The power of bad (Roy Baumeister & John Tierney)

Roy Baumeister (a social psychologist, now associated with Queensland University in Australia) has been exploring the core theme of this book - negativity bias (bad things tend to overshadow good things in human lives) – for decades. In 2011, he and John Tierney (a contributing editor to City Journal and column writer for the New York Times) collaborated on a book named Willpower about how self-restraint (with a focus on dietary habits) can pay off. The Power of Bad takes an analogous approach to making the negativity bias work for us rather than against us in “the consumption of information.”

There are many examples of the negativity bias in action. A negative incident at work or a thoughtless comment in a marital spat may be very difficult to live down. One flub in a job interview may be fatal, even though the rest of the interview went well. There is a perception of an escalating epidemic of gun violence, yet statistics show we’re more likely to be killed by bathroom slips and falls. People complain they can’t make ends meet, yet our society is enjoying unprecedented prosperity. A few negative on-line reviews for a hotel can cancel out the praise of other patrons. Football coaches could improve their chances if they rethought the strategy of routinely punting on 4th down. Unwarranted concerns about the intentions of other parties lead nations into disastrous wars that could have been honorably avoided. Etc.

And there are good reasons for the negativity bias, in that our forbears were putting their lives at risk by failing to heed troubling signs that could warn of impending disaster. In the modern world, with our vastly improved technology, such genuinely existential threats are statistically less significant.

So if the negativity bias contributes to unfortunate or at least sub-optimal results, what can be done about it? One answer is that things will eventually come back into balance if there is a preponderance of good results over bad, and research indicates a favorability ratio of two or three to one may suffice for that purpose (a “rule of four” is suggested to provide a margin of safety). That’s not to say a concern about failures is inappropriate, but we don’t want to be obsessed with them.

The lapse of time can be helpful, because the human mind tends to soften bad memories in hindsight while accentuating the positive. Experience is a great teacher as well. If it’s not your “first rodeo,” you will probably be better able to put the risks and rewards in perspective.

A special challenge is the “crisis crisis,” meaning apocalyptical theories – which typically involve a fear that favorable circumstances won’t last because we’re going to run out of something. Some examples: human population increase will outstrip our ability to grow food, leading to mass starvation (Thomas Malthus at the start of the Industrial Revolution, which ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity) – peak oil (growing consumption of oil will outstrip our ability to find and develop petroleum reserves, resulting in a catastrophic run-up in prices and economic collapse) – manmade global warming (CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels will lead to a catastrophic increase in global temperatures).

Such theories typically favor the interests of the proponents, but they may not prove helpful for society generally.
“Because the Crisis Crisis is a collective-action problem, the typical individual has no incentive to debunk the doomsayers or resist the growth of power in Washington, while journalists and lobbyists and the rest of the crisis industry have every incentive to keep stoking fears. They can’t be expected to give up their jobs voluntarily.”

But we could at least reward politicians when they speak rationally about risk, encourage analysts who put problems in perspective, and find ways to cut the profits of doomsaying.

Snopes.com is praised for disproving many urban legends (personally, we don’t think the site is as impartial as it’s said to be); perhaps similar depositories could be established for prophecies of doom (easier said than done, apostates are not necessarily appreciated).

When there’s supposedly a huge problem requiring immediate action to avoid catastrophe, consider appointing a commission to study the matter while the anxiety level subsides. More deliberate action – fewer mistakes.

And please, no more of these terrorist memorials and nonstop publication of the terrorist actions that give the terrorists what they wanted, “eternal glory.”

In our view, this book does a better job of documenting the power of bad than demonstrating how to make good win in the end. Our overall rating is three stars.

Review posted on Amazon,
1/22/20.
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