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How ‘the negativity effect’ impacts marriage, parenting and politics

A Q&A with the author of ‘The Power of Bad,’ a renowned psychologist with Utah ties, who explains why negative experiences shape our lives — and how to overcome

SHARE How ‘the negativity effect’ impacts marriage, parenting and politics

A renowned psychologist with ties to Utah explains how ‘the negativity effect’ affects marriage, parenting and politics — and how we can overcome it.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Bad parents have more impact on children than good ones. One blistering online review has more influence than two reviewers lavishing praise. And relationships, whether romantic or business, can unravel after a single negative event, despite years of good times and good will.

That’s because of a principle called “the negativity effect,” the tendency of the human brain to attribute more importance to bad things than to good ones, says Roy F. Baumeister, a renowned social psychologist who explores the phenomenon in a new book, “The Power of Bad,” co-written with John Tierney.

Baumeister, an Ohio native who lives part-time in Provo, Utah, where his wife, Dianne Tice, is a professor of applied social psychology at Brigham Young University, was already renowned in his field before his groundbreaking research on negativity was published in 2001 in a paper called simply “Bad is Stronger Than Good.”

Three years earlier, he’d gotten worldwide attention for his “chocolate and radish” experiment, in which Baumeister and his co-investigators showed how self control dwindles after it is repeatedly taxed. And he would go on to be among the first researchers to challenge the worth of the self-esteem movement, as co-author of a 2003 paper that concluded that the effects of self-esteem programs are negligible and could promote narcissism.

In taking on negativity, Baumeister, who holds a holds a doctorate in social psychology from Princeton, examines an evolutionary tool that helped our ancestors survive in precarious times. Back then it made sense. “On our ancestral savanna, the hunter-gatherers who survived paid more attention to shunning poisonous berries than to savoring delicious ones. They were more alert to predatory lions than to tasty gazelles.”

Today, however, the negativity effect can turn otherwise rational people into gloomy Eeyores or prophets of doom like Cassandra. And the bias helps to sustain what Baumeister calls a “crisis crisis” — the sense that everything is terrible and getting worse.

In fact, he and Tierney write, life for the average American has never been better, although you wouldn’t know this from turning on a cable news show. “Never before has the average person faced such a small threat from dying in war or other forms of violence,” they write. Ninety percent of the world’s people have enough to eat; life expectancy in the poorest countries has increased by 30 years, and rates of literacy and education are up around the world. “Just about every measure of human well-being has improved except for one: hope.”

In an interview with the Deseret News, Baumeister, a psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, explained how negativity bias affects parenting and religious faith, what partners should do if they want to stay together, and why the book’s ultimate message is uplifting even though the title is negative.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Deseret News: You published your research on the negativity effect in 2001. Why was this idea so revolutionary in the field of social science, given that its biological underpinnings are ancient? 

Roy Baumeister: People had just not noticed the patterns. In a couple of areas, people had noticed that bad things were consistently stronger than good — for example, economists knew about loss aversion, how people are concerned with not losing money. And some researchers had noticed that bad information about somebody carries more weight than good information. And then there were a lot of others. We happened to spot this coming up in the literature over and over again. No one had seen the big picture until I came around.

DN: There is something profoundly depressing about the premise of your book — that bad things are so powerful that they can override good. That years, or even decades, of good will can be swept away by a negative encounter or event. Yet the tone of your book is hopeful. Why?

RB: We’re both basically upbeat, Tierney and I, and indeed writing it helped us realize that part of this general pessimism about society is a trick of the mind. Things are not as bad as they seem, but people are always clamoring to get attention by saying there’s a crisis around the corner.

I saw something in the paper today about the vaping crisis. Why does everything have to be a crisis? But that’s what gets people’s attention. That’s what the mind is oriented toward. But life is actually quite good today. To be born in the United States after the Second World War is like winning the lottery in terms of all the times and places you could have been born. It’s a lovely time of peace and prosperity and comfort and riches and effective medical care. Sometimes I think that people born in the United States after World War II should never complain about anything. But our minds naturally gravitate toward the bad things.

DN: In the book, you talk about the number of positive events that it takes to overcome one that is negative. You say that you can’t erase one negative interaction with one good interaction. instead you have to essentially overwhelm the bad with good, with a positivity ratio of at least 4 to 1. How much good does it take to overcome bad?

RB: That’s a crude thing; it’s not like if you murder someone, four times helping an old lady across the street is going to make up for it. But the point is, don’t say I did something bad, I should do something good to make up for it. You should do four good things to make up for it, to set your mind on a healthy course.

Relationship researchers have gotten onto this ratio, that for a marriage to succeed, there has to be five times as many good interactions as bad ones. This is sometimes translated into how many times people have sex and how many times they fight. It isn’t that there’s something magical about sex — although I suppose there might be — it’s just that that’s easier to count.

DN:  You write that parents should be content with being “good enough” and not perfect mothers or fathers. Why is that?

RB: A lot of mothers, some fathers too, drive themselves crazy trying to outdo each other, and compete, and try to be perfect. If you look at the data, being perfect or being sort of average makes very little difference in terms of how the kids turn out. The real place where parenting makes a difference is at the extreme low end, the abusive and neglectful parents. That can be really bad for the kid. But if you’re not in the worst 5% or 10%, you don’t need to worry about it.

DN:  Last year, The New York Times published an article by a mother who said she was raising her daughter without the concept of sin. That has been a strategy of some churches in recent year, to consciously avoid talking about sin. If we equate “sin” with “bad” or negativity, could your research help to explain why church membership is in decline?

RB:  John Tierney, my co-author, has looked into this more than I have, but the Great Awakening, when there was a real resurgence of religious faith in America, featured sermons on hellfire and damnation and an angry God. We hear that people don’t want to hear that anymore, that they want to hear God loves everyone, but that sort of message seems to inspire people a lot less. 

DN: How can we acknowledge what you call the power of bad, without letting fear control us?

RB: If you know that the mind tends to do this, you can realize the worst-case scenarios that you’re hearing all the time on the news and from political candidates and phone scammers, those are unlikely to come true. We’re constantly hearing, for example, that climate is in disaster. I don’t want to make people complacent about taking care of the environment, but the worst-case predictions have pretty much never come true.

We’ve had half a century of environmentalists’ predictions of imminent disaster that have been over and over refuted. ... We should take steps and do better, but again, the worst-case scenarios are not likely to come through. They’re just how people motivate other people to vote or to take action.

I remember just a couple of years ago, in the last presidential election, some people were saying that if Donald Trump wins, it would be the end of democracy and the economy would be destroyed; some people seriously predicted civil war. I’m not a fan of President Trump, but there’s been no disaster, and the country’s doing fine, the economy is booming, there are no wars, democracy is muddling along. The predictions of disaster aren’t really true. Life is pretty good. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.

DN:  In the book, you offer some strategies for mitigating the bad, including trying a “Low Bad Diet” — not wallowing in disaster coverage, and consuming four uplifting stories for everyone negative one. What else can we do?

RB: Remember, it’s the few bad things that have a disproportionate impact on the relationship or the work team. To improve things, start out by eliminating the negative. Cultivating the positive is important, too, but the first thing is to avoid doing really bad things that would do lasting damage to the relationship or the project or whatever.  

And then remember, life is usually good, but (good) wins by force of numbers. And don’t get carried away by predictions of problems or disasters or dangers. Remember that the mind is unfortunately designed to overreact to that, and people will use that to manipulate it, influence you or even trick you. Take a moment to reflect on the good side, to balance out the negative things.