Leading Blog






01.17.20

The Power of Bad

The Power of Bad

BAD gets into our head and it stays there leaving very little room for the good in our lives. We tend to focus on the bad, even in the face of a lot of positive things. Our brains are wired that way. It’s the negativity effect: the universal tendency for negative emotions and events to affect us more strongly than positive ones.

John Tierney and Roy Baumeister (the first researcher to identify the negativity effect) describe the phenomenon well in The Power of Bad:

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.

Because of this, we have learned that it takes about four good things to overcome just one bad experience. It’s a rule of thumb, but it is useful to keep in mind when dealing with others and to understand our impact on those around us. “Being able to hold your tongue rather than say something nasty or spiteful will do much more for your relationship than a good word or deed.” Good relationships are more about what you don’t do. “Avoiding bad is far more important than doing good.” You don’t get much credit for going the extra mile, but you pay a big penalty for doing something bad.

So how do we eliminate or a least minimize the bad? The negative?

Not surprisingly, the more insecure you are, the more likely you are to act and think negatively. And our negative thoughts become a self-fulfilling prophecy dragging us deeper into the cynicism and doubt that undermines us. Negative thinking makes us small.

Positive people “literally see a bigger picture. Their eyes sweep a wider field of vision instead of just focusing on what’s straight ahead, as they do when prompted with negative stimuli. Positive emotions broaden your perspective and enable you to build skills that help you flourish both personally and professionally.”

We look for bad things. “Even when things are going your way, the amygdala keeps looking for the cloud behind the silver lining.” We create fears. They can become runaway trains that cripple us. When we do discover a fear, we need to put it in perspective. How important is it really? Rationally override the feeling by talking about it. How would you advise someone else in the same situation? Know what triggers your fear and calm yourself with coping statements. And breath. “A deep breath is a signal to the body that we’re safe.”

Depressed people suffer from extreme negativity bias in the way they see themselves, the world, and the future. Depressed people focus relentlessly on their weaknesses and failures, ignoring their strengths and diminishing their successes as flukes. They interpret one setback as a fatal mistake and imagine it, leading to the worst possible outcome.

Researcher Bethany Teachman says, “People with phobias want to avoid panic attacks, but that’s not the right goal to start with. The first goal is to stop caring whether or not you have a panic attack. A panic attack is uncomfortable but not dangerous. It’s a false alarm—a fear of fear. Once you make the decision to tolerate it, you get a sense of mastery, and eventually, the fear loses its power over you, and the panic attacks don’t come anymore.”

What should we do when delivering bad news? Many think that the best thing to do is to deliver it gradually or after some good news, but research says most people would rather have the bad news first and straight. The criticism sandwich doesn’t really do what we hope it would because the “brain doesn’t logically process threatening information.”

For praise or other good news to make a lasting impact, the brain must transfer it from the short-term working memory into long-term memory. This process gets disrupted when good news is followed by something negative. The brain uses so much energy to focus on the new threat that the previous pleasantness gets lost because of an effect called retroactive interference.

If you have to deliver bad news or criticism, the authors recommend that first, consider your objective. Are you simply delivering bad news, or are you trying to get someone to change?

When people heard first about their bad traits and then their good ones, they ended the experiments in a better mood, but they were also less inclined to do work to correct their bad qualities. The ones who heard the bad traits last were more worried but also eager for self-improvement. It’s not easy to motivate without demoralizing, but you can compromise by concentrating on the good feedback toward the end while also finishing up with a clear reminder of what's wrong and how to fix it.

From there, the authors advise us, among other things, to ask questions, and then once we’ve gotten the criticism across, use the power of bad to your advantage. (Good insights on delivering criticism begin on page 99.)

Hell motivates us more than heaven. Penalties for mistakes make us learn much more quickly than rewards. The fear of looking fat motivates us more to lose weight than the hope of looking slim. The advantage of penalties is that they are “so powerful that you often don’t have to use them. Rewards have to be doled out continually, but the mere threat of a penalty can make a lasting impact.”

When bad things do happen to us, our response becomes the key issue. While many people experience a traumatic event in their lives, most—four out of five—trauma victims did not suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afterward. “Instead of being permanently scarred, they underwent post-traumatic growth (PTG). Studies have found that more than 60 percent (sometimes 90 percent) of trauma victims undergo post-traumatic growth, including ones who initially showed symptoms of PTSD.

Our response to life is everything. “The growth comes not from the trauma but from the way that people respond to it to become kinder, stronger, and more mindful of the joys in life.” When things do go wrong—and they will—force yourself to see it from another perspective. “People of all ages can counter the power of bad by consciously rewriting their narratives, focusing on their blessings, and savoring the good moments of their lives.”

In 1841 Scottish journalist Charles Mackay published Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. In it, he writes, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds. It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” It’s up to each of us to see that good prevails.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 07:34 AM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Personal Development , Positive Leadership



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