Why be nice? Because with us chickens, a little negativity goes a long way
Why be nice? Because a little negativity goes a long way
Posted Jul 28, 2009
This week I’ve been forced to rethink my attitude about negativity. For years now I’ve said that it was getting unfair press. Negativity, I argued was necessary and inevitable. It’s part of the give and take of life. People who adopt a moral opposition to negativity have at their disposal a way to deflect even the most helpful feed back--just call it negative and remind people of the bogusly hypocritical moral absolute: Do NOT be negative.
I’ve argued that those who can’t take negativity fly blind, often taking other people along for the ride. And if you strive to avoid all negativity by never saying anything that could be interpreted as negative, you’ll be the one who is taken for that ride because you’re too polite. Hitler couldn’t take any negative feedback.
I still hold to that, but the story is more complicated. As of this week I’m resigned to the fact that, while negativity is necessary and useful, none of us are very good at taking it.
We are all thin skinned. No one likes hearing anything that feels discouraging or critical. We don’t welcome news that feels like a setback, a loss of status, a loss of gained momentum. We find unpleasant anything that seems to say, “you missed a spot,” or “it appears that you think you’re doing better than you really are.” or “there’s something else that ought to be on your to-do list.”
No matter how nicely it is presented, even the most constructive feedback can feel like negativity. Even for those of us who claim to welcome it and who take feedback with apparent grace, it still doesn’t make us want to go back to the well from which that feedback came.
Why? Because such negativity tends to out-reverberate our songs of self-confidence.
In his book, “How we decide,” Jonah Lehrer makes a connection between loss aversion and negativity I hadn’t noticed before. Loss aversion is what the Nobel Prize winning social psychologists Kahneman and Tversky called the universal human propensity to be much more sensitive to loss than gain. In an experiment that led to its discovery, doctors in two groups were asked to chose between two ways to address an epidemic. For both groups, option A stayed the same, but option B was described differently for each of the two groups. For one group, option B was described as saving 200 out of 600 lives. For the other group, the same option was described as allowing 400 of the 600 to die.
Framed positively as saving 200 lives, 72% of doctors favored Option B, whereas when the exact same option was framed negatively as allowing 400 of the 600 to die, only 22% favored it. That’s a huge bias distorting supposedly rational behavior. Why does saving 200 sound so much better than loosing 400 when it amounts to the same thing?As Kahenman says, “In human decision making, loss looms larger than gain.”
Lehrer argues that it’s not just loss in gambling, investing or hypothetical scenarios. Loss aversion explains why sustainable partnerships are ones in which positive encounters outweigh negative ones, five to one.
Why not one to one? Because negative encounters feel five times more significant than positive ones.
Loss aversion, Lehrer argues explains why research results indicate that people assume you would have to save roughly 25 lives to make up for ending one. It’s not one to one, because loss looms larger.
Loss aversion applies to our everyday experience of the slings and arrows of outrageous and even modest misfortune. Every little random act of discouragement, every obstacle that falls in our paths halting us mid-stride, every little toe-stubbing, every nose-snubbing suggestion from a well meaning friend, however useful or well-delivered. Viscerally, it registers as a loss.
Loss aversion explains why we tend over time to select friends who support us and encourage us rather than friends who are on our backs. Loss aversion explains why so many relationships get torn apart with both fragile former partners unable to share or hear each other’s feedback. If every time you associate with someone you’re reminded of your failings, then your first impulse will be to dissociate from that someone. It explains why when never is heard a discouraging word the skies are not cloudy all day.
As I’ve mentioned before I play bass. That relates in two ways. First, my amp, at 500 watts is of modest power for bass amps. They go all the way up to 2000 watts. But rarely do guitar amps get over 100 watts. Why? Because our ears are much less efficient at hearing low notes than high ones.
Positive feedback is like bass, inefficiently heard. Negative feedback is like guitar, heard all too efficiently. To be as negative as you are positive is like a guitarist matching wattage with us bassists. A guitarist with a 500 watt amp would be deafening and anyone who tries to maintain an equal balance between discouragement and encouragement can be deafeningly discouraging.
Second, it was in music that I first start to try to be really nice, because it’s there that I’ve noticed how much of a difference negativity makes. I play so much better when I don’t feel doubt or self-consciousness, and the same is true for my fellow musicians. We musicians, when onstage are hyper-hypersensitive members of a hypersensitive species. That’s why I’ve got a new practice of never saying anything discouraging to my fellow musicians even it could be useful feedback. I make it a habit to whoop a little joy during a new soloist’s debut. It evokes their confidence. We owe it to each other and our audiences.
Everybody says “be nice.” For years, as a naively skeptical researcher aware of the horrible things that happen when people can’t take a little feedback, I’ve said “yeah, but why, in a world so inefficiently averse to inconvenient truths?”
The answer isn’t as moral as it is practical. It’s just that with us chickens, a little negativity goes a long way, often easily way too long.
Don’t be nice because God wants you to be or because you’ll be a bad person if you’re not nice (which is the most common argument for niceness--a threat of negative self-worth).
No, be nice because we’re all so fragile. We all live in glass houses.
And does this mean always be nice? Ah, were it that simple. No, the fact remains that though we’re bad at taking it, the world would be a nicer place if people were better at taking feedback even when it doesn’t feel nice.
So not to be discouraging or anything, but developing a tolerance for negativity should still be on our to-do lists.
There were two great articles in the July 27th New Yorker on this subject. In one, Calvin Trillin profiles a mass murder who couldn't take feedback and blamed all of his problems on other people. In another Malcolm Gladwell attributes the fall of Bear Stearnes to either too much overconfidence, or not enough.