Over the past several years, I have shown numerous examples of how companies and individuals are afraid of pursuing new ideas and innovations because they are afraid of the potential negative outcomes.
Yet at a fundamental level, the question is why this is the case?
Why, when faced with an opportunity which could either have a positive or a negative outcome (like an idea succeeding or failing), do our mental biases predispose us towards wanting to avoid the negative outcome?
In psychology, there is a well established negativity bias which shows that not only in humans, but in most animals, more weight and attention is given to negative entities and characteristics (e.g., events, objects, personal traits) than positive ones.
Why is this?
According to an analysis of hundreds of research papers in 2001, the researchers came to the conclusion that our brain has evolved to be more attuned and focused on negative potential events than positive ones.
The title of this paper: Bad is stronger than good.
The authors of the paper conclude:
When equal measures of good and bad are present, the psychological effects of bad ones outweigh those of the good ones.
In general, and apart from a few carefully crafted exceptions, negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to the final impression than does positive information. Learning something bad about a new acquaintance carries more weight than learning something good, by and large.
They found a whole variety of examples where bad or negative experiences were given more prominence in our brains than equivalent positive experiences, such as:
- In everyday life, bad events have stronger and more lasting consequences than comparable good events
- Losses are felt more strongly than the gain of an equivalent amount
- Close relationships are more deeply and conclusively affected by destructive actions than by constructive ones, by negative communications than positive ones, and by conflict than harmony. Additionally, these effects extend to marital satisfaction and even to the relationship’s survival (vs. breakup or divorce).
- Unfriendly or conflictual interactions are seen as stronger and have bigger effects than friendly, harmonious ones.
- Bad moods and negative emotions have stronger effects than good ones on cognitive processing, and the bulk of affect regulation efforts is directed at escaping from bad moods (e.g., as opposed to entering or prolonging good moods). That suggests that people’s desire to get out of a bad mood is stronger than their desire to get into a good one.
- The preponderance of words for bad emotions, contrasted with the greater frequency of good emotions, suggests that bad emotions have more power.
- Bad things are more quickly and effectively learned than corresponding good things.
- The lack of a positive counterpart to the concept of trauma is itself a sign that single bad events often have effects that are much more lasting and important than any results of single good events.
- Bad parenting can be stronger than genetic influences; good parenting is not.
- Negative, conflictual behaviors in one’s social network have stronger effects than positive, supportive behaviors.
- Bad things receive more attention and more thorough cognitive processing than good things.
- When people first learn about one another, bad information has a significantly stronger impact on the total impression than any comparable good information.
- The self appears to be more strongly motivated to avoid the bad than to embrace the good.
- Bad stereotypes and reputations are easier to acquire, and harder to shed, than good ones.
- Bad feedback has stronger effects than good feedback.
- Bad health has a greater impact on happiness than good health, and health itself is more affected by pessimism (the presence or absence of a negative outlook) than optimism (the presence or absence of a positive outlook).
So it seems like there is something in our brains that makes us hardwired to respond more strongly to negative / bad events than positive ones.
The biological basis for why bad is stronger than good
The authors suggest that this makes sense when we think of how our ancestors evolved:
From our perspective, it is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good.
We believe that throughout our evolutionary history, organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased probability of passing along their genes.
As an example, consider the implications of foregoing options or ignoring certain possible outcomes. A person who ignores the possibility of a positive outcome may later experience significant regret at having missed an opportunity for pleasure or advancement, but nothing directly terrible is likely to result. In contrast, a person who ignores danger (the possibility of a bad outcome) even once may end up maimed or dead.
Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good.
Now, none of this means that bad situations will always win over good situations.
The authors make it clear that good outcomes can overcome bad experiences, and often even reverse them so that overall the situation is positive. However, in general you would need a stronger / more numerous good experience to counteract the more powerful processing and memory of a negative experience.
All of this helps to explain why it can be so hard for people to get on board with new ideas.
When a new idea or innovation is first presented, and it is unclear whether it will succeed or not, your brain will naturally pay more attention to the potential negative outcomes and the equivalent positive outcomes.
That is what evolution designed it to do.
So it may take repeated exposure to the positive potential of an idea before people begin to accept it.
One of the most powerful ways to get people to feel safer around an idea is also one of the simplest: repetition.
The mere exposure effect shows us that people react more positively to things they have seen several times before. So if you want support for your idea, bring it up frequently over an extended period of time.
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