Human beings tend to simplify things whenever they can. At the most basic level they classify things as either good or bad. “Good” and “bad” are typically among the first words that children (and pets) learn. Almost any experience, emotion or outcome can be characterized in these terms.
This tendency helps people decide what things to seek out and perhaps more importantly, what things to avoid. In times of social upheaval, like the present, people are especially prone to making such value judgements.
It seems, however, that evolution has placed its thumb on the scale in favor of bad things. Our brains remember and pay more attention to bad things than to good ones. When things are of the same intensity, it takes about five positive things to outweigh a single negative one. This is called the “negativity bias” and it influences the way we think, feel and behave.
One of the benefits of being a psychotherapist is getting to hear people tell their life stories. Almost everyone has at least two versions of their life story. One version was a litany of all of the bad things that ever happened to them. These included injuries, insults, injustices, criticisms, losses, traumas and abuses. These bad things generally seem to have a powerful effect upon the person’s life. The other life story is a listing of all of the positive events that occurred. These included things like having a loving parent, a happy childhood, friends, pets, achievements, triumphs, holidays, compliments and other positive memories. When these two divergent storylines are combined, the influence of these positive items is usually less than the impact of the negatives. Even when a single day is filled with positive experiences, people tend to focus and ruminate on even one negative event. I always remember the questions I miss on a test and pay much more attention to negative comments on job evaluations than to positive ones.
In 2001 Case Western Reserve University psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues published an article titled “Bad is Stronger Than Good.” They said, “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.” Negative feelings, bad parents and poor feedback all have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions form quicker and are more impervious to challenges than good ones. The power of critical gossip in forming first impressions and lasting opinions is remarkably robust.
Losing $50, being rejected, and getting criticized all have a greater impact than their positive opposites — winning $50, making a friend, or being complimented. This accounts for why even ”a few bad apples” have a grossly disproportional influence on the entire barrel.
Research also shows that when bad things happen, people are more likely to attribute such events to intentional causes than they do for good things. In other words, there is a strong tendency to seek someone to blame when bad things happen.
Most psychological studies, themselves, are about bad things that occur, rather than positive events. Psychologists traditionally have studied negative topics because they have stronger effects and yield more statistically significant results. They are therefore more likely to get published.
Tiffany Ito and her colleagues at Ohio State University displayed photos containing neutral, positive and negative content to a group of subjects. They found that brain electrical activity was much more intense whenever negative images were shown.
People often question why news outlets focus on bad news rather than good news. Due to bias, negative coverage generally has much greater appeal. Last year, Stuart Soroka from the University of Michigan and his colleagues examined psychophysiological reactions to media news content in a number of different countries. They found that humans consistently are more aroused by and attentive to negative news content. Negative news is also more likely to be perceived as truthful.
The negativity bias also spills over into political activities. Voting behavior is more highly influenced by negative than positive information. People are more motivated to vote against a certain candidate than they are to vote in favor of one. Campaigns employ negative advertising and mudslinging mainly because they’re effective. Contrary to popular belief, they do not turn off voters or depress voter turnout.
Research even shows that lottery winners do not maintain a long-term boosts to their overall happiness after winning significant wealth. Serious accident victims, however, often have long-term downturns in their happiness. Negative interactions also predict marital satisfaction more effectively than positive ones. People also respond more strongly to negative odors and flavors than to pleasant ones. Good parents don’t seem to have much more of a positive effect on their children than average parents, although bad parents are associated with a number of negative outcomes.
Bad also seems stronger than good when it comes to learning and memory. People process negative material much more thoroughly than positive content and also have much better memory for unfavorable events.
According to Baumeister, the findings that bad is stronger than good result in “a disappointingly relentless pattern.” It also may be “one of the most basic and far-reaching psychological principles.”
Good can never-the-less still triumph, but it must be by superior force, with far more good than bad events taking place. Finding a silver lining, positively reinterpreting events, and savoring the positive when it occurs, all are approaches that can help overcome the negativity bias. In Eleanor Porter’s 1913 novel “Pollyanna,” the main character plays what she calls “The Glad Game.” This game consists of finding something to be happy about in every possible situation. It is similar to the use of a gratitude journal to adopt an “attitude of gratitude.” My wife Diane and I play the game occasionally, even though science predicts that the ratio of good to bad needs to be 5-to-1 to be effective. It is, however, one way to make us aware of positive events that our prehistoric brains take for granted as they scan the environment looking for primeval threats to our survival.