Why Negative Experiences Feel So Sticky

Dealing with our innate negativity.

Erik Brown
Feb 15 · 5 min read
Photo by Claire K on Unsplash

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?

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

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

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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Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. CantWriteToSaveMyLife@yahoo.com

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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