WHIRL: Bad Is Stronger Than Good

What Have I Read Lately (WHIRL)?

I’ve just read the 48-page survey article entitled ‘Bad Is Stronger Than Good’:

The greater power of bad events over good ones is found in everyday events, major life events, close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.  Hardly any exceptions (indicating greater power of good) can be found. Taken together, these findings suggest that bad is stronger than good, as a general principle across a broad range of psychological phenomena.

The authors refer to an extraordinary array of experiments which show that bad is stronger than good, including:

  • People are more upset about losing $50 than happy about gaining $50. Source
  • We remember bad emotions longer than we remember good ones. Source
  • People have stronger responses to unpleasant odors than to nice ones. Source
  • People learn more quickly from punishment than from reward.  Source
  • Undesirable events had longer lasting effects on mood than desirable ones. Source

Bad is not just a little stronger than good; it may be as much as five times stronger.  For example, research suggests positive interactions in relationships must outnumber the negative ones by at least five to one. If the ratio falls below that, the relationship is likely to fail.

While all of this evidence seems distressing, the authors end the article on an upbeat note:

Although it may seem pessimistic to conclude that bad is stronger than good, we do not think that such pessimism is warranted. As we have suggested, there are several reasons to think that it may be highly adaptive for human beings to respond more strongly to bad than good. In the final analysis, then, the greater power of bad may itself be a good thing. Moreover, 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.

Bad may be stronger than good, but it doesn’t have to define us.

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5 Responses to WHIRL: Bad Is Stronger Than Good

  1. Sebastian Wagner March 25, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    Thanks for summing that up for us!
    (Just trying to start a series of positive comments :-)

  2. Robert E March 26, 2012 at 6:26 am #

    Even though bad may be stronger, an organization is not better served by only focusing on correctives and punishments. While the study shows that people learn more quickly from punishments than rewards, it doesn’t provide a context of what it is that they learn; That learning, and the behavior it triggers, may end up as more defiance than compliance, subtrefuge rather than sincerity.
    I have also found another power of bad – it can wreck your attitude. The more I’ve tried to focus on positives, on the good, the easier it has been to leave the bad behind. And those times when I’ve gotten into wallowing in the effects of, and my observations on the bad, it has only made things more difficult for me.
    So I strongly agree with your last sentence about how bad doesn’t have to define us.

  3. Adrian De Tomas March 26, 2012 at 8:20 am #

    I definitely agree with your last sentence and I believe that this only reinforce the importance of focusing on doing good/right things and taking the time to reflect about the lessons learned from the bad things/mistakes we all made as a natural component, not always desired, from our human essence.

    Good things take a lot of effort and bad things will come whether we wanted or not. The important is to keep focusing on the good things (to go beyond the 5:1 ratio) and learn from the bad ones, to not repeat them.

    I do not want to leave a legacy of bad things behind me and I would like to always be remembered for the good ones.

  4. Above Odds April 4, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    Wow I never thought about it like that, but it tends to be true. But I believe we make a conscious decision on how we react to bad and good situation. We need to make that decision to on how we react.

  5. Arun Krishnaswamy April 5, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    To get a 5:1 boost of good over bad, I found a HBR article Jan-Feb 2012 : ‘Creating Sustainable Performance’ very revealing. It shares some ways of how employees can be happy and productive despite the ‘bad over good drag’. It starts out saying happy means ‘thriving’ and to thrive, one needs 2 things: ‘vitality’ and ‘learning’. Self motivation to learn and opportunities to apply what is learnt and it is a virtuous cycle. Goes on to talk of 4 mechanisms (ALL 4 are needed) an organization can do to help employes thrive:
    - provide decision making discretion (empowerment)
    - sharing information (that ‘empowers’ empowerment)
    - minimizing incivility (no rudeness, no shaming that creates risk averseness..)
    - offer performance feedback (whether good or bad, provide immediately).
    It is not hard to see why all 4 are needed. Remove any one and it negatively impacts the others and gives way to the natural power bad has over good.

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