It is easier, say Rozin and Royzman, to pollute than to purify. Adding some of your favourite spices to rotting meat will not make it palatable, but a cockroach crawling across the table is enough to put you off your dinner. A nice evening is easily ruined by an insensitive comment, while a bad night is difficult to save despite many encouraging words. A poorly written song is hard to fix, but an oboe out of tune can ruin a symphony. You get the idea.
These are all examples of what Rozin and Royzman call negative contagion and negative contagion is itself an example of the general principle that bad is stronger than good. This principle is called the negativity bias, and Rozin and Royzman summarize it this way (p. 297): “The principle, which we call negativity bias, is that in most situations, negative events are more salient, potent, dominant in combinations, and generally efficacious than positive events.”
Royzin and Royzman’s (2001) review, along with Baumeister et al’s (2001) of the same year, cover a wide range of experiments that compare a bad thing with a good thing and determine that the bad is stronger. According to Baumeister et al (p.323), the negativity bias “may in fact be a general principle or law of psychological phenomenon…” They concluded that the bad is stronger than the good in every area of life that they considered.
The negativity bias has become the received wisdom among psychologists and neuroscientists who study affective experiences—those that feel good or bad. It is accepted as ranging over events, outcomes, emotions, and experiences across virtually every domain. Anything bad that happens to you is taken to be stronger than some corresponding good thing that happens to you. Any good feeling that you have is taken to be weaker than some corresponding bad feeling that you have.
What it means for the good and bad things being tested to correspond means that they must have the same hedonic magnitude: they must be good or bad to the same degree. No one thinks that something bad to any degree is always stronger than something good to any degree. It would be surprising if a slight insult had a stronger impact than a major promotion or if losing your job didn’t have a greater impact than getting a compliment. The negativity bias says that even when the bad and good are equal, the bad is stronger.
Many things about the negativity bias might trouble us. What exactly, for instance, does it mean to say that the bad is stronger than the good? Is the principle really supposed to apply in just the same way to the things we feel as to the things that happen to us? I think some basic questions like these raise serious problems for the negativity bias.
I can’t raise or address all these problems here, but I will focus on one of the biggest problems for the negativity bias: determining just how good or bad each particular experience is. Researchers in the studies offered in support of the negativity bias have usually tried to make sure that they compare two things that are equally good or bad. They have often attempted, that is, to control for hedonic magnitude. But this isn’t always easy to do and it’s hard to know when it’s been done right.
So, for instance, Baumeister et al offer evidence from Brickman et al (1978), who found that the effects of being paralyzed were longer lasting than the effects of winning the lottery. Though Baumeister note (p.328) that “There is no way to ascertain objectively that winning a lottery is comparable in magnitude to becoming paralyzed by an accident,” they still go ahead and use this study as evidence for the negativity bias. A bad thing (being paralyzed) had longer lasting effects than a good thing (winning the lottery), and they conclude that this helps prove that bad is stronger than good.
Like the authors, I have my doubts that the good and bad in this case are really to the same degree; I’m not convinced that the goodness of winning the lottery is equivalent to the badness of becoming paralyzed. My doubts, however, lead to me to think that that it isn’t appropriate to use this case as evidence for the negativity bias as they do. When I read through the evidence, I find myself having these sorts of doubts about much of the offered evidence.
Things with some other objective magnitude are usually considered to be the least controversial cases of things that are good and bad to the same degree. In particular, the clearest cases are supposed to be those involving money. So, for instance, to test the negativity bias it is considered to be safe to compare the effects of winning £20 to the effects of losing £20. Even in this kind of case, however, it is not clear to me that winning money and losing money are good and bad to the same degree—even if the amount of money being won and lost is the same.
Going further, I doubt that most experience can easily be assigned a single degree of goodness or badness. That’s because most things that happen to us are good in some ways and bad in others. We might put this point as saying that most events, experiences, outcomes, and even emotions, are hedonically complex.
This complexity is often true for both mundane and momentous things. Eating lunch might involve good tofu, but bad peanut sauce. Dinner might involve tasty salami combined with guilty thoughts of clogging arteries and suffering animals. A friend last week described his experience of recently losing his job as a mixture of good and bad emotions: some disappointment, yes, but also a considerable amount of relief. It is hard to think of many momentous experiences that are not bad in some ways, and good in others.
If this is right, then Baumeister et al are wrong when they write (p.323): “‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are among the first words and concepts learned by children (and even by house pets), and most people can readily characterize almost any experience, emotion, or outcome as good or bad.” Instead, many of the things that happen to us are difficult to label as good or bad because they are hedonically complex.
Testing the negativity bias requires that we determine not only whether our complex experiences are good or bad, but how good or bad they all are on some single hedonic scale so that we can compare them. Not only is this more difficult than I think has been realized in the literature, but it might be inappropriate to attempt these comparisons.
As an analogy, consider the two following paintings.
There are many ways these paintings can be compared, but would it be appropriate to ask you to compare which painting is more blue than the other? Well, maybe.
To answer, you could try to assign single values for blueness based on the percentage of the surfaces that are blue. Say a painting that had a surface that was 70% blue could be assigned a 7, 40% a 4, and so on. Each painting could then be assigned an overall blue magnitude that would allow us to compare the blueness of the paintings. You could then say when a painting was, on the whole, more blue than another and when two paintings are, on the whole, equally blue.
On the other hand, it may be better to deny that either of these paintings, on the whole, are blue at all. It might, that is, be better to insist that only portions of the painting are blue—and, indeed, some particular shade of blue.
And, notice, no matter how we choose to talk about the blueness of the painting, that won’t make it true that the painting, as a whole, is blue and no other colour.
We might want to say the same sort of thing about hedonically complex experiences. It might be best to insist that only certain aspects of our experiences are good or bad—and, indeed, good or bad in some particular way. It might, that is, be best to deny that experiences, as a whole, are good or bad to some degree.
And, notice, no matter how we choose to talk about the goodness or badness of our experiences, that won’t make it true that our experiences, as a whole, are good and not at all bad or vice versa.
If we resist attaching simple “good” and “bad” labels to our experiences, we might be more likely to appreciate how complex they really are. We might then be more sympathetic to a friend who is feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and not entirely good, despite getting a big promotion or welcoming a new baby. We might then be less judgemental of the neighbour who is feeling relieved and rejuvenated and not entirely bad, despite going through a messy divorce or losing a loved one. In our own case, we might be more receptive to the idea that difficult times we are going through nonetheless have many positive aspects.
As I mentioned, I think that there are many problems with the negativity bias. One reason I’m sceptical, though, is that I’m sceptical that most events, outcomes, experiences, and emotions are simply good or bad to some degree. In my experience, good and bad usually arrive together.