Why Do We Judge Others So Harshly for One Negative Event?

Do you regard Ryan Lochte differently due to his false report of a robbery?

Posted Aug 20, 2016

JD Lasica/Flickr
Source: JD Lasica/Flickr

Psychological research suggests three reasons why one negative event, such as Ryan Lochte’s false report of a robbery in Rio, can change our perceptions so strongly.  

The Negativity Bias

Pick a celebrity, any celebrity, and consider how your opinion of that individual has changed in light of a negative event.  Consider Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal, Ben Affleck’s alleged affairLindsay Lohan’s struggles with addiction, or this week’s story about Ryan Lochte and the reported robbery in Rio.    

In the case of Ryan Lochte, he is an outstanding athlete, he has won 12 Olympic Medals, and is second only to Michael Phelps in men’s swimming achievements. Has your opinion of Lochte changed since hearing the news that he may have fabricated some of the events that took place that evening?  

Psychological research reveals that negative information has a stronger impact on our opinions than positive information, even when there is more positive information than negative information (Baumeister et al., 2001).  So if you were to learn 12 positive things about Ryan Lochte and only one negative thing, you may still come away with an overall negative impression of him.  This situation may seem unfair, but there are important reasons why we perceive negative events so seriously.

Why Negative Information Is More Influential 

1.  Negative Events are Relatively Rare

Although those who follow celebrity scandals may think that negative events happen all the time, in “real life” negative incidents are relatively rare.  Because these events happen less often, they are more salient and more memorable and thus impact our impressions more strongly (Rozin & Royzman, 2001).  

2.  Negative Events Elicit Stronger Physiological Responses

When we do observe negative events, they may cause us to experience strong physiological responses.  For example, researchers Cunningham et al. (2003) found greater activation in the amygdala (the area of the brain associated with emotion) when participants were exposed to negative rather than positive stimuli.  

3.  It’s In Our Genes

Negative information may be more important to us because our ancestors who attended to negative stimuli were more likely to survive (Baumeister et al., 2001).  From an evolutionary perspective, paying attention to negative events or negative impressions of individuals may have enhanced the likelihood of survival or of passing along one’s genes.  

    •    For more information about the negativity bias, check out our book, The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships on Amazon.

    •    Portions of this post were taken from The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Copyright 2015 Madeleine A. Fugère.  

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Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–370. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.5.4.323

Cunningham, W. A., Johnson, M. K., Gatenby, J., Gore, J. C., & Banaji, M. R. (2003). Neural components of social evaluation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(4), 639–649. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.85.4.639

Rozin, P., & Royzman, E. B. (2001). Negativity bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(4), 296–320. doi:10.1207/S15327957PSPR0504_2