Stacked Against Us

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel, at some point, like the deck is stacked against them.

We own a twenty-ish year old house and every time it gets really hot in Portland, our air-conditioning goes out. First, it was the condenser, then a capacitor in our heat pump, and then a pressure sensor. We’ve been doing well this year, but we’ve been on alert each time the temperatures rise. The trouble is that we’ve now conditioned ourselves to believe something is going to go wrong.

Our brains have this built-in tendency . It’s called negativity bias. We are apt to view an input from the outside world as bad and detrimental. Negativity bias has an even stronger effect when something significant happens in our environment.

The first time we lost our air conditioning was the weekend after we moved in to the house.  There were boxes everywhere, we had no idea the problem, and the wait list for repair technicians was over a week. At one point, the fire alarm started going off, because the temperature in the house made the alarm think there was an actual fire.

Our negative bias helps us cautiously assess situations and be ready to quickly flee if necessary. This might be a useful method to assessing danger, but it comes with a side effect: we are more susceptible to negative information. This phenomenon has been heavily researched and the bottom line is that bad is stronger than good.

Roy Baumiester, Ellen Brataslavsky, Catrin Finkeauer and Kathleen Vohs wrote a 48 page paper in 2001 enumerating the ways:

  • Bad events created greater psychology effects than good events.
  • Bad events last longer in our memory.
  • Negative feedback creates stronger reactions.
  • There are more words in the English language for negative emotions.
  • People lament more strongly a monetary loss when compared to the exact same monetary gain.

The researchers concluded this leaning toward the negative allows us to more easily see a need to change and improves our ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

But, how can we not feel the deck is stacked against us?


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