It’s a trope that we learn more from failure than success—hence Charlie Brown’s “then that must make me the smartest person in the world.” So why don’t we learn more from bad news than good?
According to new research led by neuroscientist Christina Moutsiana of University College London, part of the answer lies in how old we are—younger people have a harder time drawing accurate lessons from the bad—but that just may be an ingredient of growing up. The “asymmetry” in learning more from positive news than negative news, she suggests, may reflect both the need to explore we feel in childhood and adolescence and the greater risks routinely taken during those ages.
In a paper appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, Moutsiana and five co-authors suggest this learning imbalance in reflected in how the brain develops. Both the prefrontal cortex and dopamine affect our ability to estimate outcomes and develop beliefs, and both of those physical systems change dramatically during our youth. (An earlier study on unrealistic optimism by one of Moutsiana’s co-authors, Tali Sharot, showed how regions of the prefrontal cortex are related to so-called estimation errors, and those regions’ activity changes as we age.)
It’s believed the elderly focus less on factual input and more on emotional outcomes, which makes them in a sense more childlike in how they respond to information.
But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean there isn’t a societal cost to discounting bad news. “This bias,” the authors write, “may be one of the reasons why campaigns targeted at adolescents that highlight the dangers of careless driving, unprotected sex, and alcohol and drug abuse have limited impact.”
In their research, Moutsiana and company specifically looked at how good and bad news changed beliefs for young people. They asked 59 volunteers between the age of nine and 26 to estimate how likely they were to encounter 40 “adverse life events,” things like car crashes or a burglary. After participants were told the real likelihood of those bad things happening to them—sometimes the odds were better, sometimes worse—they we given another shot at estimating how likely each event was in their lives.
The younger the participant, the worse they were at drawing the correct conclusion (“adjusting their beliefs,” as the authors wrote) from undesirable news. Across the age board, however, the participants drew the right conclusions when the news was happy.
A quick reaction might be that kids always think of themselves as invulnerable, and hence discount dire warnings. While in general the subjects did slightly underestimate how likely they were to face future harm, the researchers couldn’t find a significantly more optimistic mindset based on age.
All this has implications for public health campaigns, but unfortunately it’s not straightforward. For one thing, the youngsters didn’t automatically discount bad news—they responded to it randomly. And other research on behavior doesn’t break neatly down the smiley/frowny divide: There’s evidence young kids learn more from punishment than reward, but also that they get the lesson better from positive feedback than negative (and we’re already learning that screaming at kids can be as harmful as smacking them).
Plus, the researchers acknowledged, their “adverse” outcomes were all about physical danger, and had the experiment focused on social danger they may not have gotten the same results.
Despite these caveats, the authors do have a recommendation: reframe health warnings for kids away from tragic results and toward what good can come out of, say, not smoking or not texting behind the wheel.
Meanwhile, it’s believed the elderly focus less on factual input and more on emotional outcomes, which makes them in a sense more childlike in how they respond to information. “Thus, learning from bad news may follow an inverse U shape across the life span,” the authors write, “peaking in young adulthood and declining with old age.”
Perhaps Johnny Mercer was right all those years ago: You've got to accentuate the positive.