The Power of No
The effects of negativity aren’t always negative.
Posted Sep 15, 2020
We hear a lot about the power of positive thinking. But what about the power of negativity? Here’s what hostage negotiators and political marketers can teach us about the ability to say “no.”
No matter how contrarian you may be, it’s hard to deny that there’s a lot of negativity in the world at the moment. Everywhere we turn, we’re greeted by bad news and the negative emotions that follow in its wake.
In the midst of that kind of environment, it’s even more necessary to focus on positivity. Positive psychologists have shown us the deep value of positive emotions, satisfaction, and constructive behaviors. Still, negative thinking exists—and has such immense power over us—for a reason. It’s worth asking, are there any ways in which negative thinking can serve us well?
Here’s what hostage negotiators and political marketers can teach us about the power of “no.”
Starting with “No” in Negotiation
Getting to Yes is perhaps the classic book when it comes to negotiation. Its authors, Roger Fisher and William L. Ury were members of the Harvard Negotiation Project, and the book focused on “principled negotiation,” or merit-focused negotiation that aims for mutual gains and rational bargaining.
Generations of negotiators took the advice in Getting to Yes, but in the words of former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, after several disastrous outcomes, “It was becoming glaringly obvious that Getting to Yes didn’t work with kidnappers.” Rational bargaining simply didn’t work when emotions were involved.
In his book, Never Split the Difference, Voss explains that while you eventually want to “get to yes,” in a negotiation, you always want to start with “no.” Think of the last time someone gave you a hard sell: “Do you want to pay less for your internet? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could make a million bucks and only work four hours a week?” Of course the answer to those questions is “yes,” but everything inside you is screaming, “They’re trying to sell me something. Run away!”
Voss explains that when a person has space to say “no,” it gives them a sense of control, ease, and security. From there, you can have a constructive conversation—one that ultimately ends in “yes.”
This is also the position of expert negotiator Jim Camp, who stresses in his book Start with No that “win-win” situations are often not as “win-win” as we think. According to Camp, when a person says “no,” they immediately have to think about why they said it. It forces them to focus on the real issues in the negotiation.
“No” often comes from an emotional place, but it invites deeper, less emotional justification afterward. In fraught conversations, saying “no” can actually improve communication and make both parties feel more secure.
Going Negative in Politics
Every election season, people say they hate negative political ads. Historically, politicians have claimed they’re going to run “clean” campaigns, and we’ve seen our share of positive slogans like, “Yes we can!”
So, if everyone hates them, why are we constantly bombarded with negative ads? Because, quite simply, they’re more effective. According to political marketer Phillip Stutts, negative ads are more likely to elicit an emotional reaction, both from the audience and from the target, who immediately has to go on the defensive.
In large part, that’s because of humans’ negativity bias. Negativity bias is the notion that things of a negative nature have a larger effect on a person’s psychological state than neutral or positive experiences.
Negativity bias is powerful when it comes to the way we form impressions. According to Vaish, Grossman, and Woodward, “when given descriptions of a hypothetical person's moral and immoral behaviors, or adjectives describing the person's good and bad traits, subjects process and use the negative more than the positive information in arriving at a final impression of the person, even when the positive and negative information are equally intense.”
Basically, we give negative news more weight than positive news. This applies across our personal relationships, experiences, and buying decisions (think of negative advertising campaigns, like the infamous Apple vs. PC ads). But nowhere is it more pertinent than in politics.
A 2014 study shows that conservatives tend to register greater physiological responses to negative stimuli, and they also devote more psychological resources to them. (The authors stress that this difference does not make any political ideology superior; it simply indicates a difference in psychological arousal. A similar study from 2016 found that conservatives actually display enhanced neural activity in response to negative, positive, and neutral stimuli.) The strength of our response to negative political ads has a great deal to do with the strength of our negativity bias.
Of course, just because negative advertising is more effective, that doesn’t mean it’s healthier, either individually or collectively. But from the perspective of marketing alone, “If you can gain ground by drawing a comparison to your competitor in which you come off as the better choice, you should do it.”
“No” Doesn’t Mean “Mean”
Conflict and negativity can have damaging effects on your body and brain. Anger, hostility, and rage are never a good foundation for health and happiness, even if they sometimes make for effective marketing strategies.
Negativity is deeply powerful, but not all negativity is created equal. Recognize negativity’s power and learn to put it to work as part of positive communication. For example, in the negotiation examples above, “no” actually makes the speaker feel safe, secure, and in control. Instead of avoiding “no” or going straight for “yes” for easy conflict avoidance, consider how negativity might actually help you create lasting positive effects in your life.
Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. "Does negative political advertising actually work? New study says 'yes,' but it depends on whether you're a candidate or a PAC." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 June 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180604124913.htm>.
Newberg, Andrew and Mark Robert Waldman. Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy. New York: Penguin, 2013.
Tritt, S. M., Peterson, J. B., Page-Gould, E., & Inzlicht, M. (2016). Ideological reactivity: Political conservatism and brain responsivity to emotional and neutral stimuli. Emotion, 16(8), 1172–1185. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000150
Stutts, Phillip. Fire Them Now: The 7 Lies Digital Marketers Sell…and the Truth about Political Strategies that Help Businesses Win. Lioncrest Publishing, 2018.
Vaish, Amrisha et al. “Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development.” Psychological Bulletin vol. 134,3 (2008): 383-403. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383
Voss, Chris, with Tahl Raz. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It. New York: Harper Business, 2016.