A blog by Luke Thomas of Spring

A book that I’m reading at the moment, is one of those that gets you wanting to reflect, re-read and then go deeper again!  The Power of Bad, And How To Overcome It by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister has me hooked.  I’m introducing it not so much as a review, as an intention that I will be exploring this more – and so by sharing what I’ve absorbed from it so far, is the beginning of that.

The authors describe ideas that are so fundamental to everyday life and practical in their application, that they could become basic building blocks in our children’s education system.  Until then, we have the option to learn to understand ourselves and each other better – through a greater awareness of our individual make up.

Everyone has a different genetic construction and their own unique Inter-organ Communication Network in terms of our endocrine system as I described in a previous blog.  This complex and swirling democracy of molecules, hormones and neurotransmitters shape what our bodies and minds are doing at any given time.

The outworking of this, can be oversimplified into ‘personality types & profiling.’ This can open the debate on whether we have relatively static character traits through life, or whether we can and do, change ourselves outside of those born characteristics over time.  Some might try and assign percentages to their guess on nature vs nurture… I know I have, in vain!  My opinion keeps changing anyway.

Whichever camp you see yourself falling into – the malleability of our personal state, health and mental capacity is being influenced by the choices we make from food to friends, and those environmental factors that we have far less control over, such as family or childhood post code.  There is plenty of evidence now to confirm this.

The rise in available understanding about neuroplasticity and the influence we can bring to bear on ourselves, by ourselves, does bring with it hope.  (Or a sobering mess of a million new variables – depending on how you view it!)

So to pause a moment.  As I write this, the morning’s news continues to be awash with global outrage at the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent rallies regarding #blacklivesmatter and #whiteprivilege. Coronavirus is being described as dividing the nation like Brexit did, with polarisation and identity politics deepening.  The homelessness crisis is worsening in the UK as the social and economic impact of the Covid-19 lockdown takes hold.  There is fear and uncertainty being spread around the future with a second wave being suggested as likely.

Bad news sells, garners attention and gossip.  Some publications now focus entirely on good news to act as an antidote to the tiring onslaught of doom and gloom.

Why am I contexting all of this in relation to a book called The Power of Bad?

The reason is Negativity Bias.  Or the Negativity Effect.  Or Negativity Dominance.  “It means the universal tendency for negative events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones.  We’re devastated by a word of criticism but unmoved by a shower of praise.  We see the hostile face in the crowd and miss all the friendly smiles.”  Roy Baumeister argues from his research that while “bad is stronger… good can prevail if we know what we’re up against… by overriding our innate responses… [breaking] destructive patterns and exploiting the remarkable benefits of this bias.  Bad luck, bad news and bad feelings create powerful incentives – the most powerful, in fact – to make us stronger, smarter and kinder.  Bad can be put to perfectly good uses, but only if the rational brain understands its irrational impact.  Beating bad, especially in a digital world that magnifies its power, takes wisdom and effort.” Excerpt from pages 1-2

In his research, certain linguistic peculiarities struck Baumeister and another researcher named Rozin.  A stand out point was that “psychologists generally describe emotional states with pairs of opposites: happy or sad, relaxed or anxious, pleased or angry, friendly or hostile, optimistic or pessimistic… Psychologists have long known that people can be scarred for years by a single event.  The term for it is trauma, but what is the opposite?  What word would describe a positive emotional state that lingers for decades in response to a single event?  There is no opposite of trauma, because no single good event has such a lasting impact… one infidelity can destroy a marriage, but no act of devotion can permanently bond a couple.  One moment of parental neglect can lead to decades of angst and therapy, but on one spends adulthood fixated on that wonderful day at the zoo.”  This research in which Baumeister and Rozin independently recognised the same principle is now among the most cited papers in social-science literature. Excerpt from pages 10-11

Why?  They argue it’s evolution.  To survive, life has to win every day.  Death has to win just once.  A small error or miscalculation can wipe out all the successes (page 11).  But of course avoiding enemies on the savannah, or choosing the right berries to eat, or learning to be a good hunter-gatherer doesn’t necessarily serve us so well in the world in which we’re now living.  Even though we’re in what could be objectively considered as the safest, healthiest, richest and most free time in the world’s history, we are wired to be paying attention to things that fire cortisol and adrenaline, despite there being no immediate threat or danger to life.  This leads us to depression, anxiety, medication, over-eating and a variety of other ills.

Bear with me while I complicate things further with the ‘optimism bias.’  From page 13 & 14… “We’re all prone to overestimate our abilities as well as our power to control our destiny.  People have a false sense of security on the highway because they consider themselves above-average drivers and expect their skill to protect them, even though many accidents are caused by factors beyond their control… this causes them to underestimate the risk of some types of negative events in their own lives.  They’re fully aware that something bad can happen – in fact, they often have an unrealistically high expectation it will happen – but they tell themselves it will happen to someone else.  Over and over, this toxic combination of fear and overconfidence leads to disaster.”

The practical advice to overcome this?  Well here are highlights from 2 chapters to give you a taster:

Chapter 3 The Brain’s Inner Demon – Wired For Bad.  Learn more about the amygdala or rather the amygdalae in your brain as we have two.  Get to understand how fear triggers and manifests in you, notice when it does, and practice ways of overcoming it via your rational thinking PreFrontal Cortex.  E.g Notice when you’re feeling really worried – and start to use your breathing to adapt your response in order to calm yourself.  Learn breathing methods that you can apply quickly and effectively.  Become conscious of catastrophising, overgeneralising, mind reading, fortune telling and binary thinking in order to break the pattern and put things into perspective, objectively.

As an aside I like the term Amygdala Hijack coined by Daniel Goleman in relation to his work on emotional intelligence.  He summarises in a different context much of what is contained in the Power of Bad.  Here is my cheat sheet (click the image) that I use to reduce anxiety and overcome the amygdala hijack with rational thought and breathing:

Amygdala Hijack

Chapter 2 Love Lessons – Eliminate the Negative.  This applies to marriages, parenting, the work place and any relationship basically:

  • Be ‘good enough’ – Focus not on achieving perfection but rather on avoiding elementary mistakes, both in your behaviour and in the way you interpret others’ behaviours e.g Underpromise, because people focus more on bad results than good intentions
  • Don’t expect credit for going the extra mile. People appreciate extra generosity less than they remember and are impacted by you falling short on the basics, or not keeping a promise.
  • “Remember that bad is in the eye of the beholder. During an argument, it’s better to study your partner’s reaction and imagine their perspective than to keep repeating your grievance.  Talk less.  Listen more.”
  • Put the bad moments to good use. Bad can be a great teacher – unite by looking for the lesson, together.
  • Think before you blame. Beware of the fundamental attribution error.  “Before automatically blaming your partner’s mistake on a character flaw, or interpreting it as a symptom of a permanent problem, force yourself to consider more benign explanations.  And then give your partner the benefit of the doubt.”
  • When you’re fighting, bring in an imaginary referee. This is a method of taking a perceptual position such as in some NLP coaching techniques.  It reduces anger and increases listening and compromise.
  • Get a second opinion. If the imaginary referee doesn’t work, get a real one!
  • Suspend judgment. As the poet William Blake described a principle “Love to faults is always blind.”  In brain scans, those couples who have consciously cultivated a focus on their partner’s strengths rather than flaws, by creating a narrative of admiring them and looking for the positive intention – are those that have the longer, stronger and happier relationships.
  • Don’t take the bait. And so the list goes on. I won’t add any more for now.  But know that it’s useful and really stops you in your tracks as a practical guide to knowing yourself even better and others.

So there you are.  The Power of Bad… an introduction.  I can quite imagine referencing more in future blogs as I dig deeper into this realm!  And I’d better do my utmost to be applying it myself in the meantime.