By Hara Estroff Marano, published on May 27, 2003 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015
Why do insults once hurled at us stick inside our skull, sometimes
for decades? Why do political smear campaigns outpull positive
The answer is, nastiness makes a bigger impact on your
And that, says Ohio State University psychologist John T. Cacioppo,
Ph.D., is due to the brain's "negativity bias": your brain is simply
built with a greater sensitivity to unpleasant news. The bias is so
automatic that it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain's
In studies he has done, Cacioppo showed people pictures known to
arouse positive feelings (such as a Ferrari or a pizza), those certain to
stir up negative feelings (like a mutilated face or dead cat) and those
known to produce neutral feelings (a plate, a hair dryer). Meanwhile, he
recorded electrical activity of the brain's cerebral cortex that reflects
the magnitude of information processing taking place.
The brain, Cacioppo demonstrated, reacts more strongly to stimuli
it deems negative. That is, there is a greater surge in electrical
activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat
news than good news.
Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily evolved for a good
reason—to keep us out of harm's way. From the dawn of human history
our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain
developed systems that would make it unavoidable for us not to notice
danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it.
All well and good. Having the built-in brain apparatus
supersensitive to negativity means that the same bias also is at work in
every sphere of our lives at all times.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that it plays an
especially powerful role in our most intimate relationships. Numerous
researchers have found that there is “an ecology of
marriage,” an ideal balance between negativity and positivity in
the atmosphere between partners.
Psychologist John Gottman, Ph.D., at the University of Washington
is one. He finds that there seems to be some kind of thermostat operating
in healthy marriages that regulates the balance between positive and
negative. For example, when partners get contemptuous—that is, when
they fight by hurling criticism with the intent to insult the partner,
which the partner rightly perceives as especially hurtful—they
correct it with lots of positivity—touching, smiling, paying
compliments, laughing, and other such acts. They don't correct
necessarily right away, but they definitely do it sometime soon.
What really separates contented couples from those in deep marital
misery is a healthy balance between their positive and negative feelings
and actions toward each other. Even couples who are volatile and argue a
lot stick together by balancing their frequent arguments with a lot of
demonstrations of love and passion.
Because of the disproportionate weight of the negative, balance
does not mean a 50-50 equilibrium. Gottman, for example, as part of his
research carefully charted the amount of time couples spent fighting
versus interacting positively. Across the board he found that a very
specific ratio exists between the amount of positivity and negativity
required to make a marriage satisfying.
That magic ratio is 5 to 1. As long as there is five times as much
positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is
negative, the marriage was likely to be stable over time. In contrast,
those couples who were heading for divorce were doing far too little on
the positive side to compensate for the growing negativity between
Other researcher have found the same thing. It is the frequency of
small positive acts that matters most, in a ratio of about 5 to 1.
Interestingly, occasional large positive experiences—say, a
big birthday bash—are nice, but they don't make the necessary
impact on our brain to override the tilt to negativity. It takes frequent
small positive experiences to tip the scales toward happiness.