thunderstorm bad stronger than good

Alina Tugend, in her wonderful op-ed in the business section of the New York Times, is ruminating on why, when she and her sisters reminisce about the past, they tend to bring up negative memories. The almost missed flight to Tel Aviv because her little sister lost her teddy bear at the airport. Their visit to Norway was highlighted by her big sister getting her finger smashed by the closing door of the Oslo subway.

For me, the bad experiences often occur when I am dreaming. One of the most annoying recurrent dreams I have is running across town to catch a flight (and never making it). Why didn’t I think of catching a taxi? I’ll have to remember it when the next dream iteration happens. Another dream: I am writing a high-school test—time is running out and I am only half-way through—and I am going to fail again.


Remembering the bad

I had so many “good” experiences in high-school, why do I remember the “bad” ones? Turns out, we all do. People have a tendency to attach a much higher weight, or valence in psychological lingo, to bad things rather than to good.

In a tour-de-force review of the literature, Roy Baumeister and his colleagues at Case Western University (he is currently at Florida State University) and at Free University of Amsterdam give more weight to negative experiences than to positive ones. In fact, it can even be quantified how much “bad” is worth more than “good.” As the authors put it in their summary:

“Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”

The evidence is overwhelming.


What the research shows

Kahneman and Tversky (1984) had participants perform thought experiments in which they either gained or lost the same amount of money. The distress participants reported over losing some money was greater than the joy or happiness that accompanied gaining the same amount of money. They viewed the $50 not as a cost, but as an uncompensated loss. Put another way, you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about winning $50. This phenomenon is well-known: People get habituated to their good fortune and within a relatively short span take it for granted. Conversely, people tend to nurse bad feeling about a misfortune for many years, sometimes for a lifetime.

Developmental and clinical observations likewise suggest that single bad events are far stronger than even the strongest good ones. Various studies (p.326) reveal long-term harmful consequences of child abuse or sexual abuse, including depression, relationship problems, revictimization, and sexual dysfunction, even if the abuse occurred only once or twice. These effects seem more durable than any comparable positive aspect of childhood. It also seems doubtful, although difficult to prove, that a single positive event could offset the harm caused by a single episode of violent or sexual abuse, whereas the single negative event can probably undo the benefits of many positive interactions.

Speaking of sex, is there a greater source of male anxiety than that? Consider this: Ample evidence suggests that a single bad experience in the sexual domain can impair sexual functioning and enjoyment and even have deleterious effects on health and well-being for years afterward. You’d think that such a bad experience can be compensated for by previous subsequent good experiences. Think again: There is no indication that any good sexual experience, no matter how good, can produce benefits in which magnitude is comparable to the harm caused by the single bad one. I can drive one to drink or, maybe worse, to the monastery; bad choices both, and no studies to objectively assess which is worse.


What about relationships?

People satisfied with their relationships communicate with more positive verbal behaviors (e.g., agreement, confirmation, constructive problem solving, politeness, expressing forgiveness) and nonverbal behaviors (e.g., smiling, head nodding, caring, or concerned voice). On the contrary, people dissatisfied with their relationships communicate with more negative verbal behaviors (e.g., insults, threats, or criticisms) and nonverbal behaviors (e.g., frowning or speaking in a cold hard voice).

According to an essay published by Arun Bhardwaj,

“John Gottman and his colleagues videotaped married couples in the laboratory and at home as they talked about a wide variety of topics such as how their day went, the nutritional value of certain foods, marital problems in general, and specific conflicts in their relationship. They then coded the couple’s behaviors in categories (e.g., verbal, nonverbal, positive, and negative). The findings indicated that the presence or absence of negative behaviors was more strongly related to the quality of couples’ relationships than the presence or absence of positive behaviors. Evidence that ‘bad’ is stronger than ‘good’ in marital reactions is unanimous. All in all, the evidence is fairly clear and unanimous in indicating that relationships are more affected by bad events than good ones. On the basis of these results, Gottman (1994) has proposed a revealing diagnostic index for evaluating relationships: He proposed that in order for a relationship to succeed, positive and good interactions must outnumber the negative and bad ones by at least five to one.”

So, my friends, I hope you find it useful to have an estimation of how much good you need to have to balance out the bad, which reminds me of a Bedouin custom. If one wants to marry the daughter of a tribesman, he has to pay a price in camels. If he then kills his wife, he has to pay 10 fold in camels or his life is as good as finished. Another quantification of bad vs. good.

The take-home lesson: Don’t worry so much about being good, just avoid being bad because, otherwise, there will be hell to pay.


Evolutionary postscript

From an evolutionary point of view, this is clear. Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it could be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond more strongly to bad than to good. If this were so, however, one might expect to see some evidence that the brain processes bad or unpleasant information differently than it does good information. And indeed, some exist. Several EEG studies point to the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain as the locus for analyzing and vetting bad (unfavorable) information. No counterpart for analyzing good (favorable) information has been found, which appears to attest to the importance Mother Nature attaches to avoiding bad decisions.

Disclaimer: The implications of these insights are of personal, societal, political, and policy-making import. But that’s another story.
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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