Why Are Negative Thoughts Stronger Than Positive Ones?

You’ve had a rough day; someone cut you off on your way to work, you hit just about every red light, your friends won’t give you the time of day because they assume that you’re always working and worse: you are always working. You just can’t seem to get a break! Or can you?

We constantly fill our lives with a sense of doom and gloom but we really just don’t know why. You get on an airplane for several hours and the whole thing was a fiasco because your “window seat” didn’t turn out to have a window at all. Naturally, there are ways in which we overcome these obstacles (like peering through the window that belongs to the guy in front of you), but we didn’t want to have the problems in the first place. The thing that really turns us on our heads is when we realize all that went well. For example, did the plane crash or land safely? You may have been late to work, but were you fired for it? How many days have you enjoyed the luxury of spending time with friends?

The thing is, if you have a bad day, a single good thing is not going to erase all of the bad (unless you work hard to choose for it to, which in that case you are an optimism god). However, you may have a good day– no– GREAT day and one negative thing may remain lingering in your head all throughout the day until dinner. In a scholarly publication by the SAGE journal, the authors name this dilemma the principle of negative potency:

“The principle of negative potency asserts that, given
inverse negative and positive events of equal objective
magnitude, the negative event is subjectively more potent and of higher salience than its positive counterpart.”

In other words, something bad spoils something good, but something good doesn’t necessarily purify that something bad. Say you take a glass of drinking water and you drop one itty bitty drop of oil into that water. Now the water is contaminated. Now, if you take the inverse of this and drop one itty bitty drop of water in a cup of oil, you probably won’t even notice.

The problem is that we think like this on a regular basis. We constantly choose to mostly pay attention to what negatively impacts us. It really isn’t our fault. We’re hardwired this way.

Think of it this way: when you’re in the wild and you hear a rustle behind a bush, are you going to assume that’s it’s just the harmless wind or a predator lurking behind cover, waiting to pounce? If you think it’s the wind, you might be right and you might live to see another day. If you guessed it was a predator, well, you’re likely to act upon that fear and increase your likelihood of survival.

This is one theory anyway. Though negativity can be destructive at times, it has its place.

However this does give us some insight into why the world always seems like it’s on fire (not literally from climate change). The problem is bigger nowadays because we don’t necessarily need that kind of negative paranoia. It starts to get in the way when you’re constantly worried about that bush rustling outside when you’re working your office job.

The fact of the matter is, if you’re living in a first world country, it’s not likely that you should be worrying all the time about your personal safety. To pull from a constantly quoted piece of philosophy, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan gives an explanation for why we shouldn’t think as negatively as we do. We, an individuals in a society, have signed an imaginary social contract when we decided to remain in the government that surrounds us. In fact, because som many people have agreed to this bond between citizens and government, it’s almost impossible to return to his “state of nature.” We decided to give up certain rights so that we wouldn’t have to worry about the dangers of the wild. More so than just “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” the peoples of the wild basically decided to not kill or steal as much and, in return, benefit from the protection and organization of a government.

I apologize if you’ve already taken philosophy 101 and just read all of that. You deserve better. Anyhow, back to negativity…

As humans, whether it’s just a byproduct of our negativity or just another characteristic that contributes, we have a greater emotional response to losing than we do to gaining. It’s called loss aversion.

We hate to lose what we already have, more so than gaining something we want. We get attached to things and they become familiar. This may not be the same thing, but it certainly is similar to the status quo bias. I’ll be sure to write something on that in the future sometime.

The status quo bias is our need to stick with the familiar. It’s the reason why we don’t want to change from iPhone to Android or move houses. We become comfortable and attached and trying new things takes effort that we are often not willing to voluntarily expend. Taking this concept into account, let’s remind ourselves of what makes us so negative…

First, we remember things that are negative more than positive things; second, we have a fear of losing what we already have; and third (sue me for a second semicolon), we often neglect the negative influences in life because we’re too “comfortable” with the status quo.