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The Power of Bad

How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It

By John Tierney and Roy Baumeister
16-minute read
Audio available
The Power of Bad by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister

The Power of Bad (2019) is a thorough exploration of the outsized influence negativity has in our personal lives and our society. Based on well-researched insights from social psychology, political science, and economics, it unpacks how this “negativity bias” came about and what we can do to overcome it.

  • Pessimists looking for a brighter perspective
  • Amateur psychologists seeking insight into human behavior
  • Anyone desiring a new perspective on what shapes society

John Tierney is an award-winning science journalist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. His column “Findings” regularly appears in the New York Times.

Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist at the University of Queensland and fellow at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. His wide-ranging research includes work on identity, belonging, and motivation.

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The Power of Bad

How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It

By John Tierney and Roy Baumeister
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
The Power of Bad by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister
Synopsis

The Power of Bad (2019) is a thorough exploration of the outsized influence negativity has in our personal lives and our society. Based on well-researched insights from social psychology, political science, and economics, it unpacks how this “negativity bias” came about and what we can do to overcome it.

Key idea 1 of 10

Negative experiences are more powerful than positive ones.

Let’s say you’re in a relationship. Like most relationships, it’s not perfect. Sometimes, your partner is wonderful. They’re smart, kind, and funny. But, every so often, they’re the opposite. They’re mean, vindictive, and distant. Do you stick around?

Early in his career, Roy Baumeister found himself facing this very question. To make a decision, he kept track of the days. He recorded which were good, which were bad, and which were neutral. After a few months, the pattern was clear: the good days outnumbered the bad 2 to 1.

With this data, he knew what to do; he left. 

The key message here is: Negative experiences are more powerful than positive ones.

If you’re like most people, you probably agree with Baumeister’s decision to break off the tumultuous and uneven romance. A relationship that is only pleasant two-thirds of the time doesn’t seem like an appealing prospect. For most people, “2 to 1” is not an acceptable positivity ratio.

This is a term used by social psychologists to describe the ratio between any given set of good and bad events. Countless studies have shown that, in many scenarios, an overall positive outcome requires a high positivity ratio. That is, positive events need to greatly outnumber negative ones. 

A classic study conducted by psychologist John Gottman demonstrates how this works. He asked married couples to record their daily interactions as either positive or negative. He found that couples with an even number of good and bad interactions usually broke up. He also found that the happiest couples had at least five positive interactions for every negative one. 

This 5-to-1 ratio is sometimes known as the Gottman Ratio. It works as a pretty good rule of thumb for measuring happiness in a relationship but can also work in other contexts. 

To measure your own personal growth, Baumeister recommends aiming for at least four positives for every one negative. For instance, let’s say you’re trying to maintain a new habit like a daily yoga practice or skipping dessert after dinner. Don’t be too upset if you slip up one day. Instead, just try to hit your mark the next four days. 

This 4-to-1 approach gives you a more accurate perspective on your overall success. It also keeps you from letting one setback set the tone of your entire week. In the next blink, we’ll look at some ways to maintain a high positivity ratio.

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