John Tierney (@johntierneynyc) is an award-winning science columnist for The New York Times, and he’s the co-author of The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.
[Featured photo by Jamie Meggas]
What We Discuss with John Tierney:
- What is negativity bias, and why does even a small dose of it have the power to overwhelm even our greatest reserves of positivity?
- How can we psychologically overcome this innate negativity bias?
- How we can watch the news (especially during an election year) without succumbing to deep despair at the state of the world by consuming what John calls a low-bad diet.
- Why the worst person at your workplace has the power to passively drag the whole team down beyond the abilities of the best person to bring it up.
- The negative golden rule — it’s what you do not do unto others that really matters.
- And much more…
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It’s strange when you think about it. You might get 10 adoring compliments on a post you made to social media, but it’s the one derogatory comment made by some anonymous troll that draws your focus and sticks forevermore in memory. You remember all the crappy things your boss has said over the past 10 years, but you forget that — on most days — he’s nothing but encouraging. Why do we do this to ourselves? Well, it’s called the negativity bias, and we’ve evolved this way to keep out of danger and stay alive. But is the negativity bias just a relic of our cave-dwelling past? Does it still serve a purpose? How can we harness it and get it going in our favor?
In today’s episode, science writer and The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It co-author John Tierney explains not only why we have this bias, but how it’s being weaponized against us by media and news outlets, and what we can do to reverse and even win the battle of the bad. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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THANKS, JOHN TIERNEY!
If you enjoyed this session with John Tierney, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at email@example.com.
Resources from This Episode:
- The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister
- Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney
- John Tierney’s Website
- John Tierney at Twitter
- John Tierney at Facebook
- Roy Baumeister, The University of Queensland School of Psychology
- Bad Is Stronger Than Good by Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs, Review of General Psychology
- To Tame Coronavirus, Mao-Style Social Control Blankets China, The New York Times
- Matt McCarthy | The Race to Stop a Superbug Epidemic, TJHS 222
- How Claustrophobia Nearly Grounded Supersonic Skydiver Felix Baumgartner, Wired
- Bill Buckner 1986 World Series Game 6 “Between the Legs”
- He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
- Tank’s Good News
Transcript for John Tierney | Harnessing the Power of Bad (Episode 312)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:02] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. As always, I'm here with producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most brilliant and interesting people, and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. We want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave and expose you to some of the latest research and technology. We want you to become a better thinker. If you're new to the show, we've got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes and authors, thinkers and performers, as well as toolboxes for skills like negotiation, public speaking, body language, persuasion, and more. So if you're smart and you like to learn and improve, then you'll be right at home here with us.
[00:43:00] It's strange when you think about it. We might get 10 compliments on something, but just one negative review or comment. And yet that's what we focus on. We remember all the crappy things our boss has said to us over the past 10 years, but we forget that on most days, he's nothing but encouraging. Why do we do this to ourselves? Well, it's called the negativity bias, and we've evolved that way to keep out of danger and stay alive. But is the negativity bias just a relic of our cave human past? Does it still serve a purpose? How can we harness it and get it going in our favor? In today's conversation, science writer John Tierney explains not only why we have this bias, but how it's been weaponized against us by media and news outlets, and what we can do to reverse and even win the battle of the bad.
[00:01:28] If you want to know how I managed to book all these amazing folks, it's about who's in my network. If you don't have your own show, I understand that, but you should have a network for both professional and personal reasons. I highly recommend it. It's been life-changing for everybody that puts it together here. Six-Minute Networking is our free course on networking. Not enter-your-credit-card free, but free-free. That's over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show actually subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, and you'll be in great company. Here we go with John Tierney.
[00:02:01] You know, there's a lot of books now, and I'm sure you've noticed this. They're like, it's a science book, it's full of research, but it's really like a life coach writing about their anecdotal evidence from their five clients that they have so that they can write a book that they can get, you know, 50 clients. It's not science. It's not actual science or their lab is their apartment where they have a virtual assistant doing spreadsheets and it's like, "I'm running a lab experiment. I have five of my closest friends running this experiment." It's completely scientific.
John Tierney: [00:02:30] Right. Or one study that they read about online somewhere and throw that in too as a little ballast.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:37] "The abstract says this, so I'm just going to assume that supports this conclusion that I thought of on the subway this morning and throw it into the book chapter." There's a lot of that. You've been writing about science, like real science for a while, and this topic is pretty interesting. Negativity bias is something I think a lot of people don't realize exists, and I think that's what makes it probably the most problematic. What do you think?
John Tierney: [00:02:59] People are just not aware of, I mean, social scientists didn't know about it until fairly recently. It was a strange thing where they knew about a few things. Being back in the '80s, economists documented, they did experiments about loss aversion, and they found that people care a lot more about losing money than they do about making money, and you had to offer them kind of twice as much money to make up for a loss. They realized that people valued losses more than gains.
[00:03:22] And then there were some studies too, showing that first impressions -- a bad first impression is a lot stronger than a good first impression. So there were these isolated findings, but my co-author Roy Baumeister, who's just a great social psychologist, he's written in so many different areas. He's one of the most quoted social psychologists in the world. He got kind of intrigued by those two little things, and then he started looking around. Then he decided, let's do a paper and see when good things are stronger and find out when bad things are stronger. We'll try and figure out why that happens and notice a pattern.
[00:03:54] And what he discovered, they looked through all of the literature in psychology and sociology and economics of various fields, and they just could not find examples of good being stronger than bad. A bad emotion or a bad event had much more power than a good emotion or a good event. And so that's the negativity bias or the negativity effect. We realize it intuitively to some extent; people know that if someone gives you a lot of compliments and one bit of criticism, you go home obsessing about the criticism and you forget the compliments. But people don't realize -- and social scientists didn't know it either -- just how widespread this is, that it just extends across all domains.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:32] What are some common examples of the negativity bias in action? One is news, and we'll go up against that in a little bit. Is there anything sort of in our day-to-day life, that's not just, "I remember all the bad things that happened in the news." I mean, can we think of a few that we maybe encounter every day because I'm imagining the listener at home or in their car going, "I don't know if I do that." And it's like, well, yeah, you do, you read Yelp or whatever.
John Tierney: [00:04:56] I mean, when people are shopping online and they're looking at reviews -- we have a chapter on online negativity -- they're much more influenced by the bad reviews. You know, a lot of people go straight there, and even if they don't, they're reading them and that one bad review just has so much more impact in a good review, even when it may not be a particularly intelligent review. In reading comments to your own posts, if you're seeing people comment, you know that one negative comment will just stick with you in a way that the good ones don't.
[00:05:20] There've been a lot of experiments showing things that when you walk into a room and you see a bunch of faces, you naturally focus first on the face with the hostile expression. And you miss all the friendly smiles. I mean, our brain is wired to pay attention to bad things first. There's a good reason. It helped our ancestors survive. It's adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint. You got to stay alert to threats because life has to win every day. Death only has to win once. So it's important to pay attention to that.
[00:05:49] Well, what we don't realize is how we're just surrounded in such a high, bad environment today. You turn on the news or you look at social media. It's people sniping at each other. It's people trying to sell you things, telling you that there's something wrong with you. The easiest way to get your attention is. There's something negative that you know something's going wrong, you're in danger, there's a risk, you've done something wrong. That's the easiest way to get your attention, and there are all these folks out there trying to do that all day long. The merchants of bad, as we call them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:20] That's a little scary because it probably reinforces -- does it reinforce the negativity bias or does it just work in concert with the negativity bias? For example, if the headline is "Three reasons you might be getting the coronavirus this week" or something like that, which if you're listening to this in like three years, that's the latest sort of viral scare out of China and is very timely right now, it's literally going on right now. And so people would maybe go, "Oh, my gosh, I don't want to get the coronavirus. I better read all about this. I've got a friend who's coming back from a vacation in China. Maybe they have it," even though they're 3,000 miles away on the other side of the country. Does it play in context with the negativity bias or do we get more negative because we're seeing more negative things? Does that question make sense? It's a little convoluted.
John Tierney: [00:07:05] Yes, it does. And you've actually hit on a point there. Researchers study this cascading effect where it feeds on itself. Folks who are scaring you, and as a journalist, I'm in the first group that's guilty of this. You know, journalists are always trying to scare mass audiences with, "Here's some awful news. There's a new virus in China. It's going to kill you. There's a hurricane coming." There's whatever. We love to scare people. Researchers talk about the availability bias, which is that we're scared of things when a readily available image of it comes to mind. So a terrorist attack, we can visualize them very easily because we see them on the news all the time. We've seen the endless things of 9/11, so stuff that we've heard about a lot and seen images of, that's available in our mind. So it was very easy. Once you've been exposed to the scare, it's very easy to just trigger that once again. So once this virus gets in the news and suddenly you're very sensitive to it. And then the more scared people get, the more coverage there is because the journalists know, "God, people are really interested in this. They're really afraid of this." Now, only a few people have gotten this virus so far. If the past is any guide, there are always new viruses and they can be dangerous. But in general, there was the ebola virus and a series of other ones that were all predicted to be this unstoppable disaster. Some people are hit by them, but most people are not.
[00:08:28] And the good news overall that you don't hear in all these stories is that our capabilities of dealing with these threats are so much vaster than they used to be. I mean, thinking of polio was around for thousands of years before a vaccine was developed. Since then, AIDS was a real scourge, but within a couple of decades that was brought under control. And now with genetic techniques, we can build tools against these viruses more quickly than ever. So yes, there will always be problems, and this virus is a genuine problem for some people, but it's not going to be something that's wiping out humanity, which is the kind of spectre that we're always getting. The killer virus that sweeps across and causes the new black plague.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:039:07] That is always good to hear. Of course, we do know there are superbugs and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and we know that. I did a show about this with Dr. Matt McCarthy. Unfortunately, that is also used by, well, journalists like to scare the crap out of us like "You're going to get MRSA," or whatever it's called it that strain of staph that is in hospitals that kills a lot of patients, and it's like, "Well, this is a different type of thing." Luckily, this particular virus happened in China where they can basically say, "Hey, no one's allowed to leave this entire city and we're sending in the army. Whereas here, that would be huge -- I mean, we'd be litigating that for 17 years in the Supreme Court.
John Tierney: [00:09:46] That's right. No, I mean, there are always going to be problems. There are billions of people living in their natural problems. There are problems that arise between people, but in emphasizing the power of bad is not to let the negativity overwhelm you, and that when you stop and look at long-term trends, everything's getting better basically. The assets of you being killed by a virus are lower than ever. People used to die routinely in their 50s in their 40s, 50s, half of the children before the age of five used to die. You know, there's never been a lower risk of premature death, of dying young, of death by violence. That's at an all-time low too. Or guys being in a war or being killed by other forms of violence are lower than ever. Life has never been better for most people, but there's always going to be problems. And it's good to pay attention to them. The great long-term trend is that when these problems come along, we deal with them and we usually come up with a solution that leaves us better off in the long run. We have new tools for dealing with future problems.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:44] This is good news, but it seems like my brain won't really want to absorb it or accept it because, I mean, the whole point of your book here, work here, is that bad is stronger than good. That's what the negativity bias is. So are we kind of pissing into the wind here by telling people that, "Hey, your brain is" -- what's that expression? It's like Teflon for the good and Velcro for the bad.
John Tierney: [00:11:06] Oh, I haven't heard that. That's good. I'll remember that. I hadn't heard that. We talked about the rule of four, and this is based on a lot of different studies when they tracked people's moods during the day, people's interactions at work, interactions between spouses who were talking or arguing with each other, and as a general rule of thumb, it takes four good things to overcome one bad thing. So if you're late for one meeting, you're not going to make up for it by being early the next time. And if you say one bit of criticism to someone or something hurtful to someone, you don't make it up by saying one nice thing. Our point is that you can't rewire your brain. Your brain's always going to be wired to pay attention to that, and some of the stuff is just automatic. I mean, you know what kind of face you focus on in the room, this stuff, but you can train it.
[00:11:48] We discuss it in The Power of Bad, for instance, how there are new treatments, including smart using of smartphones, that for people who suffer from crippling social anxiety, they're so nervous to go into their room, and part of the problem is that they look at the faces and they interpret everything negatively. They fixate on the people who look hostile instead of the welcoming ones. They have these exercises to try and train them to start looking for smiles instead of frowns and basically to inner and use their rational brain to overcome that visceral impulse. And that's how civilization advances, we overcome our gut instincts when they're misleading us.
[00:12:25] And in this book, our goal in writing the book was to teach people. How to use the power of bad when it is useful and it can be really useful, but also how to overcome it when it's not -- how to use your cerebral cortex, that rational part of you and overcome it. All animals have this negativity effect. All animals instantly respond much more quickly to bad things and threats than to good things. But humans have this unique ability to override that. The fear of falling is innate. Infants are afraid of this before they can, you know, talk or walk. They're afraid of falling off things, but people can override that and become, you know, devotees of skydiving and bungee jumping. You can train your mind to how to overcome these gut feelings.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:10] Now let's talk about how negativity can actually be useful. This was -- I'm married to a Taiwanese gal named Jen. And her parents are always, they're very Asian and what I mean by that is they're like, "You have to work really hard and you have to do this and you have to do this." And I was talking to Jen because I hear this a lot. And then I'm like, "Wow, were you raised like this?" And she said, "Yeah, you know, Asian parents are kind of notoriously pretty tough on us, especially with school and things like that." And I thought, "Well, now people don't do that." And then I read your book and it's like, "Eh, that kind of works." This whole criticism, penalties can really bring out the best in people. And I thought, oh my gosh, that just flies in the face of all these parenting books I just read that were written, you know, in the last 10 years.
John Tierney: [00:13:53] Right. Well, you know, I mean, it's not a coincidence, I think that Asian students do so well in school. The previous book that I did with Roy Baumeister which is Willpower. We talked about self-control and you look at how children are raised in some of the studies -- I mean it's hard to do a real cross-national -- but the way Asian children are raised, they tend to have better self-control. They're just good at school and things. Much of that is due to the fact that there are consequences for failure. One of the sorriest mistakes in psychology was the self-esteem movement in the 1970s and ‘80s, and the idea was that if you can just boost people's self-esteem, they'll do better. And it turned out that the researchers just had it backward. Yes, successful people have good self-esteem, but it's not the self-esteem that leads to success. It's the success that gives you self-esteem. But because of that movement, it's really been debunked by researchers. The idea that raising kids' self-esteem is the key to helping them flourish, it's been debunked by researchers, but it's still become this reigning philosophy in schools and among parents. So parents and teachers, they're afraid to criticize children. They're afraid to penalize them. Kids have grown up now for the last couple of decades with this. Everybody gets a trophy. Nobody fails. A lot of schools eliminated failing grades. Some of them eliminated grades altogether. We don't have a class rank in high school anymore. The average grade has gone up both in high school and in college. The average grade in colleges is an A-minus now. Teachers, especially in public schools, teachers don't get fired when they do a bad job of teaching.
[00:15:28] So nobody's paying penalties. And we understand why it's more pleasant to give rewards than it is to penalize people. But the research is pretty clear that penalties are more effective than rewards. I mean, you want to have a mix. I mean, you want to give someone praise and criticism. The praise tells them what they're doing right and the criticism tells them what they're doing wrong. But what you really learned from the most is that criticism is out of the necessity of penalty because that really forces you to focus on what needs to be improved. And so we think that children would learn more and workers also do a better job when the penalties were better than bonuses, generally with workers, with teachers, with other things. So the power of bad is really useful in that sense that it really brings out the best in people. And there's really too much fear of the consequences of penalties or the consequences of bad events. I mean, this is part of the negativity effect to it. We overreact to this and think that it's going to be fatal.
[00:16:28] All of us have heard about PTSD, which has been studied to death, and there's this common idea that if you undergo a trauma that it'll scar you permanently and there's nothing you can only do about that. Now, it is true that some people do suffer from PTSD, that they are affected by trauma for a long time, but it's not the norm at all. The majority of people who undergo trauma ultimately emerged stronger. It's called posttraumatic growth, and they say that, "This event really made me stronger in the long run. It made me more capable, more tolerant." So we want people to know that, that just because something bad happens to you, it doesn't mean that you'll be scarred for life. This can actually make you a stronger person the same way that doing bad on a test and getting bad grade forces you to improve.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:16] This is interesting for me because, of course, counterintuitive flies in the face of everything we've learned, supposedly learned in air quotes about education and parenting and me with the new baby. I'm thinking about all this stuff. It's interesting to see and to hear that we need to penalize the kids where they won't learn or they won't be motivated, same with workers, and it does make sense. So this whole, "they'll never learn about the real world." Well, that's also true, but mostly they won't actually even do the real work in school, which is just as bad because that's what they're dealing with right then. Also, an interesting point that you made in the book -- rewards have to be doled out continually, but just the threat of a penalty is actually as effective. You can't offer a reward and receive a benefit from that. You actually have to give the reward, but if you threaten a penalty, you don't actually have to give the penalty. The threat actually is motivating enough. That's big. That's kind of a big deal.
John Tierney: [00:18:13] It's something that social scientists have discovered rather belatedly, although some people, preachers have known about this forever, and so some managers. We tell the story in the book about this factory that was making potato chips where there was this terrible morale and workers were getting fired. And workers started writing absurdities on the potato chips and people to open up their back and potato chips and there'd be this F you on it. And so they sent in someone to try and deal with this. And what he learned was that they had been doing these penalties, but it was really just being done badly where they would let things go on too long. And by the time they actually brought in somebody for disciplinary action, the manager just wanted to fire him and the worker felt he had been treated unfairly. So they brought in the system where they would start warning people earlier and they wouldn't penalize them at first, but they would give them this warning and saying, if it happened a couple of times, they would have them go home for a day and they would say, "We want you to really think about this because we'd like you to stay here, but if this isn't the place for you, just tell us and you can leave. But if this problem happens again, we're going to fire you." So they didn't actually dock him his pay. They didn't suspend him. They just forced them to think about it and held that penalty in front of them that that was the ultimate penalty and it worked. Basically, their morale improved. They had to fire very few people and the workers did shape up.
[00:19:36]The other example we talked about in the book that I find fascinating is the history of Christianity in the United States. If you go back to colonial times, you find that this pattern just keeps recurring where the mainstream churches -- it was congregationalism and Episcopalianism in the colonial days -- their clergy started kind of getting softer. They downplayed the message of penalties of hell, and they preach a more benevolent God, and they deemphasized the threat of eternal damnation. And what happened was people stopped going to church. And then, starting in the 18th century, the Methodist came along with these health hearing preachers and they became the overwhelmingly dominant religion in the United States. And then the Methodist eased up, they got more benevolent and so was health-hearing Baptist and Catholics who became the biggest churches in the US and then some of them soften their message. So recently there have been Pentecostals and Evangelicals who've been growing instead. And that's the idea that you talked about, that the penalty doesn't have to be administered immediately. The threat of hell, that's not an immediate penalty. That's a really long-range one but the threat of that penalty in the future causes people to at least go to church on Sunday. And there's some interesting research, but when they look around the world in different countries, the belief in heaven and hell varies. How many people believe in heaven and how many people believe in hell? And they found that the countries where more people believe in hell have lower crime rates.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:53] That's interesting.
John Tierney: [00:21:04] It seems to deter people. It is the threat of punishment. It goes back to these experiments in the lab too, and one of my favorite ones was when there were these young children, and we're giving them marbles for getting correct answers, but some of the children would receive a marble for every correct answer they gave. The other children would start out with a jar full of marbles and they would have a marble taken away when they got a wrong answer. And it was designed so that at the end, the typical kids should have the same number whether you started with a full jar or nothing, you'd end up with maybe half the jar full. Well, the kids who had the marbles were taken away, who were penalized for failure, learned much faster than the other kids. They ended up with more and marbles as a result.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:48] So that sort of proves that that method of teaching, for example, is better. I want to go back to the countries that have lower homicide rates are the ones that believe more strongly in the concept of heaven or hell. Is that causal or is that just a correlation? Have they developed a causal relationship to that? It seems like it'd be hard to establish that because of course, you could also say, "Yeah. Do you know what they also have? A police state or something like that," you know what I mean.
John Tierney: [00:22:10] No, it's definitely just a correlation. I mean, you can't do a controlled study. What's impressive about it is that this is based on surveys that have been done around the world. I think hundreds of thousands of people who have taken it, so it's not like a small group of college students and they get a little correlation in a lab experiment. It's very big data that they've done this in and you can't prove that it's causation, but it's very suggestive. One version of an experiment, one of the researchers who has studied this, tried to test it in the lab where he had some students come in and they had to do this task on a computer and they were warned that, "There was a glitch in the computer that made it possible to cheat. But please don't exploit the glitch. We're trying to fix it." So, of course, he wants to see which ones cheated. That was the whole point of the experiment. And he had asked the students ahead of time to talk about their religious beliefs, and there were various questions about what, how they conceived God. Did they conceive God is more of this benevolent, very kind deity or did they see him is more of a punishing deity, a stern deity who would punish you for your sins? And when he looked at who cheated and who didn't, he found it didn't make that much difference in if you were male or female. It didn't make that much difference if you were very religious or not religious. But what did make a difference was how you thought of God. And that if you thought of God as this more punishing figure, rather than this sort of very nice benevolent deity, if you thought of God is punishing figure, then you much less likely to cheat on the exam. So that was a correlation too, although it does suggest some causation. It's suggested an explanation for the data we see in all those countries.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:55] Was this done in Muslim countries as well? I'm so curious because hell is kind of a very Christian concept, but an angry God is kind of a universal concept for religions in many ways.
John Tierney: [00:24:06] Yeah, no, I mean, Islam is a very fast-growing religion and they do have a concept of hell there. Religions that believe in hell have tended to spread and grow much more quickly. The ones who don't. So I believe, I don't have the data in front of me, but it's a huge international survey and I think it was dozens and dozens of countries, maybe more than a hundred countries. So I would imagine that it had Muslim countries. I know it had, I think, African, Latin American in it, and I think probably Asia too.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:24:35] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest John Tierney. We'll be right back.
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Jason DeFillippo: [00:27:25] Thanks for listening and supporting the show and to learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard from our amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. Don't forget we have a worksheet for today's episode so you can make sure you solidify your understanding of the key takeaways from John Tierney. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you'd like some tips on how to subscribe to the show, just go to jordanharbinger.com/subscribe. Subscribing to the show is absolutely free. It just means that you get all of the latest episodes downloaded automatically to your podcast player so you don't miss a single thing. And now back to our show with John Tierney.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:02] I do find this to be interesting, and of course, it's one of the reasons that you have theocratic countries in the first place to say, "Look, this place is safer, because everybody believes the same thing, namely that if you do something bad, you're going to be struck down by a higher power." Sometimes that higher power is just the religious police in the case like Saudi Arabia or some of these other countries, but it seems to be working in some way. Now, that's not to say it's a great place to live as a result. I just want to be clear here. Going back to criticism at work and things like this, the negativity at work. You did discuss the criticism sandwich and why this is actually worse than mere criticism itself. Worse than no praise at all as well. So can we talk about this? This is a very common sort of management 101 technique. It turns out to be baloney.
John Tierney: [00:28:49] Criticism is a great way to get people to improve, but most people don't know how to give it properly, including people who give bad news all the time, like doctors. And in the book, we write about how they've studied how doctors give bad news and also how managers do evaluations. And there was this classic technique from the ‘70s and '80s called the criticism sandwich. The idea is that you start off with a lot of nice praise for the employee and tell him what he's done right, then you slip in some criticism, then you get a little more praise on at the end and that's it. It feels good to the manager to do that because most of us when they ask people, if you'd have to criticize someone or if you have to give them good news and bad news, which would you rather do first. And people say, "I'd rather give the good news first." It's a lot more plus from way to start a conversation. But when you ask people how'd they'd like to receive a mix of news, people say, "I'd rather get the bad news first." And that also turns out to be the best way for them to get the whole picture.
[00:29:46] Because what happens when you give someone a bunch of good news and say, "You've been doing this right, this right, and that right, but here's where you fell short." As soon as that criticism hits because of the negativity effect, it's so powerful. It just completely engages your brain and you tend to forget everything that happened before that. Another example is when something really bad happens like your computer crashes. Someone calls up in a panic, "My computer crashed, What can I do?" And they'll say, "What were you doing before it crashed?" And people can't remember because that bad event has jolted their brain so much and they just actually lost the memory of the good stuff before because the brain was so distracted by this.
[00:30:24] So the manager gives out this praise and then a bit of criticism and then a little bit of praise and then he thinks that he's done his job and the workers should feel good because mostly what he gave was praise. But all the worker can remember, he's forgotten all the praise that came, he just remembers that criticism. So it's better, in general, to get the criticism out of the way early. You might want to start the session by saying, you know, you've done a good job this year and we're looking forward to next year so that the worker knows he's not about to be fired. But in general, you want to get to the criticism first, and then once they hear that, then the brain is on high alert, and then it'll actually take into praise. Then you say, "Okay, you did that wrong, but you did these other things great, and here's how we're going to build on your strengths to make next year even better." So you're basically pointing out what's wrong, and that's certainly going to stay with him, but you're also throwing in all the good things.
[00:31:14] And in general, try to remember that rule of four as we call it. That it takes four good things to overcome one bad thing. So don't be afraid of overpraising people. In fact, in the book, we talk about this kind of funny experiment where they show that you can never overpraise people, even the most insincere kind of flattery works. If you've got to give some bad news in the throwing lots of good news with it too, but after you've got the bad out of the way.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:35] We'll throw this formula in the worksheets for this episode so people don't have to rewind and go, "Wait. So what's the formula again? What's the formula again?" We'll throw it in the worksheets, which are always available in the show notes so that you can stop using the compliment sandwich, which actually makes no sense. It's actually a criticism sandwich. And praise people and criticize them in a way that's actually effective and doesn't just result in it bouncing around in their brain and then shooting out their other ear.
[00:32:02] There's another experiment that you detail in the book that I thought was fascinating. It's a cockroach-apple-juice experiment and it kind of details the idea that -- there's an old saying, a spoonful of tar will damn a barrel of honey, but a spoonful of honey does nothing for a barrel full of tar. Can you explain that and deconstruct that? Tell us about what the cockroach-apple-juice experiment actually shows in illustration to this.
John Tierney: [00:32:24] I mean, that's saying is a great example of the negativity effect. The bad is just so much stronger than good. That one little bit of tar ruins a whole barrel of honey and it doesn't work the other way. I mean, that's an old-folks saying that the people have known for a while bit, but it was demonstrated in some clever experiments where they would show people this glass of apple juice and they would put a sterilized cockroach in it and people knew it was sterilized. But after they saw that the people refuse to drink apple juice, I mean, they wouldn't drink it from that glass. It's so revulsive that if they were offered a fresh glass with apple juice poured from a fresh carton and nothing to do with that cockroach at all, they still would refuse to drink it. Their feeling of disgust was so strong that nothing could overcome it.
[00:33:11] But imagine for a minute, that there's some disgusting food that is on a plate. And then someone offered to put your favorite food -- a piece of molten chocolate cake -- and they will put that on top of the disgusting food. Would that make you willing to eat disgusting food? And the answer is no, of course, because it just doesn't work the other way. The negativity effect is enforced. As the researchers put it, there's no anti-cockroach that a cockroach can ruin a really good food, but there's nothing that can rescue a bad food at all. There's nothing so good that it can overcome your revulsion at it.
[00:33:44] And you see this in lots of religious traditions too, where it takes no years of devotion, decades of devotion, in order to become a saint or to become holy, or to become enlightened, but it can all be undone, with one bad act, one demon appears and tempts you, and you've suddenly damned. So there is this idea that bad is so much stronger than good, that it just takes one little bit of it to ruin you, whereas it just doesn't work the other way. There isn't one good thing. And that's true in some ways of life where one act of infidelity can destroy a marriage, but there isn't any one good thing you can do that will guarantee that marriage will last forever.
[00:34:22] And another example is that there's the psychologist who discovered the negativity effect. You know, my co-author Roy Baumeister, he noticed that for most things in psychology, when you're describing emotions and events, you're dealing with opposite. You're happy or sad, you're relaxed or you're anxious, you're angry or you're -- but he noticed the word trauma. Now, trauma is a bad event that affects you long afterward. And he was trying to think, what's the opposite of trauma? What's a good event that would last with you for decades and keep affecting you? And there is no word that means the opposite of trauma because there's no good event that has that lasting impact. One traumatic experience, you know, sexual experiences, some violence. I mean, your youth can stick with some people their whole lives, but no one goes through adulthood fixated on that wonderful day at the zoo. Bad is just stronger that way.
[00:35:18] Now again, we do try to tell people in the book that these things can be overcome. Most people who undergo trauma actually do -- a bad event has so much more impact at the time. It has bad effects at the time. And the message of our book is that bad is stronger, but good can prevail because trauma victims typically respond in so many little positive ways to do that event that over the long haul, the good overwhelms the bad that. Anyone bad event is much stronger, but there are so many more good things that that's how good prevails is with intelligence and by force of numbers that you just do so many good things. That's why the world keeps getting better. There's lots of bad stuff that happens, but on a typical day, there's a lot more than four good things happening for every bad one. That's why life gets better.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:08] Now, how is this reflected in our language? You'd mentioned before, there's no such thing as the opposite of trauma. In our language, you mentioned this in the book as well. There's no opposite of accident. There's no opposite of murderer or killer. There are no opposites to these words. These things are strongly represented in the way that we speak, so it's kind of coded into the human -- I hate overusing this -- but it's like coded into our DNA. It's coded into our society.
John Tierney: [00:36:32] Right. Well, I mean language, which is a great way to reflect that. And my co-author, Roy Baumeister, look for examples and so did Paul Rosen -- who also worked on this -- and they looked for examples of words that have no opposites. The singular nouns, they call them. And they found that there were only about a half dozen of them -- an accident. Most people couldn't think of a word, meaning the opposite of risk. A risk is something that bad will happen. What's the word? Meaning the chance something good will happen. And an accident is another one. And they found that -- that there were just a handful of these things and they were all bad things that there was no opposite for that. That showed you that unique power of bad in those circumstances.
[00:37:17] Another linguistic thing that's been noticed -- and this is not just in English, it's in languages around the world -- that there are a lot more words for bad things than for good things. There are a lot more different words for pain than for pleasure for instance. And that's because these things are so important as our brain is so conditioned to focus on them that we come up with lots of words to describe different kinds of pain, different kinds of this. It's so important to us. That may sound a bit grim, but the good news is -- and we have a chapter in the book called the Pollyanna principle which is that people who study the way language is used have also noticed that although they're more individual words for bad things -- more synonyms for pain -- people in the language that we use all day long, we use a lot more positive words than negative words. And that's kind of our brains' mechanism for overcoming the power of bad that we're accentuating the positive by talking more about it. I think that there's a good social reason for that. I mean, nobody really wants to be around someone who's just negative all the time. It's fairly draining and you do get social rewards for being positive. So I think that's one reason that we tend to do this, and it's our natural weapon against bad. There are bad things out there, they hit our brains hard, we worry about them, but we fight back partly by using more positive works.
[00:38:40] Researchers first noticed this. They would count the number of words in The New York Times and rate them positive or negative. And then, you know, since the advent of big data, they've done these amazing studies where they have just on tens of millions of data sources -- looking at TV shows at the Internet, at Web posts, at newspapers, at books, at music lyrics -- and they found consistently in every medium they look at what people use more positive words than negative words. They track the language on Twitter, for instance, and they can kind of see what the mood on Twitter is during the day, but by the ratio of positive to negative words. And on some awful days, like when there's a terrorist attack, you'll hear a lot more negative words. But even on those days, it's interesting. You know, people will be horrified by when an awful event happens and the Twitter positivity ratio goes down, people are sounding much more negative. But then it tends to rebound fairly quickly. Something awful happens. There's a mass shooting and people are appalled by it. But then you start hearing the stories of somebody who saved someone's life, someone who did something heroic, a first responder who did something great. And people look for ways to counteract that negativity effect. They're trying to use that rational brain to fight against the power of bad.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:59] Let's talk about terrorism here for a minute because it does make a little cameo in the book. Strategically, terrorism was pointless until mass media actually made it effective. So they're really tapped into the negativity bias.
John Tierney: [00:40:10] Exactly. The mass media -- and I'm guilty as charged as a member of it -- we are what I call the merchants of bad, and we're not alone. We cooperate with politicians, with activists, with academics, with various experts. But we know that the easiest way to get a mass audience is with negativity. People just respond to it instantly. One of my first newspaper jobs, I was a summer intern at a newspaper in Philadelphia, and I was assigned to write a weather story. It was like the most boring story you can write. There was a heatwave and that was kind of desperate to write, you know, what do you say about hot weather? And a lot of people in Philadelphia go to the Jersey shore on a hot summer weekend. So I started calling the police along the shore and hoping I'd find something, and there was nothing going on. And the cops just said, "Well, there was heavy traffic. You know, lots of people." And so nobody asked me to do this, but I started asking the desk sergeants, I said, "Well, is this the worst traffic you've ever seen?" And you know, one after another, he said, "Nah. I mean it's, it's always bad on a summer weekend, you know, it's always like this." But I finally found one desk sergeant who said, "Yeah, I guess I would say this is the worst traffic I've ever seen." So my story the next day is what police called the worst traffic in history. And the story got pretty good play. It sounded like there was something important. I was proud I was getting better play for my story doing that but I also knew even then, as a young, ambitious inter, and I knew there was something sleazy that that's not really what was going on.
[00:41:42] And I then kept noticing in my journalistic career that journalists instinctively do this. We always try to find the bad angle. We always try to hype the bad stuff because we know it gets attention. As a science writer, I'd write about these big sorts of social problems, like the population crisis, the energy crisis, the various things. I would just keep noticing that when you actually step back from the immediate problem -- whatever it was that was in the headline that day -- if you actually looked at the long-term trend you saw the things were getting better, but we would just focus on that bad stuff.
[00:42:16] And terrorism is just a great example that where terrorism did not really exist until there were mass media because there was no point in randomly killing a few people. It didn't achieve any military objective. In the 19th century, once you had telegraphs and you started getting wire services and newspapers that you could spread news very quickly, then terrorists started doing that and basically, journalists became kind of the publicists for terrorists. I was in Iraq right after the invasion in 2003. It was interesting to me to see how much time we journalists spent there. The insurgents would detonate a bomb somewhere, or just a simple IED along the road and we'd all be rushing off to cover it. And I really started thinking, why are we doing publicity for these guys? But that was just our instinct to do them. So my experience, over the years, as I kept covering stuff and I kept trying to look at the big picture. Are things getting better or worse overall? What's the long-term trend? And I kept seeing the most things are getting better, even if we keep hyping the negative. And I eventually decided that terrorism is a great example because your odds of being killed by a terrorist are lower than your odds of dying in a bathtub. But 40 percent of Americans worry that they or their family member is going to die in a terrorist attack because we have so frightened people with all these images of terrorism and all these warnings from people that it's an existential threat. Terrorism is an awful incident, but they're not a military threat. They're no existential threat to civilization, and that's just one example.
[00:43:51] I mean, you see these politicians and journalists do all the time, there is always new technology coming along and there are warnings of disaster. In the 19th century, the New York Times was when newspapers warned that riding on a railroad would cause brain damage. It would turn people into railway into madmen who suddenly would lose their minds. And they worried that electric lights were damaging people's retinas. There's always this market to scare people about things. And the overall result is what I call the crisis. I do think it is a genuine problem, and the three principles are -- that I try to follow when I'm looking at the news, when I'm seeing the latest scary news, the latest depressing finding from somewhere around the world -- the three principles that I follow are, number one, the world will always seem to be in crisis. Number two, the crisis is never as bad as it sounds. And number three, the solution could easily make things worse.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:51] And that's interesting.
John Tierney: [00:44:52] The story I like that of Chicken Little is a great example, I think and the lesson I think is more up than ever today where a Chicken Little, she over interprets this acorn that fell and thinks the sky is falling, runs around. Just like a journalist today scares everyone into thinking that the sky is falling and they need a solution. What can we do about that? And so the Fox invites him into his den for shelter from the fallen sky, and of course, he has him for dinner. And that's what I think happens with a lot of these crises we see is that we overreact to an imaginary or a very hyped threat, and then we end up, there are a lot of foxes out there who are very happy to profit from our fear by proposing some solution that makes their lives better, but actually hurts everyone else.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:34] What about gambling? It seems like the opposite thing is happening when it comes to gambling because you lose more than you win. That's how gambling works. And yet people get addicted to it because they're addicted to -- what? The positive emotion. I mean, it seems like the inverse of the negativity bias.
John Tierney: [00:45:50] You're right. It's a great example. Because most people fear losses, more than they value gains. So you're absolutely right, and most gamblers lose money. So how do they keep doing that? I think it has to do with the neurochemistry of addiction, that dopamine rush you get, and people then get it when they win and they want more of that. So there's that aspect of addiction to it. There's a really interesting experiment where these researchers brought a bunch of professional sports gamblers. And had them make predictions for the coming weeks of National Football League games. And then they had them come in and they would basically collect on the bets that they won and they would discuss about the ones that they didn't win and they would talk about all of them. Then they had them come back a little bit later and think back on those bets that they'd made. I mean, you would think that the betters would really want to talk about the games that they were right. "I knew the Redskins were going to upset somebody," or, "I knew the 49ers would kill this team." But what they found was that what the betters really wanted to talk about were the near misses. Basically, that they had picked the 49ers to beat the Chiefs, but the Chiefs won in the last minute, maybe because of a fumble or the referee made a really bad call that enabled the team to win. So they would basically rationalize this loss to themselves and say, "Well, I did pick the better team there. It was just a bad break." So in their own mind, they were rewriting their one-loss record. If they pick the team that actually won, they counted that as a win, even if the team that they pick won, just because it was lucky by one of those bad calls and actually played worst. They counted all that in their favor, and then they gave themselves, they rewrote history to make those other games to say, "Well, I was really right about that one. It was just a bit of bad luck, some bad refereeing, it costs me that." So in their minds, they managed to kind of change history a little bit and think, "Well, I actually was right in most of the games. If it hadn't been for exceptionally bad luck, I would have won."
[00:47:56] Now, what they do also, it's something that all of us can do to some extent that when we look out at the world today, the negativity effect is in full force. That we overreact to dangers. We just seize on the negative and pay attention to that the most. But when we look back at the past, some things will stay with us for a long time and the involuntary memories are coming into your mind. They tend to be negative. I mean, that's what trauma is. It's just an awful event that happened. That you can't get out of your mind, that it just keeps coming back. But when we are voluntarily, consciously remembering the past, we have what researchers call a tendency to put on rose-colored glasses. And this is another one of the bodies of the brains, natural defenses against the negativity effect. It's our way of countering negativity by accentuating the positive. They found, for instance, that sports teams now when there's a really bad loss in the world series when you know Buckner that caused the team the World Series, that, of course, remains in people's memories forever. But in general, sports fans remember their team's championship season better than the losing season, and now you'd think with the negativity effect, the losses be more memorable than the gains but what happens is, is that they replay those winning season so often in their minds, they see them on television, the highlights being played, they talk about it with their friends. They might have memorabilia from it. So they replay that so often they strengthen that memory so they have better memories of those good seasons, and that's one way that we can counter the negativity effect. In the book, we talk about playing Glad Game, the ways to boost negativity, accentuate the positive, and that's in a way as kind of a Glad Game, how you overcome it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:44] We see this in sports as well. Golfers avoid bogeys and putt short, coaches punt on fourth and short and you asked the question in your book, what would happen if we took a little bit more chances? One of the practical ideas out of this is that it's better to follow a rule instead of following your gut. What do you mean by this?
John Tierney: [00:50:00] Well, one of the biggest problems of all is an addiction to safety, and that's because of the negativity effect, the power of bad. We fear bad so much, we're so affected by it, that we don't want to risk anything bad going wrong. And sports is a great example of this where we give a couple of examples. One is in golf, they've done really interesting studies of the way Tiger Woods and other pros putt, and they care much more about avoiding a bogey than making a birdie, and they putt differently. If they've got two strokes to make it, they're so fearful of overshooting the hole on that one putt by so much that they'll end up making a bogey because they're so far away that they don't putt as hard and they don't try as hard to get it in the hole. So they end up avoiding bogeys. They ended up getting more pars, but they lost chances to get birdies. They figure that this costs the average pro $600,000 a year, if you would just putt normally, instead of having this safety addiction that he's so afraid of bogeys.
[00:51:01] But the greatest example is with football coaches. You know, these guys are paid millions of dollars to make smart decisions. They run statistics, they hire all kinds of coaches and an analyst, but every week, so many of them stupidly punt on fourth down. And this has been analyzed to death by statisticians. Punting on fourth down when you have a couple of yards to go, it sort of made sense in the old days when offense didn't move very well, it was mostly a running game, and so field position was everything. It was worth it to try and get the ball 40 yards down the field. But today, offense has moved so quickly and they score so often -- they score so much more than in the past -- that it is so much more valuable to keep the ball than to punt the ball 40 yards down the field. Yet coaches continually, they've got fourth and one, fourth and two, and they just punt the ball and give it away and give the other team a chance to score and sacrifice their own chance to score. When the number crunchers look at this, they figure that if you have fourth and short -- fourth and one or fourth and two -- you should go for it. It depends on exactly which analysis you use. You should go anywhere beyond your own eight-yard line, anywhere beyond your own 20-yard line. Coaches will be at the 50-yard line or the 40-yard line, and they're still just punting the ball down the field, and the reason for that is the safety addiction that they are so afraid of. "What if we fail there? Everyone's going to blame me. People say there was a loss of momentum. And that the other team was going to score. I would get blamed for that. It'll be on the highlights reel. I don't want to make that mistake. I don't want to be the goat. It's safer to just punt. No one will blame me for that."
[00:52:36] Now, one way to deal with that I think is we have to really start counting, when a coach punts and the other team scores, that ought to be counted against him. Why did you give up the ball when you could've tried for it instead? It's not thought of that way, and sportscasters I think are the worst at this where so many of them are, "Oh, my God, he's going for it on the 50-yard line, fourth and three. Can you believe he's being reckless?" The statisticians would say, "No. He should absolutely go for it because, at fourth and short, you make it more than half the time usually. So you keep the ball and you keep a chance to score."
In the book, in The Power of Bad, we talk about one coach who has managed to overcome the safety addiction. He's a high school coach in Arkansas, Kevin Kelley, and he looked at the numbers. He said, "Yeah, you're right. It's crazy to keep giving the ball away. I should be going forward on fourth." And there've been other coaches who also look at the numbers and say, "Yeah, you know, they're right. I'm going to do it more often." But when the moment actually comes during the game, they'll come up with an excuse not to. They'll say, "Well, one of my lineman is injured and my running back is having a bad day. Or "The other defense is really tough against the run," whatever. They'll come up with this sort of gut reason not to do it and play it safe and it's just much more comfortable. So what he did was he just said, "I'm not going to trust my gut. I'm not going to make a gut decision down the sideline there when there'll be this temptation to just play it safe, so no one will blame me." He set up very specific rules about when he was going to punt him and when he wouldn't, and it tightened them. It's the first season he did it, I think he punted about once a game and he then tightened the rule so he now punts like once a season. He goes for it all the time. He never goes for field goals either. He always goes for a touchdown and the guy has been phenomenally successful. His team had never gotten beyond the semifinals of the state championship. Since he's been there, they're in the semifinals practically every year. They've won seven or eight state championships. He's the all-USA football coach of the year to average 50 points a game. But even though people see how successful he is, and he gets invited to give speeches around the country about the strategy, and he says all these other coaches and athletic directors will come up to him and say, "God, that makes so much sense." And then he said, "What are you going to do?" And they go, "Oh, no, I just can't afford to take the risk myself." They still say, "I could lose my job," or they have these reasons, "Well, it might work for you, but it wouldn't work for me." Even athletic directors said, "He's this incredibly successful high school coach," and been approached occasionally by athletic directors or colleges, small colleges, and he says, "These colleges have terrible teams. They never win. You think that they'd want to try something new," but no, the athletic directors are afraid. If it fails, they'll get fired.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:17] Of course.
John Tierney: [00:55:18] And we all have that tendency to be safety addicts and, and to focus so much on the bad that we don't look at the big picture and we just let our gut fear stop us from doing stuff that would actually help us succeed.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:55:33] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, John Tierney. We'll be right back after this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:38] This episode is sponsored in part by Fiverr. This is a funny website. I use this thing every day. Let's talk about finding freelance talent for your business or project. You can do anything on Fiverr, but let's focus on that for now. Finding the right freelancer can be time consuming, frustrating, expensive. So where do you go to find the talent? How much is it going to cost? How can you be certain they'll actually deliver. Thanks to Fiverr, finding the right freelancer doesn't have to be a struggle. I use it like I said all the time, it used to be a site where you could just get random things done for five bucks. Now though, it's like, "Hey, I need this put into a YouTube thumbnail. Hey, can you resize this graphic and make it usable for this? Hey, can you download this video that this website doesn't want to let me download? Hey, can you print out this report and organize it in a way that doesn't look like crap?" They do all kinds of stuff, not just little tasks. They have big tasks as well. And Fiverr connects businesses with freelancers that offer anything from, like I mentioned, graphic design to copywriting, Web programming, video editing. You can search by service, deadline, price, the reviews of the contractor and more, and you know what you're getting upfront. You don't have to negotiate. It's all listed right there. 24/7 customer service that I have found to be superb so far. So take Fiverr for a test drive. Jason.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:57:04] It starts here. This episode is also sponsored by Manscaped. Well, I don't really ever know how to transition into this ad. I'm just going to come right out with it. Manscaped offers precision-engineered tools for your family jewels. In other words, it's a ball shaver, but guys, listen up. Valentine's day is around the corner and you don't want to be that guy with the big old bush or that nerd who cut his balls prior to getting it on and it has to be careful now. Whether you have a Valentine or not. Let's be honest. We know what you're doing if you don't have a Valentine. You need to be prepared to look good down there. And I got to be honest, manscaping can be a little dangerous. That's why Manscaped has redesigned the electric trimmer. The Manscaped engineering team has spent 18 months perfecting the greatest ball trimmer ever created and released the new improved Lawn Mower 3.0. This is their third generation trimmer, hence the name. Cutting edge ceramic blade to prevent manscaping accidents. Millions of shorn balls are about to make their debut, thanks to manscaped advanced SkinSafe technology. And when I tell you this is premium, I mean, it's premium. The battery will last up to 90 minutes. I don't know who is going to be manscaping for 90 minutes, but I don't really want to know that either. Also, it looks nice. It comes in a nice package, no pun intended. When we got the test units -- again, no pun intended -- I sent them to everyone in the company almost because they are really, really nice. One of the coolest features is this led light, which illuminates the grooming area -- euphemism -- for a closer and more precise trim, and they've got quiet stroke technology, so the motor is not that loud. And you know what? I just kind of hate myself with all these puns. So I'm going to throw it to you, Jason.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:00] This episode is sponsored in part by Better Help. I love this sponsor. They've been a sponsor forever and hopefully will remain so. Better Help offers licensed professional counselors who are specialized in issues such as depression, stress, anxiety, relationships, grief, self-esteem, trauma, anger. And you know what? I'm checking a lot of these boxes. Who isn't? Let's be real. We all kind of run into this. I recommend counseling and therapy, not for people who think their life is falling apart, but for people who want to make sure their life doesn't fall apart, it's good for sane people. This is not triaged. This is not the ER for your psyche. This is where you go to make sure you're staying in shape. This is the personal trainer for your psyche, maybe for your psychology. Connect with your professional counselor, safe and private, online environment. No driving across town. Everything is confidential. Mostly it's convenient as well. Get help at your own time. Get help at your own pace, secure video and phone sessions, chat and text with their therapist, and if you want a new one, you can just switch. No additional charge, Jason.
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Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:37] The rule that you gave in the book behind this idea -- that it's better to follow a rule instead of your gut. The rule is to do what someone would do if they were not going to suffer the loss themselves. So pretend you're a disinterested party, this dampens the emotional impact of making the decision. Can you speak to that a little bit? Because this is a really good idea. It's kind of like, "What would you do if you were in my shoes? Well, if I were in your shoes, I'd be addicted to safety and I'd play it safe. But if I'm playing with your money, here's what I would do."
John Tierney: [01:01:05] That's a great point. I mean, he does it in football and they've done this in lab experiments. The whole negativity effect, some of the first evidence came out of these experiments where they would say to someone, "Would you make an even-money bet on this? And we'll flip a coin and we'll just do it for even money." And they found that they would actually have to offer people, "I'll give you two dollars if you win and you only pay me a dollar if you lose," even though people know that flipping the coin is an even money thing. But they would need twice as much reward in order to take the bet. They would watch how people, who were safety addicts, how they were irrationally cautious when it came to which bets they would make. Even when the odds favored them, they were still reluctant to take a bet that over the long haul would make them a fair amount of money. But they also found in those experiments that they would sometimes basically ask you, "To make my bets for me that you'd be looking at me and you'd say and it will be your decision. It's my money, but you're deciding how it goes. And in that case, you would be much more rational than I was. You would basically take the good bets when it favored you instead of being afraid of them." And I think that's because of the way the negativity affects them. It's really this personal sense of loss that, "I'm scared something's going to hurt me personally." You know, the brain is wired to just overreact to these threats and it just basically shuts down your rational thinking. You're going by your gut, but when you're deciding what to do with my money, it's not a personal threat to you. You don't have that same gut reaction, so you can actually use your rational brain and make a much smarter decision.
[01:02:34] You know, that's something that applies in gambling. It applies in lots of things. We have a chapter on relationships and the key thing in relationships is we tend to think of all the good things we do for our partner. I've done this and I've done that. But what really matters is what you don't do. What really matters is avoiding negativity. Both in what you do to annoy your partner, but also in how you react when something goes wrong. That if you blame your partner -- if you don't give your partner the benefit of the doubt or if you respond in a hostile or angry way -- bad emotions are just so powerful and so contagious that it's very easy for a minor disagreement just turns into a major fight because they escalate back and you escalate in something that was tiny, to begin with, becomes major.
[01:03:17] And so one of the strategies, the other we suggest for dealing this is bringing in a referee. I mean, if you have to, and they were interested in experiments by bringing in an imaginary referee. We asked couples, they would say, "Think about the last disagreement you had. You know, can you imagine how a disinterested third party would look at that argument? How might they look at that argument? What would they think about it? What would they suggest?" And just forcing you to step outside of your own feelings of anger, your own feelings. "I can't believe my partner did this to me. How could they do this?" But forcing yourself to just step back and say, "How would a third-person look at this? That gives you the perspective to make a much more rational decision and basically avoid that negative spiral that can creep into relationships.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:06] That seems like a really wise idea and it kind of goes to the negative golden rule. I'd love to hear you explain this because it's kind of hard to imagine how a negative golden rule would work.
John Tierney: [01:04:16] Well, you know, we tend to think that it's the good stuff that matters. In The Power of Bad, we use a great novel by Anthony Trollope called He Knew He Was Right. It was a 19th-century novel, and it's this story about this couple that has everything. It's got money, good looks, a wonderful family, and the marriage just falls apart for no apparent reason. Nobody does anything wrong, but they just keep misinterpreting each other's actions. He speaks to her in a very rude way, and she's offended and then she doesn't listen to him, and it just builds up and it ends up in absolute disaster. The whole family's destroyed. And the novel seemed -- at the time it wasn't a big success -- it seemed kind of unrealistic. Why was it destroyed? But it was a very shrewd sense where there's novelist saw the negativity effect and the best advice in the novel was the wife's sister. The wife was very up in arms because her husband said something to her and the sister says, "You know, no, he didn't really mean that. He wasn't insulting your honor. He wasn't suggesting you would ever be unfaithful to him. He was just a little that," and she says, "If I were you, I would forget it." If she'd just done that, they could've saved the marriage. And if he had followed his own friends' advice, who told him to forget it, they would be fine too.
[01:05:33] So the negative golden rule basically is that in relationships, and they found this by tracking couples to see which marriages survive and which ones don't. And they look at how couples interact. They look at the good emotions they have for each other, the enthusiasm, they look at the negative interactions they have. And what they find over and over again is that the good stuff is not what keeps marriages alive, that the marriages that last, what is important is avoiding negativity and dealing with negativity calmly and not letting it spiral. We like to think of all the good stuff we do for people, about going the extra mile, but what really matters is what you don't do unto others. That's the negative golden rule. It's what you do not do unto others that really matters.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:19] I think all of us can appreciate the time we did something stupid and our spouse looks at us and just kind of smiles or shrugs it off, or maybe shakes their head, but doesn't give you a lot. You don't get what you deserve, which is like, "Really? You just did that. You're such an idiot." You know, like, you know, you already did it. And then of course when somebody escalates something and you actually have the presence of mind to not do anything about it the other day. I had been moving my seat back in the car and I heard our car seat in the back, which didn't have a baby and it kind of made a popping sound because I had probably broken something by moving the seat back too far. And Jen goes, my wife goes, "You move the seat back too far again and now the seat popped off and I'm going to have to redo it." And I thought I could argue about why is it in there when there's no kid in there and why did you put it so far forward? And how am I supposed to sit in a car when the seats so far forward, but I'm just going to not because I think we both know that that's not going to do anything, but it's very hard to do that in the moment. And you know this, everyone knows this. You want to be like, here's eight ways that I'm right and you're wrong because it feels good, kind of.
John Tierney: [01:07:21] Right. And you feel so attacked when someone criticizes you. I mean, one of the basic things that couples therapy is always, you don't say, "You're a bad person or you did something wrong." You say, "I feel bad when you do that." It does make a huge difference because you're not accusing them. You're saying, "I feel bad about this." It is different from saying, "You really did something awful." This doesn't affect you in the same way.
[01:07:42] We quote the advice from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice. On her wedding day, her mother-in-law said to her, "In every marriage, it sometimes helps to be a little deaf." That just being able, which you did, there was not, you know, let's not argue, but the seat. Let's just let it slide. And you're lucky if you have, when your spouse will just kind of let something slide that is so important, is just giving them the benefit of the doubt and not escalating. It really makes a big difference. Researchers, they found that successful couples. They develop what is called positive illusions and that they have unrealistically positive views of their mates. They've even done this with brain scans. They did this where they scan the brains of people who were in love. And then they went back several years later and they saw which couples were still together and they went back and looked at the initial brain scans to try and see what pattern did they see among the couples that were destined for success and the ones that were destined to break up. They weren't sure what they were looking for, but they were surprised to find a big difference was in a part of the brain that is associated with making negative judgments. And basically when these people were shown a photograph in the brain scanner of their beloved, that part of the brain that makes negative judgments was shutting down. They just weren't exercising negative judgment when it came to their partner. And that's the positive illusions. And it's a great thing if you can do it.
[01:09:16] The other good thing about they found in tracking couples for a while that they'll see that one partner has a much higher view of their partner's ability like, "I think he's smarter." "I think she's smarter." "I think she's something this than she does herself," and that's this positive illusion that I have an exalted view of my partner. But the good thing is it's great for the marriage because your partner appreciates it and eventually they start to believe it too. So everybody feels better. So it's good if you can give them the benefit of the doubt. And also, you know, if you can just not take the bait when something bad goes on.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:49] How does this work in work environments? We know that there's occasionally negative people or often negative people in work environments and they can really poison the entire environment. We had Bob Sutton on the show a few years ago and he wrote The No Asshole Rule and it was about not letting negative people bring everyone down in a workspace, and in his case, in an academic space. This is interesting because I think a lot of bosses think, "Well, we got this guy or this gal, and they're awful, but they're so good at sales, or they're, they're our main tech lead. They're so talented in every other way. They make us money," but that's not really true.
John Tierney: [01:10:25] Right. And Bob Sutton, The No Asshole Rule is great. I love that book. I talked to Bob in writing this book. The book started out, The No Asshole Rule started from a faculty meeting at Stanford where they are thinking of hiring someone, and they said, "Yeah, he's a great researcher, but I just don't want him assholes ruining our department," and so they had that rule after that. And then after he wrote that article for the Harvard Business Review and he wrote a book about it. He then discovered this paper by Roy Baumeister, my co-author, the paper that first identified the negativity factors. Baumeister's paper called Bad is Stronger Than Good where he showed that bad was stronger than good across all these different domains. And Bob Sutton told me it's always his graduate students favorite paper. That it is really just shaped his researcher. Once you realize this negativity effect -- you know, he saw one aspect of it that it's much more important in a business to avoid bad apples. He calls them assholes. The more polite term the researchers uses bad apples. That one bad apple just does so much more damage than one good person can undo.
[01:11:33] We talk in our book about research showing that when you look at how well a team is going do -- the researchers who were trying to predict this by looking at the personalities and the abilities of the members of the team -- and they figured that if you get the average ability, and if they figure out what the average of the team is, that will predict how well they'll do. And what they found actually -- what actually predicted the performance was the ability of the worst person on the team because they would just drag the whole team down. There were some very clever experiments where they identified three different varieties of bad apples and the layman's terms for them were the jerk, the slacker and the downer. They trained an actor to play these roles and he would then be secretly added to one team to see how they would perform. There's a bunch of business students who had to do a prod to draw some kind of marketing plan for a company, some kind of project and so he would join a team. And when he was the jerk, he would sit there and people would suggest something and he goes, "Have you ever taken a business class before? He just looked at him like, "Are you serious?" And when he was the downer, he would imagine in his own mind that his cat had just died and he'd just sit down and like put his head on the table. He just wouldn't do anything. And he just would look depressed. And then he would play the slacker sometimes, basically, the team would be sitting there and he'd just be leaning back looking at his phone and just basically playing with his phone and ignoring them. What they found was that adding this guy to the team would really hurt the team's performance. But what was really the most surprising thing from an aside from confirming the extraordinary impact of bad apples, what the researchers were surprised to see was not only did he hurt the team by basically not contributing, his behavior was so contagious that when he was a jerk to someone when he would insult someone else, they will not only retaliate against him. The other people on the team started being nasty to each other. It just set the whole tone. When he was a downer, pretty much the whole team would just start basically say, "Ah, yeah, that will never work that." "Yeah. Forget it. Let's just—" When he was a slacker and not working, they'd started saying, "Whatever. Let's just get this over with. Who cares?" It's so contagious that bad behavior.
[01:13:54] Other studies in the workplace have shown that rule of four as we call it that when they track people's interactions during the day and the effect they have on people's moods in the office, they find that basically, one bad interaction has as much impact as it did it takes four good interactions to make up for that. That's just one nasty moment, one bad thing, it has this big effect, it has a disproportionate impact. So it's really important. So as you say, even you know, somebody who's great at some aspects of the job, maybe he does make a lot of sales, but if he's bringing down everyone else, then it's hurting.
[01:14:28] You know, there's an example. It was at a men's warehouse where they had one salesman who was by far the best salesman in the store, but he was also a jerk. He wouldn't help the other salesman. He'd steal their customers, he'd do this. So they eventually fired him, and nobody else at the store ever had sales numbers as good as his, but the overall sales numbers at the store went up just by getting rid of him. You've really got to keep that in mind that it's so important to avoid hiring bad apples if you can. So the more interviews you can do, the more you can watch somebody working with other people before you actually hire them, that will save you an awful lot of grief later on. And then if you do have a bad apple there, there's a temptation to say, well, yeah, you know, he's not pulling his weight, or he's kind of a jerk, but that's all right we have some other people who will make up for it. But you've got to remember that that behavior is contagious and it's affecting everyone else, so the sooner you can deal with it, the better.
John Tierney: [01:15:25] What if that person is the boss?
John Tierney: [00:15:28] Well, then I think the thing to do is look for another job. I think Sutton has pointed out this other side of The No Asshole Rule too that if you've got a bad apple, a jerk who behaves in a certain way, maybe you've tolerated him if you let him hire people -- if he's working under you, but he's got his own department and he's hiring people, they often will start hiring people like themselves. So then you really start getting a problem because you know, they like someone who's really aggressive and abrasive, and you've really got to be careful there but not letting them reproduce and take over the place because then you just get this really dysfunctional environment. And I think if it's your boss, you either try to get yourself transferred. If there's a boss above him, you can go do complain. That's one thing. But I think sometimes all you can do is just look for another job. I mean, you can try to talk to them and say, "This is what I need."
[01:16:26] And I guess in following some of the principles in the book, you want to keep the negativity effect in mind and you don't want to sit down and say, "You're a jerk, or you treat me badly." You just say, "You know, I try to keep it positive and for me to work best, it would help if I hear this and if you could do this, that would really help me." Instead of saying, "I think you're a terrible boss." But you know, sometimes there's nothing you can do about it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:16:48] We've got to get out of the studio soon, but I want to leave on the idea that we can do something about this, most of the time, the low bad diet. Can you take us through this? You've brought us through the rule of four. So for every bad interaction, every news story that's negative, let's read four good ones. But what is the low-bad diet in practice?
John Tierney: [01:17:08] The low- bad diet is we're surrounded by bad stuff all the time. The negativity effect, there's a good reason it evolved that it basically kept our ancestors on the Savannah alert to deadly threats. It kept them alive, like predatory lions, paying attention to poison as berries. So there's a good reason it did. But the analogy is that there was a reason that the ancient hunter-gatherers wanted to load up on calories in lean times. That was a great survival strategy when food was sparse, but that same instinct to load up on fat and calories is not so great when you live in an environment where you're surrounded by junk food all day long. So the same thing happens today where this instinct to be alert to threats is useful. But if you're surrounded all day by people trying to scare you and basically hyping threats and inventing threats, that's not good because it's given you a very distorted view of the world and you're thinking things are worse than they are. It's terrible for your mood and it gives you, you start voting for people who, who are selling you on fear all the time, that the world's going to hell and you've got to vote for me and do this, and they keep you in fear.
[01:18:17] So what we suggest is either try to remember that rule of four and try to look at four uplifting stories for every negative when you want to go on a low-bad diet. And one way to do that is -- I mean, I've been in the mass media, but the mass media really thrives on negativity because the easiest way to get a mass audience is with common fears. We all share the same fear. So it's easy to get a mass audience that way. The positive stuff that interests us tends to be much more idiosyncratic. You might have an interest in Civil War history and Asian art and a certain kind of music. Those are smaller niche things. But the great thing about the Web today is you can find your niche. You can find that that group on Facebook or you find a website for it, you can do it. And the great thing about social media, it gets a bad rap that it's blamed for lots of things like Instagram envy and Facebook depression, which we debunked to some extent on the book because it's the usual thing of journalists hyping problems. And there are problems in social media, but in general, the good thing about social media is that it is more positive than mass media. The people tend to share stuff. I mean, we hear about the bad stuff on social media, people on Twitter or the Twitter wars, and people can be so nasty and the cancel culture. Now all that does happen. But in general, people share more positive things than negative by a big margin. And if you share positive stuff, you actually end up getting more followers on Twitter, your tweets go more wildly. So there's, there's an incentive to be positive, and if you can curate what you want so that you're following people who aren't trying to scare you, who aren't just fighting the other side in politics denouncing the other side. If you can follow people who are more positive, who share all the good things that are going on in life, that's the low-bad diet and that's going to make you happier.
[01:20:02] And it really is going to show you a more accurate view of the world because as we explained in The Power of Bad, virtually every measure of human wellbeing is improving except for one -- hope. No, the richer we get, the less people tend to think that the things are good. People in the richest countries who sound the most pessimistic as international surveys. And you know, we're the luckiest people in history to be alive now because there are so many things that have improved for so many people in the world, but we don't recognize it. And if you go on a low-bad diet, I think you can start to see the world as it really is, and realize that there is much more to celebrate than to mourn in. We say that bad is stronger than good. It's always going to be stronger than good, but we're confident the good can still prevail.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:20:50] John, thank you very much. Really enlightening and good to know that we can escape the gravity of the negativity bias and that sometimes it's even good for us.
John Tierney: [01:20:58] Thank you, Jordan.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:21:01] Big thanks to John Tierney for coming on the show today. His book is called The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. By the way, after the show, John and I talked about how negative experiences can be anchored to things like flavors. So if you have a certain kind of alcohol that got you really sick early in your life and you can still kind of feel yourself getting a little bit of the gag reflex, that's part of what's going on here. I know for me with tequila, I can still taste -- well, the shame. Also for businesses, there's a lot of practical takeaways here for business owners, one of which is you can't just correct issues. Let's say your customer says, "Oh, you know, I went in my room and the pillow was on the floor. I don't want to sleep on something that was on the floor." You can't just correct the issue. You have to overwhelm the customer with positive to make up for it psychologically. So you have that one negative requires four positives to make up for it. That holds true even in relationships. It holds true in business. A couple of examples that he gave were flights shouldn't end with a wait at the baggage claim. It's anticlimactic. It's not fun. It's not a good impression. Shopping shouldn't end with a checkout line. There should be something else that not just minimizes this, but is actually an uplifting our positive experience. And if you run a business and you get some negative reviews, always respond to negative reviews, so it's not the last thing people see. So if you have a negative review in Yelp, for example, respond to that review so that the review reader actually sees your response after the negative. So there's a positive, hopefully after the negative. And here's a little trick based on research, make your response longer, then the negative review. So if it's, "This place sucks" -- one star -- "I hate it here." Make sure you write a few sentences. Let's say four to one. I don't know if the sentence ratio necessarily holds, but why not make it two to one, four to one, make it longer and it will have more weight psychologically. I found that completely fascinating. We just didn't get a chance to fit it into our show when we did the edit. So I hope you enjoy this. I thought this was a fascinating episode.
[01:23:02] Also in the show notes, there's going to be a worksheet with all of these practicals in there, including the ones I mentioned and possibly a few that didn't make the show. We also now have transcripts for each episode and those can be found in the show notes as well.
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[01:24:24] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. This episode was produced by Jen Harbinger and Jason DeFilippo, engineered by Jase Sanderson, show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola. I'm your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions, and those of our guests are their own. And yes, I'm a lawyer, but I'm not your lawyer. So do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. So if you know somebody who maybe suffers a little bit too much from the negativity bias or needs a little bit of a reality check and know that things aren't so bad, it might just be your mind playing tricks on you and you're normal, just like everybody else. If you know someone like that, go ahead and share this episode with them. Share the show with those you love, and even those you don't. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.