Getting stuck in the negatives (and how to get unstuck) | Alison Ledgerwood | TEDxUCDavis


Translator: Tijana Mihajlović
Reviewer: Ellen Maloney Hi everyone. Gosh, I wish I could dance, but I can’t, and you really don’t want me to. So instead I thought I would talk
a little today about how people think. I’m fascinated by this question. I’m a social psychologist, which basically means
I’m a professional people watcher. So, this is what I do; I try to figure out how humans think and how we might be able to think better. Here’s something I noticed
a few years ago about how I seem to think; here’s a typical week in my life, which usually seems to revolve entirely
around publishing papers. So here I am, at maximum of my artistic abilities
as a stick figure, going along at baseline, and a paper gets accepted. I get this rush, this blip of happiness, and then I’m back to baseline
by about lunch time. (Laughter) A few days later,
a paper might get rejected, and that feels pretty awful. And I wait for that blip to end, but somehow I just can’t stop
thinking about it. Here’s the craziest part: even if another paper gets accepted
the next day, well, that’s nice, but somehow I can’t get
that pesky rejection out of my head. So, what is going on here? Why does a failure seem
to stick in our minds so much longer than a success? Together with my colleague Amber Boydstun
in the Political Science Department, I started thinking about this question, this question of, “do our minds
get stuck in the negatives?” We all know intuitively that there are different ways
of thinking about things. The same glass, the saying goes
can be seen as half-full or half-empty. There’s a lot of research
in the social sciences showing that depending on how you describe
the glass to people, as half-full or half-empty, it changes how they feel about it. So if you describe the glass as half-full,
this is called the gain frame, because you’re focusing
on what’s gained, then people like it. But if you describe the same glass
as half-empty, a loss frame, then people don’t like it. But we wondered 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, in other words,
tend to stick more in the mind? Well, to investigate this question,
we conducted a simple experiment. We told participants in our experiment
about a new surgical procedure, and we randomly assigned them
to one of two conditions. For participants in the first
condition, the first group, we described the surgical
procedure in terms of gains; we said it had a 70% success rate. For participants in the second group, we described the procedure
in terms of losses; we said it had a 30% failure rate. So it’s the exact same procedure, we’re just focusing people’s attention
on the part of the glass that’s full, or the part of the glass that’s empty. Perhaps unsurprisingly,
people like 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 we added a twist: we told participants in the first group, “You know, you could think of this
as a 30% failure rate.” And now they don’t like it anymore;
they’ve changed their minds. We 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; they seemed to be stuck in the initial
loss frame that they saw at the beginning of the study. We conducted another experiment. This time we told participants about the current governor
of an important state who is running for re-election
against his opponent. We again had two groups of participants, and we described the current governor’s
track record to them in one of two ways. We said that when the current
governor took office, statewide budget cuts were expected
to affect of about 10,000 jobs, and then half of the participants read that under the current
governor’s leadership 40% of these jobs had been saved. They like the current governor;
they think he is doing a great job. The rest of the participants read that under the current
governor’s leadership, 60% of these jobs had been lost, and they don’t like the current governor;
they think he’s doing a terrible job. But then, once more, we added a twist. For participants in the first group, we reframed the information
in terms of losses, and now they didn’t like
the current governor anymore. For participants in the second group, we reframed the information
in terms of gains, but just like in the first study,
this didn’t seem to matter. People in this group
still didn’t like the current governor. So notice what this means. 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. So in both of these scenarios actually the current governor gets ousted
in favor of his opponent. At this point we were getting curious:
why does this happen? Could it be that it’s actually
mentally harder for people to convert from losses to gains than it is for them
to go from gains to losses? So we conducted the third study to test how easily people could covert
from one frame to another. This time we told participants, “Imagine there’s been
an outbreak of an unusual disease and six hundred lives are at stake.” We asked participants in one group, “If a hundred lives are saved,
how many will be lost?” And we asked participants
in the other group, “If a hundred lives are lost,
how many will be saved?” So everyone just has to calculate 600 minus 100, and come up
with the answer of 500 but whereas people in one group
have to convert from gains to losses in order to do that, people in the second group
have to convert from losses to gains. We timed how long it took them
to solve this simple math problem, and what we found was that when people had to convert
from gains to losses, they could solve
the problem quite quickly; it took them about 7 seconds on average. But when they had to convert
from losses to gains, well now it took them far longer,
almost 11 seconds. So this suggests that once we think
about something as a loss, that way of thinking about it
tends to stick in our heads and to resist our attempts to change it. What I take away from this research
and from related research is that our view of the world
has a fundamental tendency to tilt toward the negative. It’s pretty 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. And this matters. So, think about the economy. Here’s economic well-being
from 2007 to 2010. You can see it tanked,
just like we all remember, and then by late 2010 it has recovered
by most objective measures. But here’s consumer confidence
over the same time period. You can see it tanks
right along with the economy, but then it seems to get stuck. Instead of rebounding
with the economy itself, consumers seem to be psychologically stuck
back there in the recession. So oddly then, it may take more effort
to change our minds about how the economy is doing
then to change the economy itself. On the more personal level,
what this research means to me is that you have to work
to see the up-side. Literally, this takes work,
this takes effort. And you can practice this;
you can train your mind to do this better. There’s research out at UC Davis, showing that just writing
for a few minutes each day about things that you’re grateful for can dramatically boost
your happiness and well-being, and even your health. We can also rehearse good news
and share it with others. We tend to think, right,
that misery loves company, that venting will help get rid
of our negative emotions, that we’ll feel better if we just talk
about how terrible our day was. And so we talk, and we talk, and we talk
about the boss who’s driving us crazy, and that friend who never called us back, and that meeting at work where every little thing
that could go wrong, did. But we forget to talk
about the good stuff. And yet, that’s exactly
where our minds need the most practice. So, my husband who has
this disconcerting habit of listening to what I say
other people should do, and then pointing out that, technically speaking,
I’m a person, too, (Laughter) has taken to listening to me
for about two minutes on days when I come home all grumpy
and complaining about everything, and he listens, and he says, “Okay, but what happened
today that was good?” So I tell him about the student
who came up to me after class with this really interesting,
insightful question, and I tell him about the friend
who emailed me out of the blue this morning just to say, “hello”. And somewhere in the telling,
I start to smile, and I start to think that maybe
my day was pretty decent after all. I think we can also work
in our communities to focus on the upside. We can be more aware
that bad tends to stick. One mean comment can stick
with somebody all day, all week even, and bad tends to propagate itself, right? Somebody snaps at you and you snap back,
and you snap at the next guy, too. But what if the next time
somebody snapped at you, you forgave them? What if the next time you had
a really grumpy waitress, you left her an extra large tip? Our minds may be built
to look for negative information and to hold on to it, but we can also retrain our minds
if we put some effort into it and start to see that the glass may be a little more full
than we initially thought. Thank you. (Applause)

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