Roy Baumeister on the power of negativity Science Weekly podcast
Guardian welcome to Science Weekly. We have you had a good Christmas miss break. Of course. Many listeners won't look back positively or the time spent over the holiday period. Hopefully it was nothing serious. Maybe the dog grant with your Turkey or perhaps you just didn't get the presence you hopeful because even if we're lucky enough to spend the festive period with family and friends it can often seem that the author negative experience is sufficient to color our feelings and ruin our enjoyment. So why is that. Why did the bad events in our lives has dominated perception even when they're clearly outweighed by the good today on science weekly? We're joined by a social psychologist. WHO's made questions like this Central to his work. My grand project is to understand the human mind in the human condition and so I look for patterns. This is a pattern I sort of stumbled on a couple of different areas and they reminded me of each other so I started looking more broadly and each time I founded in a new area sort of the excitement. An increased Roy mice to has a new book out on the subject the power of bad that he's just written with the. US journalist. John Tierney that just seemed to be true who everywhere that bad things had greater power. This is one of the most fundamental principles in psychology. We don't have things that are like the law of gravity. That are always true true but this is as close as anything as in certainly in my research. Roy joined me in the Guardian Studio and I started off by asking him how he defines defines the concept of the power of bad for it. Well I think it means that we give more weight to we. React more strongly wrongly to negative things than positive things for example with emotion. You know people have positive emotions more frequently than negative ones. We have more words for for negative emotions which means we distinguish the more. We classify them more carefully. The positive emotions kind of all blurred together but the thing is the biological evolutionary message. Feeling good is everything's fine. You don't need to do anything. Don't change anything nations but you say that there's no opposite trauma. Not only isn't their word. There isn't really a concept or or phenomena trauma a single bad experience can have a lasting effect on you for years even sometimes decades There's no correspondingly positive thing. That can have a good effect. I mean look at sex. You know a a single really bad sex. Experience can interfere with a person's ability to enjoy sex for years thereafter may spill over into others of life as well but a good sexual experiences no matter how good doesn't have that affect and and certainly one bad thing can wipe out a lot of good things but there's no corresponding good thing will wipe out as many bad things. Why are we affected in this way? Was this Tom. maladaptive evolutionary trader. What I suspect her as an adaptive evolutionary trait? It's more important to avoid danger than to pursue good things if you happen not to notice if if there's a dangerous Predator and you don't recognize recognize it don't see it don't classify it well that's the end whereas if there's an opportunity for great food or great sex or some other wonderful experience and and you miss it well that's too bad but it's not going to have any huge lasting effect on you. It is a problem. Then the our brains are stuck on the Savannah that we learned an evolved this trait in a very different scenario than we are living in now and although some of these things are still valuable. You still don't go around eating poisonous berries. A lot of Ed refers to situations. We don't encounter that much anymore. Well that's true. I mean there's no way around that that Civilization has progressed much faster than our evolutionary. Very foundations have changed so And maybe in a couple of hundred thousand years we've kind of reduced this negativity but yes. It isn't so adaptive today to overreact to negative things give a sense of the breadth of various that this negative bias effects. What areas of our lives a being held up in some circumstances by this real fixation on avoiding negative well in a sense of might be? He's going with a short list of things that aren't affected. I mean if you have a good day feel good if you have a bad day you feel bad but the bad day tends to carry over into the next day. The good day doesn't so good things where off much more rapidly in financial. She'll decisions people are more upset about losing fifty pounds and they're happy about gaining fifty pounds and in detail alter and distort their decision processes. Cisse's economists call loss aversion. And it's sort of an irrational bias to prevent or minimize losses. Even though often might do better to take take a little bit more of a chance and pursue the Ba- gain in relationships. Ask Students. Why do you think you would be a good husband or wife or make you a good partner and they always list positive things but it turns out not doing the bad? Things has a lot more impact when when researchers tracked people over time and separately measured the good things and the bad things they do and it turns out good things and bad things are somewhat independent. That people do a lot of both are more one or the other. But it's the quantity of bad things that you do has much more impact on the relationship. Then the quantity frontier of the good things that you do. When it comes to relationships Roy's realization that weighing up good versus bad wasn't as straightforward as it might initially appear pair started with an example in his own life years ago? Roy decided toward the relationship to figure out if it was worth carrying on or not. What S as living? This woman accidentally left her but she had this huge temper and screaming. Violent fits that were gone for hours. It didn't matter what I I would say you do so I could decide. Well she's got all. These good trades and I know relationships have problems and one has to work it out but is is it worth persevering in this so I said well how about break down every day whether I'm glad I'm in this relationship with her and then I'll add them up The NC House. I had to say as a scientist I should set the decision rule in advance not just data and then try to figure out what to make of it afterwards so I said well if they're more bad days and good days than we should break up but just being more good than bad probably isn't enough fifty one percent days. I couldn't. I'm Tara that so I said maybe about eighty percent four out of five sounds right later on. I learned that relationships researchers had come around to a about the same thing that relationship to survive there should be four five good things for every bad thing which is about the criterion. I hit said myself I self so I thought that was kind of an interesting coincidence. But the state's stubbornly in between there was about two thirds sixty five to seventy percent. We're good so clearly clearly more good than bad basically to but still. It wasn't clear. I wish I thought it would resolve itself clearly one way or the other and eventually broke up even if it could help you figure out whether to stay in a relationship or not there are plenty of times. You don't want to focus on the negative so I wanted to wasp Roy. If there was any way we could counteract this bias first of all in terms of decision making if we bias our decision making based on the worst case scenario or fear of anything bad happening. That's going to cause us to miss out on opportunities will make your fundamentally irrational as I said the the economists in terms of loss aversion. Your they can look at objective probabilities and say well. This is the best investment and as we know no Higher returns require higher risk. And there's a danger that overcoming it opens us up to some of these things that we've actually evolved off to avoid. I don't think we're going to go to the opposite. Extreme elva coming this ideal would be to get back to a rational and balanced approach rather than when skewed toward fear of the negative and we see also with raising children in America. Jonathan Height and Greg Seattle talked about safety addiction that a few stories of slight dangers of playground. Things are children being kidnapped or something like that. Make parents super frayed to do anything wrong. So first of all the parents drive themselves nuts trying to prevent any chance of anything bad happening to the child and then they raise children who are overly protected are not used to dealing with things on their own and so people go through life expecting everything good to happen happen and then wonder what happens when they get out in the world and failure actually does happen and they're they're negative. Things are not prepared to deal with it so that has an impact take for parents and for teachers as well. I mean you about how constructive criticism with praise is the most optimal way to go in terms of example home for child learning something but maybe even that works for child Grasping what the world will be like from a parent's perspective to set them up for to prepare them for the world but what it should say at a teacher listening to this be thinking or parent listening to this. Be Thinking in terms of how to deliver constructive criticism and to make sure that they're not just going down our praise you all the time route all we just won't say anything to AG. Through this. I understand the people actually do learn faster from Punishment than from reward. I think there was a movement in the education industry for a while that we should only praise children and only give positive feedback. They could dispense with negative and even arguments that Teachers should not use red pens to mark mistakes because the red somehow is Inflammatory and his bad. There's there's been this grade inflation because no one wants to give a critical mark others detrimental. children learn faster from punishment than from reward. Heard but as I said you learn faster from both I know like my my dissertation my PhD Mentor. His educational philosophy was only criticism. Cassim gave really thorough and careful and detailed and scrupulous and thoughtful and did I say thorough thorough criticism then and it could dispense. I mean I think I could count on one hand. The the positive things he said although I remember each of them because they really stood out in the four years I worked with him. A delivery matters hit as crucial to deliver it in a way that doesn't alienate make someone feel that they've received very bad. You know to. Yes ask because punishment when it's not explained and so on that generates side effects of negative reactions so you went to minimize those same with parents disciplining the child child and so on it the severe discipline Where you punish them really harshly that often backfires or what you you WanNa do is very consistent and quick but presumably quite mild punishment? That's it for part one Often the break. We'll hear how the negative bias can affect us at work Welcome back in the first part we heard from Roy bound Meister on the negativity bias on the role. This has the perception of our relationships. I wanted to ask Roy if this understanding could be used for good. Well you hear people say OH I. They did something to annoy my partner the other day so I better do something. Nice to make up for it. Well the one you think I wanna do for good things to make up. I five if I want to end up in a net positive that approach that it takes a lot of good to do it because you know life is good and most relationships are reasonably happy. B- But Few negative things will really stand out so you need a lot of good things tech. The students say well. Why do you think someone should marry the or whatever and they have all these positive traits? I'm a good listener. I'm good in bed or I make a lot of money or whatever Okay well those are fine. Those are those are nice but not doing the bad things you know holding your tongue. And that's saying something mean nasty and you'll get any credit for it because they we all know that you didn't do it if you do the bad stuff that will stand out and really shaped the relationship in a negative way. So reducing the negative is the first call We went through the literature to on how people deliver feedback often within work settings of the supervisor and the employee pattern. It seems to work best when I was this criticism sandwich and or delivering the good stuff. I is a Lotta Times critic sandwich being sort of the three paragraph email with a glowing opening. Yeah the bad news in the middle and then they sign autographs saying great. But the the supervisor doesn't want to say the bad thing and so you start with all the good stuff that we all think. I'm a nice guy but the person listening to it to sort of get to the point that they want to know what the bad stuff says so probably the best thing to do is to bite the bullet and start with the bad news. Take these are the bad things. This is the problem. This is what you're going to need to fix so so I feel down and you could say but there's all this good stuff to And come in at that. And hopefully there's there's a certain amount of good then. They're really ready for it. And they're Eager to hear it whereas if they know bad stuff is coming they don't really attend to All the opening positively you spend a book talking about impacts for business and clearly targeting those sorts of people who are either running businesses working high up in businesses senses. But there's also some stuff in there about dealing with work colleagues and so on. What are you all sorts of tips for people in in the in the business area around the whole negativity bias you? There are several important applications one in terms of when you're putting together a team or hiring people and saw on getting one bad person in there. We'll we'll do a lot more harm than than getting one good person but bad in what way depends on organization working with say a bad attitude. Someone inclined inclined to object to how things are done or bad attitude is infectious And you know some places are certainly better than others but someone who focuses focuses on the negative can undermine the morale of the team whereas getting one person with a great attitude isn't going to pull them out of the team up to the same degree. What if it's too late? What if you already have someone? They'll be people listening to this podcast. Who will say I already have someone in my team like this? What do you do then well a a large enough organization if you can put all these difficult people together a group into their little nexus of doom home so just unplug all that computers make sure they didn't interact with anyone in the outside world or at least they won't infect the good ones and these days particularly with all all the online reviews the power of bad as new meaning and importance for business because one negative review can really harm your business for a long period of time? I'm having talked to Roy about the impact. The negativity bias has on our lives. I was curious about the reliability of the science supporting these concepts. It's social psychology. Studies have certainly had their critics in recent years with good reason right in thinking that a lot of this psychology research is going to be shoring on particular groups of society. And I'm wondering you know you may have among this research. A lot of studies looking at educated Westerners white people. What have you maybe identity? Well how the how the genda breaks down. But do you think some of the rules that you can pull out in some of the themes that you can pull out that research. Are they going to apply. Fly across different demographics. They are going to apply to different areas of society different groups of people or it's going to be a bias in that you think causes of just how all social psychology is done. It's a tough question. I think we've learned for awhile to pay extra attention to whenever data come from another source seda understand in some sections of far off continents where there's war zones are whatever Whether Batu data stronger than good in the same way there I don't know and probably when life is that desperate and that much at risk then maybe it is prudent to place enormous emphasis on avoiding any danger and avoiding the bad. I mean you can see how they may be differences in that sort of the privileged white male sort of experience like versus a lot of other people's experiences of life. What bad means to them and how they respond to bat and also how they respond to good things that come along? I'm wondering if you you may see shifts in the kinds of trends you're seeing well. Cast our net as far as it could the original scientific article that made the point called data stronger stronger than good was based on a survey of everything we could find so it does seem to apply across gender and race and so on must worked on in the United States and Western Europe. That's those are the headquarters of Psychology wish we knew more but As I said when things zurve tough probably not that good a stronger than bad but probably just that There's more of a valid reason to have the concern with safety safety and the concern with being careful to avoid taking chances because the penalties are so much more severe social psychology light like other areas of psychology. She had been wrestling suddenly recently with this issue reproducibility and whether a study done twenty thirty two years ago or even more and more modern times We'll stand up if it's done again. And there's a lot of focus on this as you know in in psychology at the moment. Give me a sense of whether you think and how you know that. The studies your drawing on our robust published the first review in two thousand one so Mentos mentos during the one thousand nine Hundred Ninety S. We surveyed the literature when I prepared to write the book went through many of the subsequent articles. That cited this now. Once there's a general principle say bad a stronger than good. That's like a red flag for researchers to say. Well I can show an exception that it'll be a big feather in I kept so it's sort of inviting attacks and encouraging internally is reviewer would be in favor of publishing any exceptions or editors would be in favor of that too but I went through them and there wasn't really much of a reverse. It seems to be still true. Most of the articles that cited our original thing and by this point fares over six thousand other publications that have listed that one article. In their bibliographies so amazing amount of people referring to that but mostly they're just saying well here it is again so this case I've been very heartened that It seems to happen over and over again. Which is why the paper gotten to six thousand in so citations is kind of shocking to me? But it's just because it seems to be true in so many contexts. So yes psychology is going through this. I think in a sense. It's a good thing about psychology taking this more seriously than other scientists. 'cause the problem is is they're just about everywhere But I think this one is not something thing to worry about that appears to be just overwhelmingly true. Nobody's finding opposite as for sure so having steeped you'll sell in all this research professionally but also for doing the book as well over the past years I'm interested in. Has that changed. How you live your life? You'd be crazy not to merge it with your life when he yes. It's hard to some the big change I've made in how I go about things but I think I'm a little bit more aware at to get too excited. By all the disasters that are constantly being discussed because Life is basically pretty good and true for most of us and you learn to bite your tongue as you're saying in the relationship side of things. Yeah avoiding saying negative things. I do do that. Maybe a little bit more than I did before this but I was careful not to say anything that you'll be sorry about the tour you'll regret leave our listeners. With maybe one thing if they're going to leave this podcast finish listening listening to this podcast with one thing in their mind. What's the tip that will perhaps make a difference to the? The mind is designed to overreact to bad things probably for good L. evolutionary reasons so live without an understanding. Keep it in perspective. You need to cultivate the good to promote positive things things so but a lot of little positive things are needed to overcome the big things. You don't have to strive for perfection to be good enough in to do a lot of positive things in recognize the positive things about life. That's it for this week special. Thanks to Roy Bow. My staff will include a link linked to Roy's book on the Science Weekly Home Page at the Guardian Dot Com. And we'll be back next week for more great podcast from the Guardian. Just go to the GUARDIAN DOT COM forward slash podcasts uh-huh.