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Bad Raisins in Good Pudding
In response to a tweet of mine, someone pointed me to the thought-provoking 2001 paper Bad is Stronger Than Good:
Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones. … There appear to be more words for negative than positive emotions. … bad [news] events are more newsworthy and attract more reader attention.
Good can still triumph in the end by force of numbers. Even though a bad event may have a stronger impact than a comparable good event, many lives can be happy by virtue of having far more good than bad events.
We can explain this asymmetry by understanding how bad things are rare but potent, like raisins in raisin pudding:
For a system to function effectively, each component of the system must do its part. If one component breaks down, the entire system can be disrupted. … Good entails consistency across time and events, which cannot be created by a single good event but can be destroyed by a single bad one. … Preventing one bad outcome is not an adequate substitute for preventing another bad outcome, whereas reaching one good outcome is often an acceptable substitute for another. … People for whom good is stronger than bad (e.g. people insensitive to pain or to guilt) seem prone to misfortunes and early deaths.
However, we seem to be biased to instead focus on the good in our plans and descriptions:
People used far more positive than negative emotion words in their self-disclosures, but the negative emotion words had significantly more impact on impressions.
People are biased toward more positive ideas and conclusions. … Universal human tendency to use … positive words more frequently … than … negative words. … Negative words consist more often of a positive root that becomes negative by a prefix than the reverse. Likewise, when people are instructed to attribute traits to a target person, they tend to assign more positive than negative ones. … For the self there was a memory bias in favor of the pleasant events …
Religious ideas have emphasized salvation as much as retribution … Cultural ideals of fulfillment have a general pattern of promising more permanence than is typically found, …
Textbooks in learning & education sometimes assert that reward is better than punishment for learning, but … punishment is stronger than reward.
To overcome this bias, we should try to describe people and plans more in terms of negatives. In particular, describe your deepest moral values more in terms of bad:
overall goodness of a person is determined mostly by his worst bad deed, with good deeds having lesser influence. … only immoral people do bad things, whereas both moral and immoral people do good things. …
This seems promising not just because we likely underestimate how important are bad things to our systems of values, but also because we understand them better:
Unpleasant odors were most accurately classified … Couples perceived and understood each other's destructive behaviors better than the constructive ones.… Consistency of reports across the children … was higher for the rejected than for the popular children. …
Participants in good moods tended to cluster information and process it superficially, whereas people in bad moods processed it more carefully. …
Bad traits are more specifically and narrowly defined than good traits, in the sense that the bad traits are seen as more different from each other and encompass a narrower range of behaviors.
This should be an exciting opportunity to those who care more about understanding their values than following the usual positivity norms. If you can admit that you are better defined by what you hate than what you love, you may better learn who you really are, and what really matters.
(Notice that, roughly, bad is near while good is far.)