The Power of Bad

Why do we fixate on a few negative or critical comments, when we hear hundreds of positive ones? It seems one bad event, or even a not-so-great event, can discolor our day. Yet all of the positive and pleasant things go unnoticed or can’t be recalled, according to John Tierney and Roy Baumeister, authors of “The Power of Bad.”

Could it be we pay more attention to bad than good because bad things can be life-threatening and good is just, well, good? In our modern world, we’ve decreased the chance that nearly anything could kill us, but we are still constantly looking for danger.

From their research, the authors concluded four good things equal one bad thing of similar scope: a 4 to 1 ratio. This means for every fight you have with your spouse, you need four good experiences of equal weight to reach a neutral feeling. When you make a mistake at work, you need four equally sized accomplishments for your boss to feel neutral. Criticism is heard as four times worse than a compliment. By understanding the sheer scale of this natural proclivity, you can see how a mistake that seems small to you may feel huge to someone else.

Our predisposition to focus on the negative is pervasive. Our attention is drawn to disasters, such as an accident on the freeway, and we reward media and politics for accentuating the negative. But it makes us miserable.

Limiting our consumption of bad news is like limiting our intake of junk food. We want to eat junk food – we like junk food – but it doesn’t make us physically healthy. The authors recommend we limit how much time and attention we spend consuming negative news and  seek out at least four times as much good, uplifting content.

When delivering less-than-complimentary feedback to someone, people will sometimes offer a “criticism sandwich,” which is negative feedback inserted between positive comments. Instead, the authors recommend you offer a “menu,” in which you give the recipient the choice of the order of positive and negative feedback. Most will want to hear the bad first.

Another strategy is to change the focus from just telling someone what they are doing wrong to how to improve future outcomes. The authors suggest the following strategy for working with someone whose behavior you are trying to change:

  • Ask how they think things are going. You can confirm their assessment or viewpoint and then expand the discussion to share your perspective of the situation.
  • After you’ve relayed the criticism, remember the 4 to 1 ratio and offer at least four positive observations. Don’t worry if the praise feels overblown or insincere to you – it won’t be heard that way.
  • Finally, focus on future achievements and turn the meeting into a planning session. You will be seen as a collaborator with whom they can achieve a shared vision of a future reality.

Understanding that negative information is valued differently than positive, we can respond differently. When you need to be critical, remember to generously share what is going well. And, the next time you feel despondent about current events, count the positive events in your life and consider the way the scales are actually tipped.