“The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?”
-Julia Roberts, Pretty Woman
“It’s kind of screwy,” she says. “I love compliments, but I get so little mileage out of them. Meanwhile, someone insults me, and I’m thinking about that for weeks.”
“I know what you mean,” I say. “Negativity bias is the worst. I want a refund.”
I tell her it’s a well-documented phenomenon that you’ll find in basically every human being: The tendency, all else being equal, for us to cognitively and emotionally weight negative experiences WAY MORE than we do positive experiences.
4:1 to 7:1
You need A LOT of positive to balance out a negative — and a bit more if you want the positive to come out on top.
So if we say something critical to our partner, something that bothers them or hurts their feelings, we’ll likely have to say a lot more positive stuff and have a bunch of positive interactions with them before the negative vibe is overtaken by positive ones.
How much more? Well, it’s difficult to say, exactly, because intensity matters. A minor negative will be much more affected by major positives and vice versa.
Researchers have found a variety of sweet spots when we’re talking about positive and negative interactions. There have been a lot of studies on this.
The available studies do seem to range at the low end from 4:1 all the way up to 7:1, depending on the population studied (coworkers, schoolmates, romantic partners, etc.) as well as the study design.
But one thing is clear: You need a lot of positive to outweigh a negative.
It’s why many relationship coaches and marriage therapists will frequently advise their clients who are having trouble with their dynamic and feeling resentful of one another to make a conscious effort to say 7 positive things to their partner for every negative. Sure, that amount might be a little much, more than the minimum (at least according to most studies) but:
- Doing more than the minimum provides a cushion to offset any natural human error or miscounting (overestimating how many positive interactions you’ve had, underestimating how many negatives, etc.).
- Since you’re not looking to maintain an already positive relationship but to work on recuperating one that may have been suffering from negativity for some time, you’re likely to have a large emotional “backlog,” i.e., lingering resentment that may have accumulated. Doing more than the minimum makes complete sense given that, since there’s a lot of ground to cover.
- Doing more than the minimum won’t hurt anything, provided all those interactions and words are genuine.
- Focusing on the positive more often in an attempt to satisfy the assignment is likely to improve your internal outlook as well on other things in your life, however slightly. (The same reason gratitude journaling and performing random acts of kindness can be helpful.)
Why Are We So Negative Anyway?
So human beings are hella negative. That seems like kind of a stupid feature, right?
Well, to modern humans, sure. It’s pretty weaksauce.
But biologically speaking, we haven’t changed all that much since the caveman days. That asshole voice in your head that these days mostly serves to make you super cranky and pessimistic, well, it’s actually a threat detection system. And it’s wired to go off pretty easily.
This made sense in ancient times. If something was chasing you, trying to eat you, you wanted a threat detection system that worked quickly and got you the heck away from danger.
And then when the dangerous element was clearly gone, then you’d stop being stressed. But you might be left with a lingering dread of the particular area where you met that predator… or any sign that one had been around. Or anything that looked vaguely like it.
Even if this resulted in false alarms later, this negativity bias would protect you from reencountering further mortal danger.
And this hairtrigger response to potential threats can also apply to social situations. To our ancestors, social exile was literally death (a lone human would have incredible difficulty surviving on their own in the wilderness for any length of time), so as modern humans we similarly strongly react to any potential threats against our social fitness, support, or standing: Humiliation, insults, signs that we’re going to be excluded or shunned, etc.
However, a lot of these threats aren’t actually as mortal as they once were: In most cases, if you fall out of favor with one group of friends, you can eventually find another you have more in common with (provided you can get over any negativity bias you have that tells you that it isn’t possible). And typically, being disliked by a random person or two isn’t going to affect your housing, food, or basic chances at survival (only in extreme, specific cases does this fear approach being true).
Meanwhile, we typically aren’t nearly as afraid of modern threats that are much more likely to be lethal: For example, riding in automobiles. Most people aren’t afraid to get in the car unless something has personally happened to them to have cemented a trauma response (e.g., having been in an accident themselves).
But our brains are pretty dumb when it comes to actually being helpful and matching the world in which we live. They remain stubbornly in their old modes and are incredibly slow to change.
Is Everything Doomed…Or Is It Negativity Bias?
Anyway, negativity bias is helpful to keep in mind. It’s not a personal failing. Or something defective about you. It’s human.
Everything’s not doomed, but when something goes wrong, especially something important to you, you’re likely to think so.
Because that’s literally how brains work. And it’s just your brain trying to protect you… even if it’s doing kind of a lousy job.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.