Going Negative Can Save Your Life—or Ruin It

"Would either of you make a pledge to end the negativity?" asked NBC's Matt Lauer at a recent gubernatorial debate. When one candidate declined, the audience booed.

Well, the election is over and, for the moment at least, so are all those attack ads.

But the truth is, we're programmed for negativity. It catches our attention.

"Negativity bias," according to Wikipedia, means we "give more weight to negative rather than positive experiences or other kinds of information."

If someone says, "I'm not a witch," as one Senate candidate did, it's hard to get past "witch." She could go on to tell you 10 non-witchy things about herself. It wouldn't matter. You'd remember witch.

Probably better to simply admit, "Look, I'm not one of those phony politicians. Sometimes, I'm a real witch."

Negativity bias is not all bad. It gives us an evolutionary edge, psychologists claim, by making us attentive to threats.

Scott Quinn Photography | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

If you're trying to survive in the jungle and you hear a rustling in the bushes, better to think threat (TIGERS!) than ignore it ("I'm sure that's nothing, dear").

The latter is my tendency. "You wouldn't last 5 seconds in the jungle," my wife says.

In marriage, by the way, negativity bias means that critical comments carry more weight than positive ones. So we need a lot of positive interactions to balance things out.

Five to one—that's the optimal ratio of positive to negative interactions, according to John Gottman, a leading research scientist.

He's computed a "Dow-Jones Industrial Average for marital conversation," a mathematical model to predict break-ups.

After watching a couple for 15 minutes, researchers can predict the likelihood of divorce, using Gottman's model, with more than 90% accuracy.

What's the optimal ratio at work when, let's say, you're giving feedback? It's certainly not 100% positive. Effective managers also give constructive advice.

Some researchers think the ratio is between 3 to 1 and 13 to 1. (Source: “How Full Is Your Bucket,” by Rath and Clifton).

What's your ratio? During the day, how much do you focus on the negative—what's wrong with you, your boss, your company, this galaxy—versus what's right?

It's not just what you say to others, but also what you tell yourself. A good friend has run six marathons. That's an impressive achievement. But the only one she talks about is the one she didn't finish.

Tip: Watch your balance.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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