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.