The Power of Negativity

There is what is called the "negativity effect" and we have all felt it. The book that inspired this post is not going to be on the education shelf at bookstores, but I suspect that many of you felt the negativity effect in schools.

Wikipedia says that "The negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, is the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions; harmful/traumatic events) have a greater effect on one's psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things."

As a student, I learned in schools at all ages that negativity really hurt. Sometimes it was directed at me, but I also learned how to use it myself. As a teacher, I knew that positivity was important to encourage student progress. But I also knew that a comment that was very positive will generally have less of an impact on a student's behavior and cognition than something equally emotional but negative. The negativity bias has been studied for quite a while and in different domains.

book cover AmazonA hot new title right now is The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It by John Tierney. It goes back to social scientist Roy F. Baumeister who unexpectedly came to this idea while studying why financial losses mattered more to people than financial gains. He and his team decided to look for examples where good events made a bigger impact than bad ones. The often-cited research ("Bad Is Stronger Than Good") showed that they couldn't really find those good-is-stronger-than-bad examples.

Does this mean that our brain has some built-in negativity? Perhaps in our evolutionary past, it kept humans alert to dangers. Maybe it is in the same category as "fight or flight" reactions. But do we need it today? Why haven't we evolved to balance or even have the positive outrank the negative?

The book posits that if we recognize our negativity bias, then we can overcome the power of bad before it harms us. The book also posits that we can learn to employ the power of bad to our benefit - putting bad to "good" use.

I don't support that latter idea, but I recognize that it is done. Though I'm interested in how this bias operates in educational settings, it can also have negative effects on relationships, careers, businesses, and even nations. If knowing about this biased effect can help you see what is good and right in your life, then spread the word.