How Thinking Bad Can Be Good for Your Mental Health + Why We Tend to Remember the Negative More Than Positive (with Science Writer John Tierney & Research Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister)
Bad is bad, right? Well…not always. In this week’s blog and podcast, I speak with acclaimed science writer John Tierney and pioneering research psychologist Roy F. Baumeister about their new book, The Power of Bad, how we can harness our negativity bias for good, why bad is the best teacher, how to avoid anticipating the worst and how to handle negativity on social media and in our relationships.
We have all been there: someone says something nice, but then they also make a comment about how we could do better, and all we can remember is the negative. What did we do wrong? Do they even like us? Were they lying when they said those nice things? No matter where you are, how old you are or where you came from, you cannot escape this negativity bias—the human mind reacts more strongly to bad things than to good things. We all tend to have stronger feelings about bad things and think about them more.
Ironically, this is not necessarily a “bad” thing. Our keen sense of the negative has helped us evolve over time, preserving our lives from danger and keeping us ready to fight or flee when needed. The bad is also a great teacher. Failure and learning how to deal with the negative is one of the best ways we develop and grow.
We cannot escape the bad, because we are not perfect. When it comes to life, work, parenting, friendships, marriages and so on, you really just need to be good enough—the data shows this. No one can be good and faultless all the time. All you need to do is try to avoid the really big mistakes, and, if you mess up (which you will), inject 4 times the amount of positive for the one negative. For instance, if you said something unkind, say something kind 4 times to overcome that bad statement and bring back balance to the brain and your relationship. John and Roy call this the rule of four, and it can be applied to all areas of your life.
There are other ways we can control how the negativity bias affects us and learn to use it to our advantage in our lives and relationships:
1. Avoid reading negative social media comments.
If you get a lot of hate on social media, stop reading your comments. Get someone you trust to do so; they can take out the useful parts of any criticism you get and let you know where you can improve without hurting you.
2. Learn from your arguments.
When you are fighting with a loved one, try to imagine the good that can come out of the argument: what can you learn this?
As you do this, remind yourself of their good side, their strengths and what you love about them. Remember to tell your loved ones when they do something good, not just when they upset you!
3. Don’t take the bait.
Try to not respond negatively to a negative comment or situation. When someone says something nasty, don’t stoop to their level. Try to ignore it (if you can), or respond in a calm, kind and collected way.
4. Critique your critique.
When giving constructive criticism, start with the bad, saying what you want to say in a way that they can learn from it, and then add lots of good (4 x the amount of good for one bad is a good ratio to remember). Most people want to hear the bad stuff first; they want to get it out of the way, because anticipating what may be said can be very stressful. We also tend to remember the bad more than the good, so if you start off with the good and then go on to critique that person’s work, actions or behavior, they will forget about all the good stuff you said. This will end the conversation on a low note, which can make them feel very demoralized.
It is also important to remember that, in many cases, the bad is not very bad—we tend to anticipate the worst, but, in many cases, it is a relief to hear someone say it!
5. Be grateful.
Write a letter or send an email or text to someone who did something nice for you or count your blessings once a week. When we are grateful, we direct the mind towards positive things, which cultivates a good outlook. We can turn the bad into good.
6. Amp up the praise.
When someone you love is happy or excited about something, share their joy. Ask questions. Enjoy it with them. Celebrate them. Let them know how amazing they are and how happy you are for them.
7. Don’t overpromise. Falling short of a promise can be very bad and make you seem untrustworthy or unreliable. Always remember, it is far more important to keep your promises than go the extra mile.
8. Remember that bad is in the eye of the beholder.
If something matters to someone, then it impacts them. You have to take this into account when you react in a relationship, even if the situation in question didn’t affect you like it affected them. Be understanding and try to see things from their perspective.
9. Watch what you are consuming.
When it comes to the bad, we need to be aware of the availability bias: we overestimate how likely the worst will happen depending on the availability of that image. Say, for example, you fear being a victim of a terrorist attack (which is very rare) because you see images like it all the time on the news. Stop, think about what you are thinking and ask yourself: how likely is it that something of this magnitude will happen to me? Remind yourself that this doesn’t just happen all the time, and that the news makes its money by grabbing your attention with the bad.
Curate your news feed. Limit how much you are exposed to the negative—this “low bad” diet, as John and Roy call it, will give you a more accurate perception of the world.
10. Don’t wallow.
Your mind and your brain merge with what you are focusing on. If you just focus on the negative all the time, this can impact your mental and physical health. You have to embrace the bad, process it AND reconceptualize it, not wallow in it!
For more on controlling your thinking, dealing with the negativity bias and harnessing the power of bad, listen to my podcast with John and Roy (episode #190) and check out their new book. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
5:05 Why the mind reacts more strongly to bad things
8:17 What is the power of bad?
11:10, 18:00 How can we use the bad for good?
15:42 What is “bad” parenting?
20:30 How to handle negativity on social media
21:46 What the bad can teach us
22:35, 45:00 Dealing with the bad in a relationship
24:40 How to give constructive criticism
29:15 What is catastrophizing?
37:46 The low bad diet
51:27 Why is gratitude so important?
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