Centuries of literary efforts and religious thought have depicted human life in terms of the struggle between good and bad forces. At the metaphysical level, evil Gods are the opponents of the divine forces of creation and harmony. At the individual level, temptation and destructive instincts battle against striving for virtue, altruism, and fulfillment. Good and bad are among the first words and concepts learned by children, and most people can readily characterize almost any experience, emotion, or outcome as good or bad.
Which form does this eternal conflict take in psychology?
Unfortunately, in the real life things look a little different. In real life, “Bad” mostly is stronger than “Good”. I am not talking about a metaphysical power struggle here, of course. I am talking about psychological phenomena. Roy Baumeister, a highly acclaimed social psychologist, has written an article titled “Bad is Stronger than Good”. He and his team have gathered tons of empirical evidence on a wide array of psychological mechanisms to lend support to this stance.
On the pre-conscious level, we pay more attention to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli. Moreover, negative information is processed more thoroughly than positive information. This can be demonstrated even on the level of neural activity. In addition, in terms of impression formation, negative information far outweighs positive information (telling one lie can make you a “liar” forever). Also, bad memories are engraved deeper in our brains and can be retrieved more easily. Furthermore, losing a certain amount of money feels worse than winning the same amount of money feels good. Basically, that’s what Kahneman and Tversky got their Nobel prize for in economics in 2002. Similarly, bad events in our lives have a stronger and longer-lasting effect than good events. This is nicely demonstrated by the fact that we do have word for the consequences of very bad events (trauma), but there’s no corresponding term for the positive side of emotional continuum. Likewise, negative feedback has stronger and far-lasting effect on us than positive feedback. Therefore, we put a lot more emphasis on avoiding negative information pertaining to ourselves than focusing on integrating positive information. As well as, in close relationships, one bad event can ruin everything, yet, a lot of positive events cannot save a relationship “forever”. Most significantly, bad parenting has a stronger negative effect on the development of the children than good parenting has on positive development. This list could go on forever and there’s hardly any exception to be found.
Baumeister et al. argue that we may be evolutionary hardwired to put a strong emphasis on negative stimuli in our environment. At the end of the day, 10,000 B.C., it probably was far more “adaptive” (useful for spreading your genes) to be the first person in a group spotting that tooth tiger lurking behind the bush than spotting those sweet blackberry growing on the bush . In other words, there is an all-pervasive negativity bias that influences our thinking and feeling at all times.
So in a sense, every single human being wears the opposite of rose-colored glasses all the time (and mostly without knowing that we do).