These days, when I zone out from chattering news and polarising quibbles of Twitter, I read John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s fascinating The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. When I’m not in the mood for fiction or epic journeys, that is.
Even though much of psychology lies in ruins and it’s hard to trust results from that field, I admire Tierney and choose to take his word for it; if he writes about some experiment or psychological result, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. With Roy Baumeister, a respected psychologist at the University of Queensland, he has given us a nice summary of “the negativity effect” — the psychological insight that humans view bad events more powerfully than good events of a similar magnitude.
The authors estimate that you need about 3 or 4 good events of similar kinds to outweigh the psychological impact of a single bad one. In our psyches, bad is more powerful than good: our gaze is pulled towards hostile faces before friendly faces, we dwell on minor criticisms way longer than we appreciate avalanches of praise, we fear losses more than we celebrate gains.
Maybe that’s evolutionary beneficial — what do I know? — but it’s absolutely detrimental to an accurate rendition of the world around us.
The negativity effect isn’t a surprise to anyone who has done some behavioural economics: in essence, Tierney and Baumeister’s argument about the power of bad is just the extension of loss aversion into more parts of life.
Neither is it a surprise to anyone who grew up with a sibling and the spirals of escalating violence and mean actions that characterised our childhood. When I poked my sister in a cheeky way, she interpreted it as hostile and mean — and retaliated as such; I perceived her response as totally disproportionate and decided to punish her in return with more violence. Before you know it, a playful or innocent something has escalated into all-out war. Married couples or friends in serious disagreement can probably relate. The speck in your brother’s eye looms large; not so much the log in your own.
Likewise, in my house it feels like I’m the only one taking out the garbage, getting more coffee when it runs out, or emptying the dishwasher when it has finished its cleaning cycle. Rationally, I know perfectly well that others do it too: with my own (deceitful?) eyes, I have seen my housemates empty the dishwasher. But every time I stand there, unloading one piece of ungrateful china, mug, glass, or cutlery, I mutter aggressively to myself and wondering why I’m the only one doing this! How can it really be that I’m doing this frustratingly slow chore every time?
Of course, it’s not every time — but I don’t see those other times, and I don’t feel the pain, anger, and frustration that others likely feel whenever it’s their unfortunate turn to empty the stupid dishwasher.
Tierney and Baumeister posit that similar dynamics are operating in relationships: your partner won’t see or appreciate the full effort of the chores or deeds you do. Making up for a previous mistake requires more than just one thing, but
it doesn’t mean that you should send four orders of flower to make up for one faux pas. But it does mean that one batch of flowers probably won’t undo the damage. Throw in some other forms of reparation.
What I did yesterday in my uncharacteristically pessimistic comment, was giving in to feelings of despair and fear and hysteria. Sometimes, “the rational reassurances from the prefrontal cortex [are] no match for the primal responses of the amygdala,” the authors write.
That’s exactly it. The power of bad is scary — and we need practical tools to step back, reconsider, and calmly send the question back to the prefrontal cortex to rationally assess what we ought to do.
Think before you act, my parents wisely told me as a child. Tierney and Baumeister are helping me with that.