Why are we devastated by a word of criticism even when it’s mixed with lavish praise? Because our brains are wired to focus on the bad. Our brain’s negativity bias makes evolutionary sense because it kept our ancestors alert to fatal dangers, but it distorts our perspective in today’s media environment. The steady barrage of bad news and crisismongering makes us feel helpless and leaves us needlessly fearful and angry. We ignore our many blessings, preferring to heed—and vote for—the voices telling us the world is going to hell.
In The Power of Bad, social scientist Roy F. Baumeister and science journalist John Tierney explore the ways to overcome this and instead turn it into opportunities to see the good things and make things better. Check out what else they have to say in this short Q&A.
What made you write a book about negativity bias? Was there an event or insight that served as a catalyst to understand this human tendency?
John: As a journalist, I kept seeing the negativity bias in myself and in my colleagues. Why were we so determined to find bad news and ignore good news? Why, when most long-term trends were positive, did we want to make people think the world was getting worse? When I read Roy’s famous paper, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” I finally understood it.
Roy: As a scientific generalist, I look for patterns in the research literature. I began to notice that bad things had stronger effects than good things, both in others’ data (e.g., studies of first impressions: learning something bad has a bigger impact on the overall impression than learning something good) and in my own (social rejection produced bigger effects than social acceptance). Excitement increased as the greater power of bad was found over and over, in very different domains. Eventually we started looking for exceptions and realized there are almost none. In this way we had stumbled on a major, basic principle of how the mind works.
Do you find that negativity bias has grown stronger or more pervasive as society and the world has grown more technologically advanced and globally connected?
The negativity bias in our brain is the same as it ever was, but it gets triggered more often than ever because there are so many people working to exploit it. In mass media and social media, we’re bombarded around the clock on our screens by politicians and journalists and other “merchants of bad” who know that the easiest way to get our attention is with a negative message.
As a writer and a social scientist, how do you find the balance between writing about the science behind human behavior as well as sharing practical tactics or coping strategies? Is there a focus on one over the other?
JT: We see it as a two-step process. To overcome the negativity effect, you first have to understand it, so we want to explain the science as clearly as possible. Then we want to show how to apply the results of this research so you can make smarter decisions, get along better with others, and see the world more clearly.
RB: Our collaboration has been helpful in this regard. In theory, it’s mainly my job to figure out what the scientific research has to say, and it’s John’s job to make it relevant to people’s daily lives. In practice, we both do some of both jobs, though each probably emphasizes his specialty. I’ve learned a lot from working with John.
If there was one takeaway a reader of this book will have, what would you want it to be?
JT: Bad is stronger than good, but good can prevail once you know what you’re up against. We want people to learn how to harness the power of bad when it’s useful and overcome it when it’s not.
RB: Yes, our message is basically upbeat and optimistic. We hope to enrich people’s lives by alerting them to this quirk of the mind. It is programmed to overreact to bad things, relative to good.
Most readers who are diving into this book will be reading this as the new year arrives. Do you have any advice to them on how to start 2020 in the right direction?
Remember the Rule of Four: It takes four good things to overcome one bad thing. So if you want to improve, you’ll make more progress by starting off the bad stuff. Avoiding bad is far more important than doing good.
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