At a glance, though, this doesn’t seem very useful in the 21st century, since you and I already know better than to pick our own fungi and are unlikely to encounter a wild animal on the way to our office or home. But we’re stuck with the negativity bias. Still, with some help, we can learn to disarm it and use it to our advantage.
The bottom line is that our well-being pretty much depends on our ability to manage our emotions during negative, challenging, or stressful times. Put another way: Good things don’t require cognitive processing. Bad things do. And that’s where the subtle but inherent value of the negativity bias comes in, even today. What if, as Baumeister and his colleagues write, “bad things indicate a need for the self to change something about itself: that is, bad things prompt self-regulation?”
To that end, let’s look at what science knows about the effects of negative events:
1. Good and bad events don’t balance out.
We tend to think of good and bad, positive and negative, as polar opposites, and most people mistakenly imagine human happiness operating as a scale does: Just pile enough good stuff on one side to outweigh the bad, and you’ll be happy. Alas, the negativity bias gives extra heft to the bad things, which is why no matter how great your vacation was at times, what will stick with you is the horrible flight, the way the kids bickered, and the nasty sunburn you got—rather than the soothing sounds of the ocean. After all, what do you remember more vividly: the praise your third-grade teacher lavished on you, or how much your classmates teased you? The last loving thing your partner said, or the really hurtful one?
Negative and positive operate separately because there are two behavioral systems that respond to good and bad situations—approach and avoidance, respectively.
In his studies of couples, John Gotteman found that for a marriage to thrive and survive, the ratio of good, sustaining behaviors to bad, destructive ones had to be five to one! Similarly, a study by Andrew G. Miner on moods in the workplace showed that increasing positive events didn’t lift people’s moods—but that decreasing negative interactions, workplace problems, and tension did. The ratio that worked? Yup—Five to one.
So much for that mental image of the scale.
2. It’s the ending that determines your memory of an event.
This is startlingly counterintuitive, but since Nobelist Daniel Kahneman was the lead author, we should consider it. In “When More Pain is Preferred to Less," Kahneman and his colleagues reported on this study: Participants were informed that there would be three experiments. First, they immersed a hand in water cold enough to hurt (14 degrees Celsius) for 60 seconds. Then, in a longer trial, they immersed a hand for 60 seconds but keep it there another 30 seconds as the water temperature was gradually raised to 15 degrees. The subjects were then asked whether they would rather repeat the short or the long trial, and the majority—80 percent—opted for the longer trial.
But why would anyone choose the longer painful experience?
The answer is that the longer experience ended on a better note (the warming of the water) than the shorter one, and that’s what most of the subjects remembered. As Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the experiment was constructed to look at the tension between the experiencing self and the remembering self. What they found, as they wrote in the original paper, was that "it is part of the human condition that people prefer to repeat the experiences that have left them with the most favorable memories, not necessarily the experiences that gave the most pleasure or the least pain.”
Pretty amazing, no? Put that in the context of relationships, and you have lots to think about.
3. A bad today puts a damper on tomorrow.
So much for Scarlet O’Hara’s mantra, “Tomorrow is another day,” or that tune from Annie or the thing your mom used to say when you’d had a lousy day or that you might be saying to your own kids now. A study of college students by Kennon M. Sheldon and his colleagues found that if a “good” day was defined as one when basic psychological needs were met, people who were high in autonomy and competence were more likely to have more of them than others. No surprise there. Ditto the finding that participants were happier on weekends than weekdays. But what was noteworthy was that the effect of a bad day carries over to the next, while no such thing happened on a happy day.
But if you knew about the carry-over effect, you would be able to strategize to deal with it.
4. Negative criticism wipes out praise.
We all know this experientially, and sometimes our worse selves will show up and use it against someone else. It’s the stinger you remember—the one snide comment about your performance, the one bad review, the way your guest quietly dissed your living-room décor—rather than the compliments you received.
A study by Paul E. Maddock and Carrie Kennedy-Lightsey found that the effects of positive mentoring in the workplace paled in comparison to the impact of negative communications. The conventional wisdom of delivering a “criticism sandwich” to employees—bracketing negative comments with brief enumerations of praise—not only doesn’t work, but it produces the opposite effect since all that’s remembered is the bad stuff. It's because the brain is so busy decoding the negative (“Possible threat!” “You’re going to get fired!”) and putting it into long-memory that there’s literally not enough cognitive power left to register or store the positive.
This is important to remember when you’re offering criticism to anyone—be it a colleague, friend, lover, spouse, or, especially, a child. The negativity bias may alter the take-away lesson you intended.
5. Negativity is contagious.
A study by Gerald A. Haeffel and Jennifer L. Harris looked at whether vulnerability to depression could be influenced by the moods of proximate people and their vulnerability to depression. They chose to study college freshman precisely because of the stress of their transition—after all, these young people had been randomly assigned roommates by their university.
The researchers administered psychological tests and took baseline measures of the participants’ depressive vulnerability. They found that while individuals showed a light decrease in vulnerability when paired with those who were less vulnerable, those who had roommates with high levels of vulnerability showed significant increases in their own vulnerability. In fact, those who had roommates with a ruminative coping style were likely to “catch” that coping style themselves.
The contagion effect was detectable after just three months of living together; after six months, the participants had nearly twice the level of depressive symptoms!
“Contagion” of emotions occurs in pairs and groups, large and small, and in all kinds of settings. And negative emotions are, not surprisingly, more contagious than positive feelings.
6. The negativity bias appears to be stronger in women, especially younger ones.
The negativity bias is hardwired into the human species—even infants display it—and no one gets a pass, but there are some differences nonetheless. It’s stronger in younger people and weaker in older ones, and it may be stronger in women than men. A study by Frishya Sharufi and her colleagues induced negative and positive moods in college-age women by having them think about three strongly good or bad events in their lives, and then write about those events in detail. After a delay, the women then viewed 30 pictures—10 of them positive in content, 10 negative, and 10 neutral. After performing another task, the participants were then asked to recall the pictures viewed. Regardless of the mood induced, all the participants recalled more negative images than any other.
At the end of the day, the negativity bias does explain why it’s so hard to recover from really bad experiences, such as betrayal by a lover or spouse, lack of maternal or paternal love, and the like. But the better we understand the impact of the negative on us—how we think, feel, and act—the more skilled we can become at managing the complex emotions these situations arouse.
Copyright© Peg Streep 2014
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Baumeister, Roy and Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology (2001), vol.5, no.4, 323-370.
Gotteman, John. Why Marriages Fail or Succeed. New York: Fireside, 1994.
Miner, Andrew G., Theresa M. Glomb, and Charles Hulin, ”Experience sampling mood and its correlates at work,” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (2005), 78, 171-193.
Kahneman, Daniel, Barbara L. Fredrickson, Charles A. Schreiber, and Donald A. Redermeier, "When More Pain is Preferred to Less: Adding a Better End,” Psychological Science (1993), col. 9, no.3, 401-405.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar,Straus and Giroux, 2011.
Haeffel, Gerald J, and Jennifer L. Hames,”Cognitive Vulnerability Can be Contagious,”Clinical Psychological Science (2013), vol.20, no.10, 1-11.
Sheldon, Kennon M., Richard Ryan, and Harry T. Reis, “What Makes for A Good Day: Competence and Autonomy in the Day and the Person,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (December 1996), vol. 22, no. 12, 1270-1279.
Sharifi, Frishya, Christie Chuns, Ekaterina Mahinda, Jennifer Johnson, and Sarah Wong, ”Emotional Memory in Women: Why a Negativity Bias?” The Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences (2011), vol.22, 36-42.
Image by John Cummings