Bad is stronger than good.
“You hear the tree fall, but you don't hear the forest grow.”
This is not a pessimistic blog! It is about the power of bad events being stronger (and faster) than good ones, and about the reasons why this psychological phenomenon exists. This is not to say that bad things will always triumph over good things. Good may prevail over bad by superior force of numbers.
Song for today: Arlissa – Every Time I Breathe. “99 good things, just one bad, but that one's driving me mad.”
Consider the following stories:
A lovely alley turned dark.
You’re walking home from a party, and find yourself in a dark alley. The same lovely, picturesque alley that you strolled through on the way to the party, but then the houses were bathing in the golden light of a July sunset. You remember thinking how beautiful that alley looked and how the few people in it looked happy and content. How different it feels now! You get spooked by the tiniest noise. And that person walking towards you immediately is a potential bad guy. You’re pretty sure you can see the evil intentions in his body language. You almost jump when the man wishes you a friendly good night…
Fear of deadlifting
You’re a physical therapist with general good health and a good functioning musculoskeletal system. You even pride yourself on your better than average physical fitness and motor abilities (which is not really difficult in a western country…). Yes, you’ve had three acute episodes of back pain, but they resolved very quickly, and you are able to do all activities of normal life, and run, jump, crawl, climb, lift, throw, play games and do sports without feeling any pain, any restriction, any worries. There’s one exception though, you fear doing deadlifts with a barbell. Because one of the episodes of back pain started when you felt that pinch while lowering the bar from a deadlift in your exercise room. You know, if you do it right, with low weights and a very slow and gradual increase, they are not only safe, but even beneficial. You even know you can lift many rather heavy objects, even strange and unbalanced ones (because you’ve done it). But whenever you lift the barbell in that exercise room, there’s only one thing on your mind: ‘I hope my back will hold!’.
A bad comment
You’re a teacher, and you are really lucky because you can teach the subject you are very passionate about, to an audience of generally very interested people. The interactions during the courses are fun, the questions asked interesting, and the feedback at the end is rewarding. One day, you receive the official feedback, which is good, and while reading through the many encouraging little sentences the participants wrote down, there’s this one person that writes: ‘worst course ever!’. Even though you know you can’t satisfy everyone, and you know that all other participants were positive to very enthusiastic (a colleague once called it ‘life and career changing’), this one negative comment stresses you! It worries you more than you would have imagined because you’re not easily stressed, it even tenses you just thinking about it. You know it is stupid (both the comment and your reaction), but somehow, you can’t help it.
These three stories have one aspect in common: one bad thing (anticipated, perceived or real) has a huge influence on all the rest, a seemingly irrational effect on psychology and behaviour. This seems to be a very pervasive effect that is noticeable in many aspects of human life: everyday events, major life events (trauma), close relationship outcomes, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions, and learning processes. I guess all of you can think of more than a few examples you've experienced yourself.
You can skip the next list if you want. It is an elaborate summary of the science, from a 2001 paper by Baumeister et al (1) on this subject. It shows the broad scope of this principle:
In everyday life, bad events have stronger and more lasting consequences than comparable good events.
Close relationships are more deeply and conclusively affected by destructive actions than by constructive ones, by negative communications than positive ones, and by conflict than harmony. Additionally, these effects extend to marital satisfaction and even to the relationship's survival.
Even outside of close relationships, unfriendly or conflictual interactions are seen as stronger and have bigger effects than friendly, harmonious ones.
Bad moods and negative emotions have stronger effects than good ones on cognitive processing, and the bulk of affect regulation efforts is directed at escaping from bad moods
The preponderance of words for bad emotions, contrasted with the greater frequency of good emotions, suggests that bad emotions have more power.
Some patterns of learning suggest that bad things are more quickly and effectively learned than corresponding good things.
The lack of a positive counterpart to the concept of trauma is itself a sign that single bad events often have effects that are much more lasting and important than any results of single good events.
Bad parenting can be stronger than genetic influences; good parenting is not.
Research on social support has repeatedly found that negative, conflictual behaviours in one's social network have stronger effects than positive, supportive behaviours.
Bad things receive more attention and more thorough cognitive processing than good things.
When people first learn about one another, bad information has a significantly stronger impact on the total impression than any comparable good information.
The self appears to be more strongly motivated to avoid the bad than to embrace the good.
Bad stereotypes and reputations are easier to acquire, and harder to shed, than good ones.
Bad feedback has stronger effects than good feedback.
Bad health has a greater impact on happiness than good health, and health itself is more affected by pessimism (the presence or absence of a negative outlook) than optimism (the presence or absence of a positive outlook).
Now, why would bad>good be so widespread? If you think evolutionary, such a general principle probably has a good reason to exist.
In other words, what is the adaptive value?
Well, let me tell you another story. You’re a Pleistocene hunter-gatherer walking in the savanna, looking for berries, which are in season right now. Suddenly you hear something moving in the thick undergrowth. Not only does it immediately grab your attention, it instantly arouses emotions! Because you’re an experienced forager, you know that it probably is only a bird or a small lizard, and that the chances of an encounter with a dangerous animal are small. Indeed, you see the little rodent shooting away from you. But still, you felt that flash of the fight and flight response. While recovering from the reaction, you quietly laugh at yourself, think of the fun story you’ll be able to tell your friends at the fire tonight. Absorbed in thought, you forget to notice that bush full of berries…
Admitted, this is a cliché story, but it exemplifies the adaptive value of bad>good. Missing a possible positive outcome can be regrettable (missing the berries), but not as regrettable as missing a possible negative outcome (being eaten by a lion, being bit by a snake). Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but is less pressing with regard to good ones.
Better to miss food than to become food yourself!
This is the perfect example of what Randolph Nesse calls “The Smoke Detector Principle”. We want our smoke detectors to be very sensitive (we want to be sure that whenever there’s a fire, the alarm always warns you), and we allow a certain amount of false alarms, as the price to pay for good sensitivity. Because one fire not detected could be fatal.
Protection systems are designed for survival, not for accuracy!
The authors of the paper propose another hypothetical but intriguing possibility: “Bad things indicate a need for the self to change something about itself; that is, that bad things prompt self-regulation. Through self-regulation, an organism can adapt and change itself to fit its environment, a strategy that is adaptive.”
They continue: “Changing the environment to fit the self is neither effective nor practical as a route to maximize evolutionary fitness.” I disagree a bit, because modern Homo Sapiens really is able to change its environment, especially since we live in almost entirely human created ones. More on that later.
Another and somewhat related argument: “Progress may be best facilitated by having bad events have a lasting impact while good events have a temporary one. This is based on the idea that bad events signal a need for change, whereas good ones do not. If satisfaction and pleasure were permanent, there might be little incentive to continue seeking further benefits or advances. The ephemeral nature of good feelings may therefore stimulate progress (which is adaptive). If bad feelings wore off, however, people might repeat their mistakes, so genuine progress would best be served by having the effects of bad events linger for a relatively long time.”
So, now you see that bad>good does not need to be a terrible phenomenon, and that pessimism is not warranted. Firstly, many good things can neutralize the power of a bad thing, many lives can be happy by virtue of having far more good than bad events. Secondly, as we have seen, bad>good most probably is highly adaptive.
But there’s still an important question to ask: “Cui bono?”
I learned it from Daniel Dennett in his book ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’, and it means: “To whom is it a benefit?” Randolph Nesse, the evolutionary medicine pioneer, talks about this question in his latest book ‘Good Reasons for Bad Feelings’ (recommended!!) (2). Remember that, in biology, reproduction is more important than health and wellbeing. Put in another way, health and wellbeing are only important as long as they promote reproduction. There’s the catch…
Bad things change our emotions and behaviour disproportionally, but: “Emotions have meaning. We should try to understand their messages. They are usually trying to get us to do or stop doing something. Sometimes they are wise and we should heed them. But not always. Sometimes they push us to do things that help our genes but harm us. Sometimes they arise from our distorted views of the world. Sometimes they come from brain abnormalities. Considering all the possibilities provides a framework for making wise decisions. We can often do that for ourselves, but an expert's advice can be invaluable.” (Nesse, p.65 (2))
We’ll dig a bit deeper into this kind of reasoning, and try to apply them to our stories.
A lovely alley turned dark.
The adaptive value of feeling scared is probably obvious. The powerful fear can feel out of proportion to the real risks in most cities or neighbourhoods, but mostly it is short-lived. These acute stressors are adaptive for most people. Some people have more extreme anxieties, and they have huge negative consequences on the quality of live. These could be the consequence of extremely sensitive ‘smoke-detectors’, or the result of brain abnormalities. I’m not at all an anxiety expert, but I remember Nesse, who’s a psychiatrist, explaining that some patients with anxiety problems improve their symptoms and lives, once they understand the nature of the ‘smoke-detectors’, and the genes vs wellbeing principle. Knowledge is powerful.
Fear of deadlifting
At first, it seems obvious, I (because the protagonist of that story is me) had an acute episode of back pain from deadlifting. The fear served as a strong motivator to avoid that mistake in the future. This seems adaptive. "We all know that lifting is bad for your back". The problem is: lifting is not bad for the back, and if done properly, even strengthens the back. With properly, I don’t necessarily mean ‘the perfect technique’, but more ‘gradually loaded over time’. There’s another problem. Although I’m not really that much into weightlifting, I’ve certainly done several hundreds (thousands?) of deadlifts, and only one time did I have acute backpain. So is the lifting really the cause? Or was there something else that particular day that contributed to the onset of pain? I know all these arguments, and I really believe that deadlifts are safe and beneficial, but still I, for a long time, did not do barbell lifts. Sure, I lifted a lot of other things, in normal life, in my natural movement sessions (stones, logs, people, …). It was like the ‘rational me’ knew it was safe, but the ‘emotional me’ held me back. After a time I did start lifting barbells with relatively small loads for higher repetitions, and my back felt fine, but I could not stop thinking about lifting safely, about my back, about something that could go wrong. Only after many months, that feeling started to go away. Now I can lift without thinking about it (more or less). So many goods really have the potential to trump the bad. Knowing (rationally) was not enough, somehow this knowledge had to be embodied, it literally had to be incorporated (‘corpus’ is latin for ‘body’). My protective systems and corresponding emotions needed a lot of positive feedback. We call this graded exposure…
A bad comment
As for the teacher, who again is me as you’ve probably guessed, that one really bad comment bothered me more than I wanted. Funny thing is that I know of the negativity bias we human animals have. Heck, I even taught the ‘smoke detector principle’ in that exact course. But knowing (rationally) is not enough to get rid of the emotions. Luckily, I’ve had more than enough positive feedback to counteract that awful one, so it did not really alter my self-esteem. What could have been the message of those negative feelings? My course really sucks?? Anyway, my reputation was at stake, and although the feelings were intense, all in all my reactions was more or less in proportion. It didn’t hold me back from teaching, it did not alter my self-esteem. The strongness of the initial reaction could have been more in the interest of my genes, than in my own wellbeing… I also wonder how the effect would have been if the colleague told his fierce critique to me in person. Real interpersonal communication is truly different from written or virtual communication. Read internet discussions for abundant examples ;-) …
So bad feelings can be good for you, because they signal something relevant. They are not good in a hedonistic kind of way, they are good in an important way: survival. We should keep in mind that, through the smoke detector principle, our systems tend to react rather strongly, yes, even too strongly. This is probably more true for some people. And, what Nesse taught us, they can be good for the survival of genes, but not necessary for our wellbeing.
What are the implications for your life?
Knowledge is power! Understanding your super-reactive systems can decrease the stress… Is the reaction/feeling in proportion?
Knowledge is power! Think about the underlying reasons for those bad feelings. What do they mean? Is it good for you, of for your genes?
Knowledge is not enough! Often it needs to be embodied, incorporated. It needs to be lived.
Surround yourself with lots of good things! A great amount of positive factors, big and small, can overcome the big effects of bad things…
Avoid bad things that are avoidable. Restrain yourself from too many news-websites, don’t participate in online discussions, don’t read beauty-magazines, they will only make you feel ugly (3), don’t put up with people who are reckless with your heart (3), remember the compliments you receive and forget the insults (3), change your job if necessary… Some parts of our environment, social and physical, really are changeable.
In part two, I’ll focus on the importance of these principles and lines of thought for physical therapists and musculoskeletal health issues.
Keep in mind the opening quote. A tree might fall, but don’t forget the forest has great potential to keep on growing. Just don’t wipe out the whole forest…
Thanks for reading.
(1) Baumeister et al (2001). Bad Is Stronger than Good. Review of General Psychology
(2) Randolph Nesse (2019) Good Reasons for Bad Feelings - Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry
(3) paraphrasing Baz Luhrmann here, from his song ‘Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)