Why bad things loom larger than good

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Psychology doesn’t have laws the way physics has the law of gravity. But one of the closest things there is to a universal mental law is the fact that negative things impact us more powerfully than do neutral or positive things—or, as Roy Baumeister and other researchers put it in the title of a review paper, “Bad is stronger than good”[1].

In the human mind, the negative is more salient than the positive. Losing money, getting rejected by friends, and being criticized affect us more deeply than do winning money, making new friends, or being praised.

“Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good,” write the authors. “Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”

Negativity bias, as it is sometimes called, manifests itself in almost every aspect of human experience. We have more terms for negative emotions than positive ones; we remember negative events more vividly and in greater detail; we’re more upset about losing $50 than we are happy about winning $50. After you meet someone new, learning something bad about them shapes your impression of them more strongly than does learning something good. Even among people who say their childhoods were very happy, research has found, the preponderance of memories are unpleasant.

Even psychology itself suffered from a negativity bias for the first couple hundred years of its existence, focusing primarily on disease and dysfunction until psychologists realized that the absence of mental illness does not equal the presence of happiness and called for a new science of “positive psychology” focused on human flourishing.

So why is it that bad is so much stronger than good? Part of the answer may be that the negative is more useful to survival. In the ancestral environment, people who were more attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive and pass on their genes, the authors suggest. “Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”

Consistent with this survival explanation, it appears that infants are born with a bias to attend to negative things. In one study, infants showed more neural activity when they saw a “negative” toy—a toy—they’d seen associated with negative emotion in adults—than they did when seeing a positive or neutral toy[2]. Another study found that three-month olds’ impressions of a cartoon character were influenced more by whether the character hindered another character than by whether it helped another character[3].

According to Baumeister and colleagues, the only way to overcome our inherent global negativity bias is through sheer force of numbers. The impact of negative things (experiences, memories, performance evaluations, etc.) can be overpowered with a sufficiently large number of positively valenced things.

New research suggests that negativity bias may also fade later in the lifespan. In a study comparing neural responses to visual stimuli among older and younger adults, researchers found that older adults display less brain activity in response to both positive and negative images—and with that decrease, finally, an elimination of negativity bias[4].

?References

1. Baumeister, R.F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K.D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.
2. Carver, L.J., L. & Vaccaro, B.G. (2007). 12-month-old infants allocate increased neural resources to stimuli associated with negative adult emotion. Developmental Psychology, 43, 54-69.
3. Kiley Hamlin, J., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2010). Three-month-olds show a negativity bias in their social evaluations. Developmental Science, 13, 923-929.
4. Wood, S. & Kisley, M.A. (2006). The negativity bias is eliminated in older adults: age-related reduction in event-related brain potentials associated with evaluative categorization. The Psychology of Aging, 21, 815-820.