Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Should You Say No to Negativity?

Here’s some more well-meaning advice. Say No to negativity. It’s the latest in psychology, brought to us in an extended Wall Street Journal essay by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister.

The psychology profession has lately been promoting positive thinking, though, if memory serves, one Norman Vincent Peale sold millions of books about The Power of Positive Thinking. And of course, there was that old song that advised us to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. The authors echo the song’s message, so they must be aware of the fact that outside the psycho hothouse, everyday people have not been wallowing in negativity.

As for basic concept of saying No to negativity, am I the only one who noticed that that requires us to double down on negativity, to be more negative about negativity. Do you really think that we can eliminate negativity by being more negative about it? 

The authors suggest that we are living unbalanced lives. Our lives are skewed toward negativity. We are more sensitive to danger than to joy. We are more motivated by bad feelings than by good feelings. We obsess about them, to the detriment of our joy.

Of course, we should not forget the nuance. Some of this is a function of human nature. Another part has been produced by our therapy laden culture, one that has taught us that the meaning of life lies in abuse, suffering and trauma.

Anyway, the authors begin with a discouraging thought:

Our minds and lives are skewed by a fundamental imbalance that is just now becoming clear to scientists: the negativity effect. Also known as the negativity bias, it’s the universal tendency for bad events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones. We’re devastated by a word of criticism but unmoved by a shower of praise. We see the hostile face in the crowd and miss all the friendly smiles. We focus so much on bad news, especially in a digital world that magnifies its power, that we don’t realize how much better life is becoming for people around the world.

One is happy to see more wide eyed optimism about the state of the world, but this is really a philosophical fiction. Things seem very good and will remain very good until they are not. To believe that the stock market always goes up and that we should not be aware of the risk side of the equation is a fool’s errand. At the least, predictions about the future are not science. They are prophecy.

The authors continue:

Psychologists studying people’s reactions had found that a bad first impression had a much greater impact than a good first impression, and experiments by behavioral economists had shown that a financial loss loomed much larger than a corresponding financial gain.

They add:

The pain of criticism is much stronger than the pleasure of praise. A single bad event can produce lifelong trauma, but there is no psychological term for the opposite of trauma because no good event has such a lasting impact.

Later in the piece they will regale us with stories about the mind’s resilience, how well it normally recovers from trauma. This would appear to contradict the notion that a single bad event can produce lifelong dysfunction-- the word trauma is misused in the sentence-- but the truth is, a recent study suggested that two thirds of those who suffer trauma overcome it by using their own psychological resources. Best not to be alarmist here.

The authors suggest as much:

So the public learned lots about psychoses and depression but precious little about the mind’s resilience and capacity for happiness. Post-traumatic stress disorder became common knowledge but not the concept of post-traumatic growth, which is actually far more common. Most people who undergo trauma ultimately feel that the experience has made them a stronger and better person.

If the human brain pays more attention to danger, there might be a good reason. The authors call it a survival mechanism. One catastrophe can wipe out a building we spent a year building. Eat one bad berry and you will not see tomorrow. The truth is, we pay more attention to bad because we want to survive:

Our brain’s negativity bias evolved because it is a survival mechanism. On our ancestral savanna, the hunter-gatherers who passed on their genes were the ones who paid more attention to threats (like poisonous berries or predatory lions) than to the good things in life. This bias is still useful—one mistake can still be fatal—but what worked for hunter-gatherers doesn’t always work for us.

But, how do they know whether or not we should revise human nature? If the authors think it’s possible and if they are granting themselves the task, perhaps we should tax them with terminal hybris. Human nature evolves, but, as Prof. Chomsky once opined, it takes around ten thousand years for it to do so. Just because are not out picking berries and killing gazelles does not mean that we do not face danger, physical and moral. ]

Would it not be better if the teenager in his new sports car does not believe that can ignore risk, put pedal to the metal and go maximum speed? Negating negativity is not merely a contradiction in terms. It is slightly too optimistic, and slightly to naive to be really useful.

We should not consider positivity and negativity to be antithetical. We should not imagine that we are being forced to choose the one of the other. Too much positivity is dangerous. Too much negativity is crippling. 

Let’s opt for balance, for balanced judgment, for a rational evaluation of risk and reward. We should understand that a double negative-- a grammatical error--  is not going to change human nature and solve all of our problems. 


Sam L. said...

Say No to negativity. Isn't that a double negative?

sestamibi said...

Can't remember the announcer who said it, but it was in the seventh game of the 1986 World Series, during which the Red Sox were getting routed by the Mets after almost putting it away in the 6th game but for Bill Buckner's legendary error.

Just before the last out of the seventh game, the camera panned on Wade Boggs with tears in his eyes, and the announcer said "Losing hurts more than winning feels good." So true.