The Power of Bad
Science writer John Tierney argues human brains are wired to notice and focus on what is bad rather than what is good.
Why are we devastated by a word of criticism even when it’s mixed with lavish praise? Because our brains are wired to focus on the bad. This negativity effect explains things great and small: why countries blunder into disastrous wars, why couples divorce, why people flub job interviews, how schools fail students, why football coaches stupidly punt on fourth down. All day long, the power of bad governs people’s moods, drives marketing campaigns, and dominates news and politics.
Social scientist Roy Baumeister stumbled unexpectedly upon this fundamental aspect of human nature. To find out why financial losses mattered more to people than financial gains, Baumeister looked for situations in which good events made a bigger impact than bad ones. But his team couldn’t find any. Their research showed that bad is relentlessly stronger than good, and their paper has become one of the most-cited in the scientific literature.
Our brain’s negativity bias makes evolutionary sense because it kept our ancestors alert to fatal dangers, but it distorts our perspective in today’s media environment. The steady barrage of bad news and crisismongering makes us feel helpless and leaves us needlessly fearful and angry. We ignore our many blessings, preferring to heed—and vote for—the voices telling us the world is going to hell.
But once we recognize our negativity bias, the rational brain can overcome the power of bad when it’s harmful and employ that power when it’s beneficial. In fact, bad breaks and bad feelings create the most powerful incentives to become smarter and stronger. Properly understood, bad can be put to perfectly good use.
As noted science journalist John Tierney and Baumeister show in this wide-ranging book, we can adopt proven strategies to avoid the pitfalls that doom relationships, careers, businesses, and nations. Instead of despairing at what’s wrong in your life and in the world, you can see how much is going right—and how to make it still better.
Take the bad with the good, we stoically tell ourselves. But that’s not how the brain works. Our minds and lives are skewed by a fundamental imbalance that is just now becoming clear to scientists: Bad is stronger than good.
This power of bad goes by several names in the academic literature: the negativity bias, negativity dominance, or simply the negativity effect. By any name, it means the universal tendency for negative 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. The negativity effect sounds depressing-and it often is-but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Bad is stronger, but good can prevail if we know what we’re up against.
By recognizing the negativity effect and overriding our innate responses, we can break destructive patterns, think more effectively about the future, and exploit the remarkable benefits of this bias. Bad luck, bad news, and bad feelings create powerful incentives-the most powerful, in fact-to make us stronger, smarter, and kinder. Bad can be put to perfectly good uses, but only if the rational brain understands its irrational impact. Beating bad, especially in a digital world that magnifies its power, takes wisdom and effort.
The negativity effect is a simple principle with not-so-simple consequences. When we don’t appreciate the power of bad to warp our judgment, we make terrible decisions. Our negativity bias explains things great and small: how countries blunder into disastrous wars, why neighbors feud and couples divorce, how economies stagnate, why applicants flub job interviews, how schools are failing students, why football coaches punt much too often. The negativity effect destroys reputations and bankrupts companies. It promotes tribalism and xenophobia. It spreads bogus scares that have left Americans angrier and Zambians hungrier. It ignites moral panics among both liberals and conservatives. It poisons politics and elects demagogues.
You are most affected by the negativity effect during your younger years, when you most need to learn from failures and criticism. As you age, the need to learn diminishes while perspective increases. Old people tend to be more contented than young people because their emotions and judgments aren’t as skewed by problems and setbacks. They counteract the power of bad by appreciating pleasures each day and recalling happy moments instead of dwelling on past miseries. Their lives may not seem better by objective standards (particularly if they have health problems), but they feel better and can make sounder decisions because they can afford to ignore unpleasant learning opportunities and focus on what brings joy.
We’ll explain how to use the power of bad when it’s beneficial and overcome it when it’s not. Thanks to a recent surge of studies of the negativity effect, researchers have identified strategies for coping with it. 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. 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.
We’ll show how to deploy the rational brain to keep bad at bay in both private and public life-in love and friendships, at home and school and work, in business and politics and government. Above all, we want to show how good can win in the end. It is not as immediately powerful and emotionally compelling as bad, but good can prevail through persistence, intelligence, and force of numbers.
By learning how the negativity bias affects you and everyone else, you see the world more realistically-and less fearfully. You can consciously override the impulses that cause crippling insecurities, panic attacks, and phobias like the fear of heights or public speaking. A phobia is a discrete illustration of the power of bad: an exaggerated reaction to the possibility of something going wrong, an irrational impulse that prevents you from enjoying life to its fullest. Phobias can be overcome, and so can more generalized problems once you understand the negativity effect.
Instead of despairing at a setback, you can look for ways to benefit from it. Instead of striving to be a perfect parent or partner, you can concentrate on avoiding the basic mistakes that matter much more than your good deeds. In any relationship, you can learn how to stop fights before they begin, or at least prevent them from spiraling out of control, by recognizing how easily a small affront can be misinterpreted and exaggerated, especially when romantic partners are trying to make sense of each other. At work, you can avoid the pitfalls that ruin careers and doom enterprises.
The upside of bad is its power to sharpen the mind and energize the will. By understanding the impact of painful feedback, you become better at dealing with criticism-at absorbing the useful lessons without being demoralized. You also become better at dispensing criticism, a rare skill. Most people, including supposed experts, don’t know how to deliver bad news because they don’t realize how it’s received. When doctors ineptly deliver a grim diagnosis, they compound the patients’ grief and confusion. When students or employees are evaluated, many teachers or supervisors deliver critiques that serve mainly to dishearten, while others just duck the problems by giving everyone good grades and evaluations. They could do their jobs more effectively with techniques that have been tested recently in schools, offices, and factories.
Criticism and penalties, when administered deftly, spur much faster progress than the everybody-gets-a-trophy approach. They inspire people to learn from their mistakes instead of continuing to jeopardize their careers and their relationships. Criticism and penalties teach people how to improve themselves and get along with others, whether they’re collaborating at work, juggling family responsibilities, or trying to keep romance alive.
The negativity effect is a fundamental aspect of psychology and an important truth about life, yet it was discovered only recently, and quite unexpectedly. Roy Baumeister’s research began, as usual, with a vague question, the sort that’s no longer fashionable among his fellow researchers in psychology. As an undergraduate he had wanted to become a philosopher contemplating broad questions about life, but his parents considered that too impractical a career to justify Princeton’s tuition, so he compromised by going into social psychology.
Once he became a professor, first at Case Western Reserve University and then at Florida State and the University of Queensland, Baumeister did his share of highly specialized research and experiments, the kind of work favored by today’s journals and tenure committees. He became known for his work on self-control, social rejection, aggression, and other topics. But he also took on questions far beyond his specialties. Why is there evil? What is the self? What shapes human nature? What is the meaning of life? He answered each one in a book by surveying the literature in psychology and other disciplines to spot patterns unseen by the specialists.
In the 1990s he became intrigued by a couple of patterns in good and bad events. Psychologists studying people’s reactions found that a bad first impression had a much greater impact than a good first impression, and experiments by behavioral economists showed that a financial loss loomed much larger than a corresponding financial gain. What gave bad its greater power? When and how could it be counteracted?
To investigate, Baumeister started by looking for situations in which bad events didn’t have such a strong impact. It was a logical enough approach: To understand the source of something’s strength, look for examples of its weakness. To find out what’s supporting a roof, look for spots where it’s sagging. Baumeister and his colleagues proposed to “identify several contrary patterns” that would enable them to “develop an elaborate, complex, and nuanced theory about when bad is stronger versus when good is strong.
But they couldn’t. To their surprise, despite scouring the research literature in psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, and other disciplines, they couldn’t find compelling counterexamples of good being stronger. Studies showed that bad health or bad parenting makes much more difference than good health or good parenting.
A helicopter parenting style may result in children who believe the world is inherently unsafe and bad.
The impact of bad events lasts longer than that of good events. A negative image (a photograph of a dead animal) stimulates more electrical activity in the brain than does a positive image (a bowl of chocolate ice cream).
The pain of criticism is much stronger than the pleasure of praise. A bad reputation is much easier to acquire and tougher to lose than a good reputation. The survey of the research literature showed bad to be relentlessly stronger than good. Almost by chance, the psychologists had discovered a major phenomenon, one that extended into so many different fields that the overall pattern had escaped notice.
While he was writing up the results, Baumeister happened to visit the University of Pennsylvania and present his findings. A professor in the audience, Paul Rozin, came up afterward and told him he was working on a similar project, although from a different approach. Rozin was already well known for his highly creative research into neglected topics, including magical thinking and disgust.
In a memorable set of experiments, he showed how little it took to contaminate something good. When a sterilized, dead cockroach was dunked into a glass of apple juice and then quickly removed, most people refused to take a sip. (The notable exception: little boys, who seemed incapable of being grossed out.) Most adults became unwilling to drink any apple juice at all, not even when it was freshly poured from a new carton into a clean glass. The slightest touch with a disgusting bug could make any food suddenly seem inedible.
But suppose an experimenter put a luscious piece of molten chocolate cake on top of a plateful of sterilized cockroaches. Would that make you willing to eat the bugs? Can you imagine any food so good that merely touching it to the plate would render the cockroaches edible? No, because there is no “anti-cockroach.” Rozin’s study of disgust and contagion confirmed an old Russian saying: “A spoonful of tar can spoil a barrel of honey, but a spoonful of honey does nothing for a barrel of tar.”
As Rozin pondered this asymmetry, he saw that this negativity bias applied to a wide range of phenomena. In many religious traditions, a person can be damned by a single transgression or possessed by a demon in an instant, but it takes decades of good works and dedication to become holy. In the Hindu caste system, a Brahman is contaminated by eating food prepared by someone from a lower caste, but an untouchable does not become any purer by eating food prepared by a Brahman.
A few linguistic peculiarities also struck both Baumeister and Rozin. Psychologists generally describe emotional states with pairs of opposites: happy or sad, relaxed or anxious, pleased or angry, friendly or hostile, optimistic or pessimistic. But when Baumeister surveyed psychological research into good and bad events, he noticed that something was missing. Psychologists have long known that people can be scarred for years by a single event. The term for it is trauma, but what is the opposite? What word would describe a positive emotional state that lingers for decades in response to a single event?
There is no opposite of trauma, because no single good event has such a lasting impact. You can consciously recall happy moments from your past, but the ones that suddenly pop into your head uninvited-the involuntary memories, as psychologists call them-tend to be unhappy. Bad moments create unconscious feelings that don’t go away. Fifty years after World War II, when researchers compared American veterans who’d fought in the Pacific with those who’d fought in Europe, there was a distinct difference in tastes: The Pacific veterans still avoided Asian food.
One bad sexual experience can haunt a person for life, but the most blissful tryst will become a hazy memory. One infidelity can destroy a marriage, but no act of devotion can permanently bond a couple. One moment of parental neglect can lead to decades of angst and therapy, but no one spends adulthood fixated on that wonderful day at the zoo.
Rozin noticed some other singular bad words. For instance, there was no single word meaning the opposite of murderer. When they tested this notion by asking people to name one, there was no consensus. Some people couldn’t think of any word; others suggested words that were not quite right, like savior (a broader term typically used for spiritual redemption and other kinds of rescue) and lifesaver (which brings to mind something on a ship’s deck). Previous researchers had studied languages around the world and found a negativity bias in the distribution of words: There are more synonyms for a bad concept like pain than for its opposite, pleasure. But for murderer there is no opposite. The Penn researchers looked for other such “unique nouns,” either good or bad, and came up with just a handful-all of them bad.
They could find synonyms for sympathy (like compassion and pity) but no single word to connote empathizing with someone’s good fortune. There was a word for an unexpected negative event, accident, and also for the chance that something bad could occur, risk, but most people couldn’t think of an opposite for either one. (Serendipity is a possibility, but it apparently wasn’t familiar to most people.)
Nor could most people name an antonym for disgust. It was the same story when the researchers looked for versions of these words in twenty other languages, including the most widely spoken tongues as well as less common ones like Icelandic and Ibo. The results demonstrated an extreme version of the negativity bias: Sometimes bad is so much stronger that people don’t even try contrasting it with good.
By the time they finished comparing notes, Baumeister and Rozin realized they independently recognized the same principle, and they coordinated the publication of their papers in 2001. Both are now among the most cited papers in the social-science literature. They’ve inspired psychologists and a wide range of other researchers to conduct hundreds of studies of the negativity bias, discovering it in new places, analyzing its effects, and testing countermeasures. With this book we want to start sharing this growing body of research, which has deepened our understanding of the negativity effect while also confirming the original papers.
Rozin’s paper, coauthored with his Penn colleague Edward Royzman, is Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion. They conclude “negative events are more salient, potent, dominant in combinations, and generally efficacious than positive events.”
Baumeister’s paper is Bad Is Stronger Than Good It is cowritten with two colleagues at Case Western, Ellen Bratslavsky and Kathleen Vohs, and Catrin Finkenauer of the Free University of Amsterdam. After surveying the evidence, they conclude: “The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events (e.g., trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes.”