Why does failure stick in our minds so much longer than success? Why do we get stuck in the negative mind-frame so much more easily than the positive?

Seriously, how come when something good happens to us we only get a momentary high then move on? Yet when something negative happens we can’t let it go?

We could get 10 amazing compliments in one day, yet one bad one would make us forget them all — discredit them. We could get 3 papers accepted, but one rejection makes us believe that we’re no good.

According to psychologist, Alison Ledgerwood, it’s hardwired in our brains to see the negatives longer.

We all know there are multiple ways to thinking about things, and a lot of research in the field of social sciences shows that depending on how you describe the glass as half full or half empty ultimately changes how you feel about it.

Describing the glass as half full is called a gain frame, because you’re focusing on what’s gained. And describing a glass as half empty is called a loss frame. So, what happens when you try to switch from thinking about it one way to thinking about it another way? Can people shift back and forth or do they get stuck in one way of thinking about it? Does one of these labels tend to stick more in the mind?

To investigate this question, experts conducted a simple experiment. They told participants about a new surgical procedure and assigned them to one of two conditions:

  1. For participants in the first group, they described the surgical procedure in terms of gains. They said it had a 70% success rate.
  2. For participants in the second group, they described the procedure in terms of losses. They said it had a 30% failure rate.

So it’s the exact same procedure, they’re just focusing people’s attention on the part of the glass that’s either full or empty.

Unsurprisingly, people liked the procedure when it’s described as having a 70% success rate, and they don’t like it when it’s described as having a 30% failure rate.

But then they added a twist. They told participants in the first group: “You know, you could think of this as a 30% failure rate”. It turns out that the participants didn’t like that any longer. They changed their minds.

Then they told participants in the second group “You know you could think of this as a 70% success rate.” But unlike the first group, they stuck with their initial opinion.

What’s interesting is that they appeared to be stuck in the initial loss frame that they saw in the beginning.

The experts weren’t done yet though. They decided to conduct another experiment:

This time they told participants about the current governor of an important state who is running for re-election against his opponent. For the two group of participants they described the current governors track record in one of two ways.

When the current governor took office, statewide budget cuts were expected to affect about 10,000 jobs and then….

  1. Half of the participants read that under the current governor’s leadership, 40% of these jobs had been saved. Thus, they liked the current governor.
  2. The rest read that under the current governor’s leadership, 60% of these jobs had been lost. Thus, they don’t like the current governor.

And of course, they then added a twist:

For participants in the first group, they reframed the info in terms of losses. And to no surprise, the participants no longer liked the current governor.

For participants in the second group, they reframed the info in terms of gains. But just like in the first study, this didn’t seem to matter. (Remind you of any tactics used today in American Politics?)

What does this all mean?

Once the loss frame gets in there, it sticks. People can’t go back to thinking about jobs saved once they thought about jobs lost.

It’s a powerful demonstration on the effect of negative thinking.

Why does this happen? Could it be that it’s mentally harder for people to convert from losses to gains than it is for them to go from gains to losses?

The test wasn’t over yet.

In the third study, they tested how easily people could convert from one frame to another. This time they asked the participants to imagine that there’s been an outbreak of an unusual disease and that 600 lives were at stake.

  1. They then asked the first group, “if 100 lives are saved, how many will be lost?”
  2. And the second group, “if 100 lives are lost, how many will be saved?”

With basic maths, the first group had to subtract 100 from 600 to get to their answer of 500. The second group had to add either add 500 to 100, or subtract 500 from 600 to get to their answer.

Why does this make a difference? Well, the participants from the second group had to convert from gains to losses. While people in the second group had to convert from losses to gains.

They timed how long it took them to solve this simple math problem.

  • Gain To Loss: 7 seconds
  • Loss To Gain: 11 seconds

What they found was, when people had to convert from gains to losses, they could solve the problem a lot quicker. When they had to convert from losses to gains, it took them longer.

This suggests that once we think about something as a loss (the negative), that way of thinking about it tends to stick in our heads and to resist our attempts to change it.

What can we take away from this research?

Our view of the world has a fundamental tendency to tilt towards the negative.

It’s easy to go from good to bad, but far harder to shift from bad to good. We literally have to work harder to see the upside of things. But, like any form of change, to be successful at it and succeed it takes practice. Research out of UC Davis shows that just writing for a few minutes each day about things that you’re grateful for can dramatically boost your happiness and well-being, even your health.

We can also rehearse good news and share it with others. We think venting will help us get rid of our negative emotions. So we talk and talk about the boss who is driving us crazy and meeting at work where everything went wrong – a so called negative manifestation and stew of harboring emotions. So much so that we forget to talk about the good stuff. This is where our minds need the most practice.

Next time your partner, spouse, mom, brother, sister, friend comes home and vents to you. Listen to them. Give them their few minutes of vent time. Then when they’re finished, ask them, “ok, but what happened today that was good?”

Getting them to think and talk about their experiences that day, they may realize actually the positives far outweighed the negatives. 

Our minds may be built to look for negative information and hold onto it, but we can retrain our minds if we put some effort into it.

Your challenge

Feel free to print and save this as a daily reminder

Lauren Martin
Just another girl in the world...and founder of Words of Women

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