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• What are the chances that you will have a heart-attack before your colleague does?
• How likely is it that you will retire with more money than your peers?
• Are your neighbor’s kids more or less likely than your own to get into drugs?
In answering questions like these, people exhibit what is known as the positivity bias or the pollyanna principle. People believe they have brighter futures than do their peers—better health, more money, better behaved kids, less relationship problems, etc. Positivity bias extends beyond optimism to personality: people think that they are kinder, more trustworthy, and nobler than their peers, a phenomenon known as the “holier than thou” effect. Positivity bias is also revealed in what is known as illusion of control: people believe that they wield greater control over their outcomes than they actually do. In one study involving a lottery, participants were either given lottery tickets at random or were allowed to choose their own. They were then given the opportunity to trade these tickets with other tickets that had a higher chance of winning. Findings showed that participants who had chosen their own tickets were more reluctant to trade their tickets. Why? Because they felt that the act of choosing their own tickets magically gave them the power to beat the objective odds and control the outcome of the gamble.
If people hold themselves in higher regard than they do their peers, believe that their future is rosier than that of the average-other, and also believe that they are more in control of their outcomes than they actually are, you would expect that everyone would be brimming with positive thoughts and high self-regard all the time, right?
Even though people claim to hold themselves in high regard, the thoughts that spontaneously occur to them—their “mental chatter,” so to speak—is mostly (up to 70%) negative, a phenomenon that could be referred to as negativity dominance. Negativity dominance suggests that there is a disconnect between how people respond to questions about how well they are doing relative to their peers, how rosy their future is, and the extent to which they wield control over their outcomes—all of which exhibit a distinct positivity bias—and how they actually feel, deep down in their sub-conscious, about their life. Deep down, it turns out that people are much more self-critical, pessimistic, and fearful than they let out in their conscious thoughts.
If you are conversant with the well-established research on the positivity bias, you may find it surprising that people exhibit negativity dominance. I was surprised too, till I took part in an exercise called mental chatter. This exercise calls for maintaining a brutally honest record of your naturally occurring thoughts, on an everyday basis, for a period of at least two weeks. To successfully participate in the mental chatter exercise, it is important that you do not steer your thoughts in a more positive direction when recording your thoughts. Most people have the tendency to steer their thoughts in a more positive direction and it is easy to understand why: It feels bad to have negative thoughts and we all have a deep-seated desire to feel good. Hence, most people have developed the habit—whether they consciously realize it or not—of countering their naturally occurring negative thoughts with positive ones. Thus, if one feels pessimistic about an imminent presentation, one may steer oneself towards positive thoughts by recalling past instances in which one has made successful presentations. Likewise, if one feels bad about being less talented at work than a colleague, one may think of other dimensions (e.g., personal life) on which one is doing better.
So deeply ingrained is the habit of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones that most of us don’t even realize that we do it. As it turns out, this is a useful habit in the short-run for maintaining a positive outlook. In the long-run, however, this habit proves counter-productive. This is because the spontaneously occurring negative thoughts are not randomly occurring thoughts that come out of nowhere; rather, they are rooted in deep-seated goals, desires, and values. And just as glossing over differences with one’s spouse on fundamentally important issues can spell doom to the relationship, glossing over negative thoughts by replacing them with positive ones can result in misery in the longer-term. It is important to gain an understanding of the goals, desires, and values that are responsible for the spontaneously occurring negative thoughts.
This is the task to which my colleagues and I turned in a study we conducted with students from the business school. These students were asked to maintain a record of their naturally occurring thoughts for a period of two weeks. We urged the participants to be “brutally honest” with their thoughts, recognizing that people have the tendency to steer their thoughts in a positive direction. Then, once the students turned in their records, we pored over them to assess the extent to which spontaneously occurring thoughts are negative versus positive.
Our findings revealed that somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the average students’ spontaneously occurring thoughts are negative. This is in sharp contrast to what they expected going into the exercise: they expected 60 – 75% of their thoughts to be positive. Further, our findings revealed that there are three main categories into which people’s mental chatter falls:
1. Thoughts related to inferiority (“Other students are going to do better than me on the exam.”)
2. Thoughts related to love and approval (“How come I am the only one who’s not taken?”)
3. Thoughts related to control-seeking (“Why don’t my team-mates ever listen to the suggestions I make?”).
Each of these categories of mental chatter is, I believe, rooted in goals and values to which most of us blindly subscribe. As such, it’s not surprising that our thoughts revolve around inferiority, love, and control. For example, most of are brought up to succeed and excel in life; as a result, we are habituated to comparing ourselves—in terms of our skills, talents and endowments—with that of our peers, which generates inferiority-related thoughts. Likewise, we are coached (particularly by books and movies) that a life without a “soul mate” or life-partner is a worthless one, leading to ruminations about love. We are also persuaded to believe that the secret to happiness is to gain control over others and over life itself: the more powerful we are, and the more we get to arrange the world in accordance with our preferences, the happier we’ll be. This leads to thoughts about control (or lack of it).
I find it interesting that the very things that most of us believe to be the means to happiness—a sense of superiority over others, finding our true love, and gaining control—ultimately undermine it.
I wonder whether people’s negative mental chatter would turn positive if they stopped pursuing superiority, love and control. This is an idea that’s certainly worth exploring in future research, but in the meanwhile, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments on the topic.
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