Imagine as you go about your day, a colleague comes up to you and whispers that she just heard the boss in the conference room tell a group of visitors that you thrive as the hardest working employee in the firm. you feel good about the unexpected plaudit. However, the positive emotion lasts a negligible amount of time as the normal pres- sures of work pile on you.
Next, contrast it with hearing from trusted co-workers that a new director heard false rumours about your integrity and work output. In all likelihood, your blood pressure may elevate, you may lose some sleep thinking about the scenario, pondering why someone would state such a falsehood. Negative news could stay with you for days or even weeks and breed additional negative thoughts.
David Clark and Christine Purdon studied the concept of unwanted thoughts, or impuls- es, that bombard human brains. Sometimes thought intrusions over- whelm us and either drag down or uplift our moods. The unwant- ed intrusion could take the form of an innocent stanza of music, a phrase, or even horrifying, disgust- ing thoughts. Benefits of unplanned unexpected thoughts include epi- sodes of revelation, brilliance, problem solving, and escape from boredom while downsides include downward spiralling and extended periods of negativity.
andrew Howell and michael Conway’s research shows that the mind gets stuck into a mood. When someone holds a positive mood, their mind allows other positive unintentional intrusion thoughts. Similarly, when in a negative mood, the same person’s brain allows continuous streams of negative intrusion thoughts. So our moods determine the types of unintention- al thoughts that enter our mind. When in a good disposition, our brain may replay unexpected scenes of successful times in our lives or happy family moments. Conversely in times of negative attitude our mind allows failures or sad loss memories to pop in.
australian researchers Sally Edwards and mark Dickerson found that positive mental intrusions took the form of images while negative intrusions consisted of thoughts alone. When unintentional thoughts come into the human brain, most frequently positive notions took the form of sensual fantasies or escapes from someone’s reality to an imagi- nary make-believe world followed by memories about the past, or dream- ing of the future. The most common negative thoughts revolved around violence or harm to oneself or to others, followed by fears of physical illness or disease. Both negative and positive thoughts last for equal amounts of time, followed by other intrusive thoughts, one after anoth- er. Interestingly, the brain jumps between one negative thought to another in higher volume.
Essentially, we hold negative themes in our psyche longer than positive information. Such human psychological reality explains why we fret for extended periods of time over large, globally destabi- lizing events such as Brexit, the South China Sea conflict, President Trump’s election, disunity within OPEC, and dictatorial tendencies in Central africa. It also explains why positive global events evoke far less psychological utility than the utility lost through negative events. Some examples of strongly positive news that we only retain a positive emo- tion briefly include a new European Union trade deal with Sub-Saharan africa, peaceful democratic transi- tions in Nigeria and Ghana, indepen- dent judiciary trends in South africa, and increased examples of global tolerance set by Canada.
Social psychologist alison Ledgerwood and political scientist amy Boydstun highlight through their research that the brain gets stuck in negative thinking. While one can look at the same situation as positive or negative, the negative outlook sticks firmer in our minds. The most famous example comes from the old adage of a half full or half empty glass. a half full glass represents a gain frame mentality while a half empty glass stands as a loss frame mentality.
The researchers decided to test whether people stick more to nega- tive thoughts or to positive thoughts by stating that a medical procedure holds a 70% success rate or a 30% failure rate. Both statements rep- resent the same fact. But a listener will garnish vastly different opinions based on how the statement gets framed. When participants heard the phrase “70% success rate”, they thought favourably about the med- ical procedure, but when told of a “30% failure rate”, participants thought negatively about the proce- dure even though both statements contained exactly the same underly- ing information.
The researchers then switched and told participants the opposite “you know, you could also think of this as a 30% failure rate” or a “you know, you could also think of this
as a 70% success rate”. Those who initially heard the positive version quickly changed their opinion to negative. However, the participants who originally heard the negative news did not shift their opinion to the positive viewpoint upon hearing it. The participants retained their negative bias even after hearing pos- itive new later.
Phrasing matters considerably and leaders, media, and even family members can manipulate us simply by understanding the above fun- damental building block of human psychology. The researchers con- tinued and utilised political exam- ples in both positive and negative formats. When negative informa- tion was spouted about a politician to prospective voters, those voters retained their negative outlooks even when later positive data about the same politician came to light. However, voters who received pos- itive news about a politician first then negative information received second, immediately changed their opinion of the politician to nega- tive. Negative information sticks in minds. Positive information fades quickly out of one’s mind.
Evidently, the way in which infor- mation is phrased is critical. When a biased news outlet, like the infamous Fox News in the United States, puts a negative spin on or exaggerates an event, it scares its conservative older viewers and keeps them watching the channel. U.S. President Donald Trump famously mastered negative attacks during the american presi- dential election of 2016, employing these tactics at every opportunity possible against his opponents in both the primary elections and the general election. Even though his negative talks often became widely disproven as maliciously fictitious, the negativity against other politi- cians stuck in the minds of
many american voters.
Even here in East africa, politi- cians do not tend to focus on accom- plishments and positive trends, but similar to President Trump, they hound negatives and fear mongering about opponents in order to lodge lingering negative thoughts into the mind of voters. Political consult- ing firms conduct testing with focus groups to trial run negative phrases that most scares voters. Political scientists know that negative news sadly moves voters more than pos- itive news. Practitioners under- stand what researchers only recently proved that once the loss frame gets into someone’s head, it sticks while the gain frame can barely affix at all in their minds.
another example of collec- tive negative thinking involves the U.S. economy that rebounded GDP growth quickly from its 2008 crash. However, consumer confi- dence lagged the economy for years even after the economy recovered. Pessimism stuck while reality-based hope failed to take hold. The ongo- ing unwarranted low consumer confidence largely contributed to President Trump’s electoral win as he blamed President Obama for events and occurrences that actually originated under Presidents Clinton and Bush and ironically improved under President Obama.
Let us localise scenarios and pro- verbially ponder whether on average East africans feel pride and hope in their respective country. Following a national triumph, such as the Uganda Cranes 2017 football success, Kenya winning the Sevens World Series title in Singapore in 2016, record gold medals in the Rio Olympics, initial exuberance in Tanzania of President magufuli’s anti-corrup- tion drive, and President Uhuru and President Obama hosting the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi gave positive emotions to millions. But a negative event such
as the current drought, mass carnage in major road accidents, allegations of bullying in secondary schools, uncertainty surrounding various elections, or a scandal, sees opinions flip negative much faster and stay negative for much longer. One may witness East african social media themes and hashtags to track the staying power of negative collective moods versus positive dispositions.
Why do human brains operate with a negative bias? We evolved to sur- vive in the wild generations upon generations ago. In a dangerous environment, we developed and understanding of how to protect ourselves from acute danger: run from a lion, climb a tree to outsmart a buffalo, etc. The severe risks in ancient times warranted more cognitive power given to negative protective thoughts than focus finite brain power on positive thoughts and moods. Our brains today still do not yet sync with the rewards and risks present in the modern world whereby positive thoughts can now help us survive better over the long- term unlike millennia ago.
One may view additional examples of early evolution in our brains when we look at cultural standards of physical attractiveness. Research shows that men, on average, prefer women with symmetrical faces and the much referred to hourglass figure as physically attractive. Women, on the other hand, on average desire men with softer facial and physical features during the days surrounding ovulation because during this time, women unconsciously crave a caring man who might take care of any pos- sible resulting children. However, when not ovulating, women over- whelmingly prefer physical strength, sharp jaw lines, and other pro- nounced facial features because of unconscious perceptions lingering from ancient times that physically strong men can better protect a fam- ily from wild animals and marauding strangers as well as hunt food for the family. So both negative emotion obsession and our concepts about physical attractiveness both linger from long time ago. Over the coming millennia, human psychology will evolve to find attractiveness in key success traits rooted in the modern world such as high intelligence as well as the brain focusing more and more on positive temperaments as both enable greater economic suc- cess in a globalised economy.
Knowing that our brains operate in such a way, we can use tech- niques to focus the brain in the right direction. Understand that your mind holds a negative bias. Recognise when you get stuck in a negative mental loop and actively work to step out of it rationally. make a list of all your fears pertain- ing to that negative thought. alison Ledgerwood states that writing in a journal for a few minutes each day about things that you hold thankful in life will substantially increase your positive outlook on life and work and snap you out of negative patterns. In the home, ask each fel- low family members what happened during the day that was specifically good. also, mexican psychologist Carlos aceves advises individuals to try to reset their thoughts. Take a walk. Do an activity that requires one to focus on a different activity in order to get your mind off the negative spiral.
mark Freeston, Robert Ladouceur, and team reported on methods that most people utilise to alter their unwanted thoughts including intentionally replacing thoughts, analysing the thought itself, talking to other people, trying actively to stop the thought, con- vincing oneself that the particular thought carries no significance, and doing nothing allowing the thought trail of one after another to take its course. People learn over time which type of technique works best for which type of thought.
Translating the above negative bias into the workplace, managers must clearly and emphatically phrase
workplace initiatives into the pos- itive lest they stress and demoti- vate their workers. Simply stating “an exciting opportunity lays before us to increase sales” instead of “we must struggle to meet the new sales targets” can frame a scenario into the positive gain frame mentality for employees. additionally, do not tolerate complaining and gossip. Research out of Harvard University and the University of Chicago shows the downsides of whiny and gossipy employees. Prolific researcher Ron Burt delineates that employees bring everyone else down with them rather than making themselves feel bet- ter by venting. No positive effects come from workplace complaining and gossiping. Workers rarely share positive news or gossip construc- tively. So, create an organisational culture that accentuates the positive and does not tolerate negative talk. Negative emotion workers perform less efficiently.
In dealing with customers, brands get annihilated after a nega- tive event and do not even rebound following subsequent positive events. a prediction as a result of February’s botched academy awards cere- mony in Hollywood might haunt PriceWaterhouseCoopers for many years to come whereby multitudes of success stories and costly posi- tive advertising must occur to erase the negative event from dominating minds around the globe.
In summary, think about what negative emotions you hold about your life. Think about what nega- tive thoughts you retain about East africa. might you be too hard on yourself and on our geographic region? you must work actively to see the upside of situations and break out of negative thought spi- rals.
Scott may be reached on scott@ ScottProfessor.com or on Twitter: @ ScottProfessor