandoned by friends and receiving criticism will have a greater impact than winning money, making friends or receiving praise.

In an experiment in which participants gained or lost the same amount of money, for instance, the distress participants expressed over losing the money was greater than the joy that accompanied the gain.

“Put another way, you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50,” the paper states.

In addition, bad events wear off more slowly than good ones.

And just to show that my family’s tendency to focus on the negative is not unusual, interviews with children and adults up to 50 years old about childhood memories “found a preponderance of unpleasant memories, even among people who rated their childhoods as having been relatively pleasant and happy,” Professor Baumeister wrote.

As with many other quirks of the human psyche, there may be an evolutionary basis for this.

Those who are “more attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased the probability of passing along their genes,” the article states. “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”

So, the most recognized reason that bad is stronger than good is evolutionary. Organisms that are attuned to preventing bad things are suggested to flourish and thrive more than those oriented primarily toward maximizing good things. A person who ignores the danger of fire may not live to see the next day. A person who ignores the pleasures of a fun night out may lose nothing but that, a fun night out. People’s survival and well-being thus seem to require more urgent attention to avoiding bad outcomes than to approaching good outcomes.

The problem is that times have changed now. No longer are we roaming the savannah, braving the harsh retribution of nature and a life on the move. The instinct that protected us through most of the years of our evolution is now often a drag — threatening our intimate relationships and destabilising our teams at work.

The negativity bias affects how we see ourselves, others and the wider world in general. It means we’re too quick to judge and too slow to forgive. It affects romantic relationships. And unsurprisingly, it’s not great for our moods, causing us to ruminate on that minor criticism and gloss over all the kind words and compliments. These moods can be prolonged unnecessarily: a good day tends to have no lasting effect the following day, whereas a bad day carries over.

But, what should we do to improve this situation?

The Chilean psychologist Marcial Losada, for instance, studied 60 management teams at a large information-processing company. In the most effective groups, employees were praised six times for every time they were put down. In especially low-performing groups, there were almost three negative remarks to every positive one.

Losada’s controversial ‘critical positivity ratio’, devised with psychologist Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and based on complex mathematics, aimed to serve up the perfect formula of 3–6:1. In other words, hearing praise between three and six times as often as criticism, the researchers said, sustained employee satisfaction, success in love, and most other measures of a flourishing, happy life. The paper with the formula, entitled ‘Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing’, was published by the respected journal American Psychologist in 2005.

Achieving the critical ratio soon became a major part of the toolkit developed by positive psychology, a recent sub-discipline of psychology focused on enhancing positive measures such as happiness and resilience instead of treating negatives like disorders of the mind.

To this regarda Professor Nass also suggested, it’s better to offer the criticism right off the bat, then follow with a list of positive attributes.

Infact the very fact that we tend to praise our children when they’re young — too much and for too many meaningless things, It means they don’t get the opportunity to build up a resilience when they do receive negative feedback.

Professor Baumeister said: “If criticism was more common, we might be more accepting of it.”

To sum up, there might be no way to extinguish the negative bias of our minds. Unable to rise above this negativity bias with praise, affirmations, magic formulas and the like, it might be time to embrace the advantage that our negative capability confers — most especially, the ability to see reality straight and, so, to adjust course and survive. In fact, studies show that depressed people may be sadder, but they are also wiser, to evoke the famous words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This ‘depressive realism’ gives the forlorn a more accurate perception of reality, especially in terms of their own place in the world and their ability to influence events.

Originally published at medium.com

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