The Worst Is Yet to Come

We are constantly in search, and in denial, of bad news.

Posted May 18, 2020

Pixabay / No Attribution Required
Source: Pixabay / No Attribution Required

An old joke goes like this: A child was complaining to his mother about something. “Stop complaining,” the mother said, “things could be much worse.” He stopped complaining, and things got worse.

Things tend to do that; get worse, that is. Nature tilts interminably toward disorder, as both the second law of thermodynamics and Murphy’s Law will tell you. In our own lives, negative events are certain to happen and leave a mark. No wonder we are on permanent alert. Psychologists refer to the documented human tendency to register negative events more readily and dwell on them longer as the ‘negativity bias.’ As psychologist Rick Hanson has noted, “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”

The reasons for this are evolutionary. If you live in a dangerous environment, as did our ancestors, then over-vigilance regarding potential threats is adaptive, since the cost of missing such a threat (I didn’t see the predator coming) is greater than the cost of a false alarm (I thought it was a predator, but it wasn’t).

Now, it is true that the environment we occupy today differs greatly from our ancestral environment. The world is on the whole much safer than it’s been, historically. For most of us, existential, immediate mortal threats are not a daily reality. But while environmental and cultural changes can be rapid, biological, genetic changes tend to take time. Thus, the old tendencies toward the negative remain. To deal with this old bias, we are advised to become more conscious and intentional about noticing, celebrating, and acknowledging positive events, in order to “train our neurons” to notice positivity. 

This advice is useful, but also incomplete. Human beings are complex. What this ‘negativity’ story tends to omit is that while our short term attention is biased toward negativity, our long term memory is biased decisively in the other direction. Thought experiment: Write down quickly the names of five foods and five people. Now, look at your list. My bet is that the names you’ve written are of people and foods you like. Why is that? Part of the explanation has to do with what psychologists call the ‘Pollyanna principle,’ which refers to our tendency to remember pleasant items more accurately than unpleasant ones, focus on the positive, and use more positive words in conversation.

In fact, a large body of research points to the existence of a positive cognitive bias in humans that expresses itself in multiple ways. For example, most people report themselves to be happy rather than unhappy. People tend to report more positive than negative events in their lives, in part because we seek positive events and try to avoid negative ones; in part because negative effect tends to fade over time. Most people also hold more positive than negative future expectations. Human beings, in general, tend to approach new situations (and people) expecting positive outcomes, and they tend to view themselves as better than average on most positive traits. Language itself is universally biased toward positive terms.

Research has also demonstrated the existence of a universal self-serving attributional bias, by which people make more internal, stable, and global attributions to positive events than to negative events. For example, if I get an A on a test, I’m likely to attribute it to my skill (internal), believe I’m good at taking tests (stable), and believe I will remain so regarding different kinds of tests (global). If I get an F, I’ll tend to attribute it to bad luck or lousy teachers (external), assume I can do better (unstable), and believe this was a one-time fluke, not a lasting pattern (specific). In other words, we tend to believe our successes are up to us, while our failures are circumstantial. Our sense of self is therefore skewed in a positive direction.

While our negativity bias helps as 'play defense,' by protecting us from harm, the positivity bias helps us 'play offense'—explore new horizons and expand our knowledge and reach. Positive expectations tend to affect our effort, and hence outcome, positively. This is known as the Pygmalion Effect.

However, just like our negativity bias can warp our consciousness and send us into a state of unwarranted mire, so can our positivity bias lead us into complacency and self-delusion. Disowning and denying failure and risk themselves constitute both a failure and a risk. For example, most of us are going to retire, and all of us are going to die. Yet many of us fail to take proper steps in advance of those meaningful eventualities to prepare for them. Most Americans don’t have enough saved for retirement, with 15 percent having no savings. Nearly half of Americans over age 55 don’t have a will.

With regard to retirement, one may argue that we fail to prepare and save because we are not certain to reach retirement age; because we don’t have a large enough income; or because retirement is a long way off and we are not good at thinking long term. But death can come at any moment, and it will come for all of us. And yet we are habitually unprepared for this eventuality. We are even reluctant to merely think or speak of it, not to mention plan and act.

This dark side of our positivity bias is also a factor in our current response to the coronavirus pandemic. By most well-considered accounts, the worst of this pandemic is still ahead of us. As people return to working and socializing, and in the absence of a vaccine or effective medications, illness and death are bound to spike soon. Once this happens, we can also expect that people will be reluctant to return to quarantine, because the novelty of the fear has worn off, because of isolation fatigue, and because of the attendant economic losses.

In part due to our positivity bias, this predictable near-future scenario is difficult for us to imagine, accept, and prepare for. Alas, the fact we are fatigued from the effort to protect ourselves does not mean that the danger has lessened. At times like these, we will do well to acknowledge both our negativity and positivity biases, remain conscious of their implications, and seek to form, and act on, an accurate, clear-eyed picture of our situation and what it demands of us. Ignoring the bad facts does not make those facts less bad; mere complaining will not stop things from getting worse.