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  • Tom Birchard

The Allure of Negativity

Do you ever find a long held belief suddenly shaken by a contrarian, often negative viewpoint from an article you’ve read or a friend you’re talking to? Don’t worry you’re not alone, in fact the tendency to overreact to a negative stimulus is anchored deeply in human nature. Throughout much of human history, you’d be well advised to err on the side of caution and do your best to avoid being eaten by a bear or getting caught in a blizzard without proper shelter.

I think there’s something else going on though that makes pessimistic predictions especially appealing. Morgan Housel wrote an article titled “The Seduction of Pessimism” (Link) and in it he refers to what psychologists call the-end-of-history-illusion. This basically states that we as individuals believe we’ve experienced significant growth and changes up to this point but that this won’t continue into the future. In other words we project a sort of static view of ourselves and society in the future that is naturally not well-suited to deal with new challenges, and this makes cynical projections seem especially daunting but also very believable.

The reality is we as individuals and groups do grow and evolve and find new ways to deal with new challenges. Hans Rosling writes in his book “Factfulness” (Link) about 10 reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than we think. One of the reasons he writes about is the negativity instinct which states that exceptional setbacks are more newsworthy than sustained but gradual progress. For example we remember reports of killings or major accidents but downplay the fact that life expectancy has increase over 230% since 1800. The reality is life is getting healthier, more comfortable, and simply better by almost every measure you could come up with but unfortunately for many people it often doesn’t feel that way.

A proper understanding and perspective about why negativity has the allure it does is very important in our current environment. Not to downplay some of the truly tragic things that are currently happening in the world ranging from a global pandemic to significant social injustice, these are real and not acknowledging them at all would be naïve. That being said the major news sources have largely become echo chambers for those already having similar political and other views, and getting objective, truth-based information is becoming increasingly difficult.

So all that being said what is one to do to try to maintain the proper perspective amidst everything going on and hopefully hang onto a tendency towards optimism? One thing I do personally is an app on my phone called The Five Minute Journal which prompts you each day in the morning to list 3 things you’re grateful for and in the evening 3 things that went well that day, among other topics. I think varying your sources of information intake is another good step, perhaps you have a favorite news source but occasionally watch one with a different political stance while also looking to Twitter, podcasts, books, or even conversations with friends or coworkers that can provide alternative perspectives. A final thought would be that even if you can’t control some fear and concerns over things going on in in the broader world, focus first and foremost on your circle of influence. Work to improve your life and the lives of people you come into contact with and don’t lose sleep over things that are outside of your control. This is easier said than done but remember that negativity does have an allure to it, and it takes work to keep a positive perspective and to look towards the future with hope and a sense of peace. I hope everyone has a great week!

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