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Negativity Can Be Pretty Human, Turns Out

New research finds we are quicker to believe signs of decay than similar signs of progress.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Andrew Branch/Unsplash)

Let’s face it: Things aren’t looking good. Pick any subject, from the state of the world to the shape of your waistline, and chances are you can easily come up with two or three pieces of evidence pointing to its definitive decline.

Of course, if you give it some thought, you can also come up with examples to suggest that the situation in question is actually improving. But we tend to discount those as flukes or illusions. In contrast, signals indicating deterioration feel real and significant.

This strange and sometimes self-destructive dynamic is described in newly published research by University of Chicago scholars Ed O’Brien and Nadav Klein. In a series of studies, they provide evidence of “a generalized negativity bias,” which has implications for both personal projects and policy debates.

“People are quicker to diagnose change for the worse than change for the better,” they write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “We established this basic effect across many methods, measures, and contexts … People demand less evidence to diagnose lasting decline than lasting improvement.”

O’Brien and Klein found such bias in no fewer than 10 studies. In the first, 239 participants read eight different scenarios that depicted gradual changes in a variety of realms. They were asked how many negative indicators would convince them that the situation was worsening in a “lasting” way, or how many positive ones would convince them that things are improving.

For instance, in the “athletic performance” category, participants were asked at what point they felt a good player was in “official decline” — after one poor performance, after 10, or somewhere in between. Alternatively, they were asked when they felt a poor player was “officially improving,” again noting the number of surprising performances it would take for them to sense things were truly changing.

No matter the topic, people “became convinced of lasting decline significantly more quickly than of lasting improvement,” the researchers write. “Goodness needed to drop down by significantly less for participants to perceive official decline, compared with the margin that badness needed to ramp up for participants to perceive official improvement.”

Another study showed this bias even more clearly. Five hundred people recruited online were shown a graph “allegedly depicting real fluctuations in the U.S. economy from the 1950s through the 2000s.”

Half of participants were told the purposely ambiguous trend line suggested things are getting gradually better, while the others were told the opposite. All then indicated “the extent to which they interpreted the given graph as showing a clear trend rather than just noise.”

“Graphs were interpreted as more ‘real’ when they were framed as depicting decline than when the exact same graphs were framed as depicting improvement,” the researchers report.

This tendency, which the researchers believe goes beyond mere risk aversion, must have served us somewhere in the evolutionary process. Perhaps it still does, by pushing us to cut our losses more quickly than we otherwise would. But the distortions it creates are clearly problematic.

As the researchers note, the results strongly suggest that people are “too slow to appreciate their own progress, but too quick to feel hopeless from equivalent regression.” It’s tempting to give up on a weight-loss program, or any other self-improvement plan, if you’re wired to discount signs of progress and see every small stumble as a serious setback.

On another level, political leaders may find it is harder than they might think “to convince others that policy solutions are working.” As O’Brien and Klein write, this suggests policymakers would be wise to “emphasize the gradual nature of improvement.”

Of course, if a political leader happened to arise who is trying to convince you that things are so awful that the only answer is to give him more power, this ingrained negativity bias could help him make that case. Stay aware.