Saturday, March 24, 2012

Not a news flash, but important: negative experiences are more potent than positive ones

In today's New York Times, business writer Alina Tugend (quoted elsewhere on this site) takes up a topic we know well on this site - the potency of negative experiences, and their ability to outweigh seemingly equal positive ones ("Praise Is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall"). A key excerpt:

Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, captured the idea in the title of a journal article he co-authored in 2001, “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” which appeared in The Review of General Psychology. “Research over and over again shows this is a basic and wide-ranging principle of psychology,” he said. “It’s in human nature, and there are even signs of it in animals,” in experiments with rats.

As the article, which is a summary of much of the research on the subject, succinctly puts it: “Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”

Tugend also quotes one of our favorite authors, Teresa Amabile, describing the research that formed the basis for her book The Progress Principle:

“We found that of all the events that could make for a great day at work, the most important was making progress on meaningful work — even a small step forward,” said Professor Amabile.... “A setback, on the other hand, meant the employee felt blocked in some way from making such progress. Setbacks stood out on the worst days at work.”

After analyzing some 12,000 diary entries, Professor Amabile said she found that the negative effect of a setback at work on happiness was more than twice as strong as the positive effect of an event that signaled progress. And the power of a setback to increase frustration is over three times as strong as the power of progress to decrease frustration.

“This applies even to small events,” she said.

Learning from mistakes, missteps, bad experiences, etc., is so powerful because mistakes "make a deep imprint," in the words of Paul Schoemaker. The warm glow of success can cause us, by contrast, to soften and shrug off what we could have learned. Don't we want to use bad experiences to our greatest benefit?

It's not directly mentioned in the article, but I'll add that a sense of humor, especially with respect to oneself, is a significant help when it comes to accepting and learning from negative experiences.

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