Blog #45 – The power of the negative
In our last post, we focused primarily on the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, in which Barbara Fredrickson proposes that the experience of more positive emotions in daily life can have massive benefits across a range of fronts, including basic well-being, problem solving, and general performance.
One of the points that we lingered on was the claim made by Fredrickson and co-author Marcial Losada in an academic paper, published in 2005, that they had calculated the ratio of positive to negative emotions necessary to experience flourishing in life. As also highlighted, this figure (2.9:1) was later withdrawn after questions were raised about how the data gathered during the course of the relevant study was analysed.
While Fredrickson was content to withdraw that finding and retreat somewhat from the idea of specific ratios, she remained firm on her view that the core finding reported in that paper held up, namely that the perceived link between favourable positivity versus negativity ratios and human flourishing is compelling.
Other researchers in related areas of study have also focused on this idea of positive versus negative experiences, emotions, and interactions, and how they impact on individuals, particularly in the context of human relationships.
In this area of interest, the notion of ideal ratios has also been floated. John Gottman is a well-known figure in the research of couples, and in highlighting the markers of failing relationships, he has also identified what he believes to be keys of happy/successful relationships.
One of the points that Gottman returns to again and again in his writings, presentations, and media interviews is the toxic power of negative interactions between couples. He stresses that disagreements can ultimately serve a useful purpose in healthy relationships, but negative interactions can impact in a more powerful and affecting way than positive interactions. Exactly why we tend to feel the negative more forcefully than the positive is a matter for conjecture, but it may simply come down to the fact that there is pain and hurt associated with it and the effects of such feelings linger long past the moment that they are felt most keenly. Gottman maintains that his research has told him that it is not enough to look to balance the corrosive effects of one negative interaction with one positive interaction. Instead, he offers the idea that the necessary ratio to help couples thrive in their relationships is approximately five positives for every one negative. In other words, five positive interactions are necessary to counter the impact of just one negative interaction, and failing to achieve this ratio can place relationships at risk. Gottman is at pains to stress that the overall picture is more complicated than merely maintaining an updated scoreboard, but he also points out that he has seen this tendency over and over during the course of decades of work.
While, as indicated above, we do not have a definitive answer on why exactly it seems that humans are somehow ‘wired’ to be more sensitive to negative rather than positive events, Shelly Gable and Jonathan Haidt wrote an 2005 article for Review of General Psychology in which they highlighted different possible explanations that have been proposed by various researchers. Writing against the backdrop of positive psychology’s conscious focus on what goes right in life and contrasting that with the disease model that had dominated psychology for more than half-a-century after World War II, Gable and Haidt pointed to a number of possibilities flagged in previous work that suggest our preoccupation with and sensitivity to the negative around us may be a function of human nature.
On an evolutionary level, it has been proposed that it may be more adaptive to recognise possible threats than possible rewards. The implication of this would be that, over time, particularly in the past when humans lived in a more hostile environment, those who paid more heed to possible dangers would have been more likely to live longer and therefore reproduce and perpetuate their genes than humans who were less sensitive to hazards around them.
Another possible explanation highlighted by Gable and Haidt is that negative information stands out more for us because it goes against our expectations. The logic here is that benign or positive events tend to occur more frequently and thus are regarded somehow as the ‘default’ position, meaning that we pay less heed to them, but when this norm is violated (i.e., when a negative event occurs) it disturbs us and attracts our attention.
Whatever the answer, the tendency has been identified by multiple researchers in numerous studies. For our purposes here, it serves to underscore the importance – as highlighted in different contexts by both Fredrickson and Gottman – of recognising a) the power of negative events/interaction, and b) the need to ensure that we do all that we can to make sure that the positive outweighs the negative, with a view towards maintaining/boosting well-being and our relationships.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.