Humans have a knack for survival. Over the years we’ve dealt with ice ages, saber-toothed tigers, starvation, and diseases. Despite all of these maladies and problems, we’re still here. Our brain has wired itself to be a problem-solving device. Obviously, positive things don’t need fixing, so it searches out the negative.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this plenty of times in your own life. You receive a number of compliments on something you did for work, but then Bob in accounting throws you a curveball. He tells you that you’re way off base. Despite the countless compliments you received before, now you can’t help but doubt yourself.
- Am I way off base?
- Is my idea terrible?
- Should I take it back to the drawing board?
“A person who ignores the possibility of a positive outcome may later experience significant regret at having missed an opportunity for pleasure or advancement, but nothing directly terrible is likely to result. In contrast, a person who ignores danger (the possibility of a bad outcome) even once may end up maimed or dead. Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good.” — Bad Is Stronger Than Good, Review of General Psychology 2001. Vol. 5. №4. 323–370
In their scholarly article, Bad Is Stronger Than Good, psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his team explore why bad things hold more weight than good. As mentioned above, this desire to focus on the negative is etched into us by evolution.
So, are we just doomed to constantly focus on the negative? Is that one negative review bound to crush us? Not exactly, there’s scientific analysis and methods that can free us from this negativity bias.
Why Bad News Sells
“…Most findings indicate that people react more strongly to bad than good events. The evidence covers everything from minor everyday events and brief experimental exposure to aversive odors to major life events and traumas. Bad events produce more emotion, have bigger effects on adjustment measures, and have longer lasting effects.”
— Bad Is Stronger Than Good, Review of General Psychology 2001. Vol. 5. №4. 323–370
Baumeister’s article describes various experiments that show bad events have longer-lasting effects than good ones. We’ve also established that the human brain tends to focus itself on negative things. With these two things in mind, it’s not surprising that news tends to focus on bad things happening across your region and the world.
A study done by Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka at McGill University in Canada showed that subjects generally preferred to read negative news stories. This was despite the fact that the subjects reported that they thought the media should report more positive stories.
So, the media pushes news that’s focused on negative things because that’s strangely what the public wants. It’s also what our brain gravitates to.
In an interview with the University of Berkley magazine, Greater Good, Baumeister and his writing partner John Tierney explains that science seems to indicate it generally takes 5 good events to overcome the power of one bad one.
Now, if you’re constantly being flooded with bad news, you’d need an incalculable amount of good stories to overcome this. Sounds kind of daunting doesn’t it? So what do you do to overcome the whirlwind of negativity?
The Low Bad Diet And Using Negativity For Good
“Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts”
— Marcus Aurelius
So you’ve just learned that bad is 5 times more powerful than good. Darth Vader, Voldemort, and Thanos are out there somewhere smiling, but there is a positive to this. It gives us a direction to go. Also, our innate drive to be attracted to negative things also gives us some power to make positive changes in our life.
As Marcus said above, we can color our souls with more positive information. Tierney and Baumeister recommend going on a “low-bad” diet. When a terrible event happens, don’t wallow in the news. They also recommend you curate your feed of information to be less negative.
Tierney and Baumeister actually recommended engaging in social media. In their research, it’s actually less negative than the traditional media. You can also search out groups that are focused on more positive issues and goals.
If you can’t find a source of more positive news, I’d recommend HumanProgress.org. This news site focuses on the great progress being made around the world to improve the human condition. It’s loaded with statistics and empirical evidence proving the world is getting better. A 15-minute visit to this site could easily give you 5 items to cover the last bad thing you encountered.
The duo also recommends using our attraction to the negative for good purposes. They recount research that shows people will remember bad things others do more than they’ll recall good things. So, they propose using a “negative golden rule”.
The traditional golden rule states, “Do unto others as you’d want them to do unto you.” Tierney and Baumeister change it to “Do not do unto others what you do not want done unto you.” In other words, put more effort into eliminating negative things in relationships with others as opposed to doing positive things.
They also describe research that shows this works well in romantic relationships. If you can avoid making snarky comments, blaming your mate, or ignore their occasional bad day, it goes a long way in cementing a long term relationship.
There’s also much evidence that proves negative reinforcement gives better performance results. The two talk about experiments where rewards are given upfront than taken away for a failure versus rewards given for success. Research has shown much higher performance for the former — negative reinforcement gets scientifically better results.
The Positives Of The Negative
“…Bad is stronger than good, but good can prevail…life has gotten so much better for the average person in the world in the last three centuries. It’s astonishing — we’re the luckiest people in history to be alive now. And things just keep getting better.”
— John Tierney, interview in Greater Good Magazine
We may be designed to spot the negative, but we don’t have to live our lives that way. We can color our souls with enough good news to cancel out the negativity bias. There’s also an opportunity to use this bias to make positive things happen.
The news may be negative, but our world is a fantastic place. We just need to search out the many stories that show it. A low-bad diet and a negative golden rule are also there to keep us on track. With a bit of effort and time, we can rewire the caveman section of our brain to ignore those imaginary saber-toothed tigers.
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