There are more negatively-loaded words than positive ones — so what?

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

The Power of Bad (And How to Overcome It) John Tierney and Roy E. Baumeister

Allen Lane, pp.325, £20

Negativity has a power over us. You know how it is. One bad thing can ruin your whole day, even if the day has been otherwise full of good or non-bad things. Infants react more quickly to an image of a snake than a frog, or unhappy or angry faces than happy ones. Then again, I reacted more strongly to Roy E. Baumeister’s face on the back flap of the book than I did to John Tierney’s, because Baumeister has a beard and a broad grin that suggests high self-esteem. And why not? He’s written or co-written more than a dozen books (first title, Meanings of Life) while Tierney has written only three.

The aim of the book is to get us to compensate for the brain’s natural reaction to see the worst in everything. It scolds our lawmakers for making hasty legislation (such as making it tougher to prescribe opioid painkillers, on the back of a scare over their misuse, therefore making thousands of people’s lives more painful, and increasing the use of illegal or more dangerous substances); or for making terrorism seem a greater threat than it actually is; or for doom-saying over climate change. Which will be a great comfort to anyone who has been burned out of their home in Australia. The boy who cried ‘wolf’ was eventually right.

The negativity bias, as it is called, is everywhere, even where you don’t expect to find it. What are we to draw in conclusion to the fact that there is no opposite to the word ‘murderer’? The authors make a meal of this (looking at the notes for cited papers it seems that others have, too) and the fact that there are more negatively loaded words than positively loaded with no opposite. So what? This may be more of a linguistic observation than a psychological one. There’s no opposite to ‘dentist’ but I don’t see anyone getting a paper out of that.

Then again, social psychologists can get papers out of anything. They can certainly act in twisted ways. Take Sandra Murray and John Holmes, who, in order to fill 12 pages of a 2013 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, brought in a number of couples who had been going out for an average of a year and a half. They sat them back to back, told them not to communicate with each other, and handed them each a sheet of paper. One person was told to list everything that annoyed them about their partner. The other was told to list every possession they could think of in their home. They had five minutes. The person asked to list the partner’s faults stopped soon enough, but had most of five minutes to listen to the other’s frantic scribbling. They had previously been tested for levels of self-esteem; those with high self-esteem shrugged it off. Those with low self-esteem ‘reacted strongly to the presumed cascade of criticisms’. Well, what do you know? (‘The partners were later informed of the deception,’ write Tierney and Baumeister, ‘so nobody went home unhappy.’ I’m not so sure. I bet quite a few people went home with burning desire to punch the next social psychologist they met in the face.)

Books like this like to draw in all sorts of interesting examples in order to make them zip along, even if they don’t, when you stand back a bit, have all that much to do with the ostensible subject. It is great fun here to read of ‘Fearless’ Felix Baumgartner, who jumped to Earth from a height of 24 miles, but only after conquering his claustrophobic fear of his pressure suit. I particularly liked it when they quoted Stephen Potter (Oneupmanship, etc.) on the art of writing a book review: ‘Show that it is really you who should have written the book, if you had had the time, and since you hadn’t, you are glad that someone has, although obviously it might have been done better.’

Well, I don’t think I could have written this book better, if at all, for an enormous number of reasons, but at least I can pass on the book’s major findings and revelations. Here goes. Being in a bad mood can improve your memory. Aspirin helps not just for headache, but for heartbreak. (Hmm.) Indulging nostalgia in a cold room can actually warm you up. ‘List your blessings.’ (Thus avoiding the corny phrase ‘count your blessings’.) Being a ‘good-enough’ parent or teacher is all you need. Just don’t be bad. Talk about your problems. ‘Change the narrative.’ That is, look on a sacking — or a life-changing injury — as an opportunity to start out ‘on a new path’. There, look, I’ve saved you £20.

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