Why We Seek Out Negativity

(Photo by R. Miller via Flickr)It is so unfair. If we screw up, it takes not one good deed to counterbalance the goof, but four.

It is so unfair. If we screw up, it takes not one good deed to counterbalance the goof, but four.

That, at least, is The Rule of Four described by John Tierney, a science journalist, and Roy F. Baumeister, a research psychologist, in The Power of Bad. They admit it is an average. In a charged emotional situation, like adultery, not even four nights of wine and roses will tip the scales. (Among themselves, social scientists use the more succinct Gottman ratio: “five fucks for every fight.”)

For mundane occasions, though, the Rule is a handy reminder. If you are new to your job and scurry in late to an important meeting, you might not want to be late again until you have been punctual at least four times. If you harbor some deep irrational bias against, say, people with hazel eyes, just meeting one hazel-eyed charmer will not suffice; you must meet three more to tip the balance.

The point of the Rule is the power of bad things to outweigh good things. Because, evolution. The old exigencies of survival. And perhaps a malign or absentee designer of the human psyche. Baumeister was inspired after he searched, to no avail, for just one circumstance in which bad events did not typically outweigh good. Bad parenting wielded more power over a child’s development than good parenting. The impact of bad events lasted longer than the impact of good events. A troubling photo triggered more electrical activity in the brain than a positive photo did. Penalties motivated people more surely than rewards. A bad reputation was easier to acquire than a good one. A single transgression could cancel fifty years of virtue. One negative voice in a workplace could bring down the morale of a dozen good doobies. “There is no opposite of trauma,” he realized, “because no single good event has such a lasting impact.”

I should know; I am married to Eeyore. Dour and gloomy about the human race’s prospects, he is solid gold in a crisis, able to take charge smoothly and do exactly what needs to be done. Why? Because he is neither surprised nor disenchanted. He expects the occasional catastrophe. Yet it has taken years of marriage for me to persuade him to give triumphs or compliments any weight at all. His brain returns as if magnetized to the slightest mistake or hint of criticism.

Apparently he is not alone.

When we gently offer a choice—There is good news and bad news. Which do you want first?—nearly everyone wants the bad first. “Surveys of folklore and mythology around the world have found many more references to malevolent gods and demons than to helpful deities, angels, and fairy godmothers,” Tierney and Baumeister note. People even respond faster to negative words. And Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “I find the pain of a little censure, even when it is unfounded, is more acute than the pleasure of much praise.” (It is good that he is dead now.)

The Power of Bad was eviscerated as “Polyanna” because it made a few blanket assertions that felt reactionary and urged, from various angles, the old sappy trope of “positive thinking.” The latter weighs less than a feather with most critics; too many motivational speakers have spooned out saccharine pabulum. Even I, cursed with an excess of serotonin (in Eeyore’s opinion) used to cringe when a sales rep sang out “Fan-TAS-tic” every time I politely inquired how he was.

Too much optimism is just denial.

On the other hand, Baumeister and Tierney might be following their own rule, overemphasizing the good so it has a prayer of sticking. They do suggest a few sane practices. Assess decisions more carefully: “Your gut may be telling you to get out, but since bad is more viscerally powerful than good, your gut isn’t necessarily reliable. In a heated or difficult moment, bad will loom larger.” If you are dreading something, map out the physical time and place your anxiety will crest. Plan how you will respond to bad news, failure, or criticism, so if it comes, it will not knock you off balance.

When I moved into my first apartment and no one was there to hear about my lousy day and soothe my fears, I decided that a bad day would be permission to come home, make my favorite comfort food, cuddle up in a bathrobe, and read or watch something wonderful. Suddenly the prospect of a bad day was rather appealing—and the prospect of things going wrong lost its power to scare me.

“Evolution has left us vulnerable to bad, which rules a primal region of the brain in all animals, but it also has equipped the more sophisticated regions of the human brain with natural cognitive tools for withstanding bad and employing it constructively,” Tierney and Baumeister write. “Today these tools are more essential than ever because there are so many more skilled purveyors of fear and vitriol—the merchants of bad, as we call them, who have prospered financially and politically by frightening the public and fomenting hatred.”

That is hard to disagree with.

If you have ever wondered why the news is nearly always focused on danger, problems, conflicts, and injustices … this is why. It works. And living in a pandemic has only made the doomscrolling more compulsive. But what would happen if, when showing pictures of unmasked people cozying up in a swimming pool like fools, reporters gave equal time to the hairstylists in Springfield who inadvertently exposed 139 people and not one got sick because the stylists were wearing masks? The mission to inform is too often interpreted as a need to frighten, to cut through the noise and scream dire things at people so they will pay attention (thus increase your ratings).

I wonder if we are reaching a saturation point.

“Apocalyptic predictions have become so common that when a national sample of preteen children in America were asked what the planet would be like when they grew up, one in three of the children feared that Earth would no longer exist,” The Power of Bad authors report. One terror replaces another: nuclear bombs, terrorism, species loss, climate change, pandemic, economic collapse. All valid. But how often does the reporting calmly focus on creative solutions, ways to protect against or ameliorate the damage? Too hard to prove balance that way. Better (and simpler, and more clickbaity) to seesaw between opposing opinions, forcing a gladiatorial battle between extremes. The problem is, a steady diet of this erodes our confidence in our ability to respond reasonably, steer a middle course, find a creative solution. The only sector we still trust to innovate seems to be technology—and the only intelligence we are moving toward is artificial.

Or is that too negative an assessment?