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Publisher, Skeptic magazine; Monthly Columnist, Scientific American; Presidential Fellow, Chapman University; Author, Heavens on Earth
Negativity Bias

One of the most understated effects in all cognitive science is the psychology behind why negative events, emotions, and thoughts trump by a wide margin those that are positive. This bias was discovered and documented by the psychologists Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman in 2001, showing that across almost all domains of life, we seem almost preternaturally pessimistic:

• Negative stimuli command more attention than positive stimuli. In rats, for example, negative tastes elicit stronger responses than positive tastes. And in taste aversion experiments a single exposure to a noxious food or drink can cause lasting avoidance of that item, but there is no corresponding parallel with good tasting food or drinks.

• Pain feels worse than no pain feels good. That is, as the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it, “we feel pain, but not painlessness.” There are erogenous zones, Rozin and Royzman point out, but no corresponding torturogenous zones.

• Picking out an angry face in a crowd is easier and faster to do than picking out a happy face.

• Negative events lead us to seek causes more readily than do positive events. Wars, for example, generate endless analyses in books and articles, whereas peace literature is paltry by comparison.

• We have more words to describe the qualities of physical pain (deep, intense, dull, sharp, aching, burning, cutting, pinching, piercing, tearing, twitching, shooting, stabbing, thrusting, throbbing, penetrating, lingering, radiating, etc.) than we have to describe physical pleasure (intense, delicious, exquisite, breathtaking, sumptuous, sweet, etc.).

• There are more cognitive categories for and descriptive terms of negative emotions than positive. As Leo Tolstoy famously observed in 1875: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

• There are more ways to fail than there are to succeed. It is difficult to reach perfection and the paths to it are few, but there are many ways to fail to achieve perfection and the paths away from it are many.

• Empathy is more readily triggered by negative stimuli than positive: People identify and sympathize with others who are suffering or in pain more than they do others who are in a state happier or better off than them.

• Evil contaminates good more than good purifies evil. As the old Russian proverb says, “A spoonful of tar can spoil a barrel of honey, but a spoonful of honey does nothing for a barrel of tar.” In India, members of the higher castes may be considered contaminated by eating food prepared by members of the lower castes, but those in the lower castes do not receive an equivalent rise upward in purity status by eating food prepared by their upper caste counterparts.

• The notorious “one drop of blood” rule of racial classification has its origin in the Code Noir, or “Negro Code” of 1685, meant to guarantee the purity of the White race by screening out the tainted blood, whereas, note Rozin and Royzman, “there exists no historical evidence for the positive equivalent of a ‘one-drop’ ordinance—that is, a statute whereby one’s membership in a racially privileged class would be assured by one’s being in possession of ‘one drop’ of the racially superior blood.”

• In religious traditions, possession by demons happens quickly compared to the exorcism of demons, which typically involves long and complex rituals; by contrast in the positive direction, becoming a saint requires a life devoted to holy acts, which can be erased overnight by a single immoral act. In the secular world, decades of devoted work for public causes can be erased in an instant with an extra-marital affair, financial scandal, or criminal act.

Why is negativity stronger than positivity? Evolution. In the environment of our evolutionary ancestry there was an asymmetry of payoffs in which the fitness cost of overreacting to a threat was less than the fitness cost of underreacting, so we err on the side of overreaction to negative events. The world was more dangerous in our evolutionary past, so it paid to be risk averse and highly sensitive to threats, and if things were good then taking a gamble to improve them a little bit more was not perceived to be worth the risk of things turning south for the worst.