The power of the negative

Whenever you hear a story about good vs. evil you always expect the good side to win! Not today! In the story of psychology that NEVER happens! The power of the negative is far stronger than the positive. Beats it down each time! Don’t believe me? Get ready to be disgusted. Imagine a bowl full of fresh, juicy red strawberries and among them is a single cockroach staring right at you! Who won? Ok now imagine a bowl full of cockroaches and among them is one fresh, bright red strawberry! Who won now? Why was that single cockroach more powerful than that single strawberry. That’s the power of the negative.

It seems our brains our hardwired to respond more quickly to threats rather than to opportunities, thanks to our amygdala, also known as the threat center of our brain. And this response mechanism goes far beyond obvious, physical threats to our environment. Symbolic threats get treated the same way. The implications of this mechanism are profound to say the least. Take relationships for example. Can you imagine how negative experiences fare versus positive ones? Psychologists suggest a ratio of five positive experiences to counter the effects of one negative one. So now you know. If you want your relationships to be positive you have to keep that ratio in check!

This same idea was tested for many different scenarios. One is these scenarios is the behavior of cab drivers. How avoiding the negative is far more motivating than the reward of the positive! Picture this. Taxi drivers usually have daily targets. So a target that is a challenge in normal days can be  easily met on a rainy day. Logically therefore Taxi drivers should work longer hours on rainy days and go beyond their target allowing them to cut some slack on a normal day that is not going so well. But owing to the power of the negative they in fact behave in just the opposite manner. They call it a day early on a rainy day when their target is met but work extra hours to make sure they don’t miss their target on a normal day. This irrationality is the power of the negative. The feeling of not meeting the goal.

Surprisingly another interesting experiment was conducted among golfers and this same dominance of avoiding the negative was observed. In golf there is this concept of hitting a birdie (which is one under par) and a bogey (which is one over par). Which one do you think motivates a golfer more? Research found that golfers put in extra effort to avoid a bogey, which is a big negative for a pro golfer, but not as much focus and attention to hit a birdie. Just looking at Tiger Wood’s performance it is estimated that if he would have put in the same amount of effort going after a birdie as he did to avoid a bogey then he would improved his earnings by $1 million for every season. From a motivational perspective to get the best out of someone the idea that there is a reward for achieving a goal is not going to be as effective as stating that a reward has been pre-earned but if performance is not up to target then that reward would be lost. If this research is to go by the result from this mental switch should lead to a far better performance.

However, there is one interesting situation when this idea of loss aversion can make things very difficult. And that are negotiations. The problem with negotiations are the nature of how they are setup. Both parties have to give up something to get something. By now we know we value what we are giving up more than what we are gaining and if both parties are going to feel this way, which they do, then you can understand why negotiations can be so challenging. So the next time you feel this strong urge not to give in to get what you want you should know why!

This is another one of my posts inspired from the book “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. It is great read that is full of such insights on the human mind from the study of Behavioral Economics. Some of those insights I have covered earlier in this post here. Be sure to check it out!

Feature image by Sharon Mollerus used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 

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