Positive-Negative Asymmetry

Positive-Negative Asymmetry Definition

The positive-negative asymmetry refers to two complementary tendencies regarding how people respond to positive and negative events or information. On one hand, there is a tendency for bad events (such as failing a class, being criticized, or experiencing the loss of a close friend) to have more impact on a person than good events (winning a prize, receiving a compliment, or making a new friend). The greater strength of negative information is most obvious in the area of impression formation, where it is called the negativity effect. Accordingly, when people form an impression of another person, they put greater weight on the person’s bad behaviors (such as hitting a child for no reason) than on the person’s good behavior (such as rescuing a family from a burning house). On the other hand, most of the experiences people have in everyday life are pleasant. As a result, there is a tendency for people to expect positive outcomes and good experiences from other people. In part, this very expectation may lead people to be surprised by and strongly affected by the bad things that occur in life.

Social Domains Where Bad Is Stronger Than Good

Positive-Negative AsymmetryBad events seem to carry more power than do good ones in a variety of domains. To appreciate the negativity effect in impression formation, try this thought experiment. Imagine a person who is very immoral, someone who has done horrendous things. Would you be surprised to learn that this villain did something very positive such as talked a friend out of suicide? Most people would find this mildly surprising. Now imagine a very moral person. Would you be surprised to learn that this person sold narcotics to neighborhood children? Most people would be quite surprised to hear that a very moral person did something so harmful. This thought experiment demonstrates the power of negative information in the impression. A bad act is capable of greatly altering one’s impression of a person, whereas a person’s good acts seem to count for less in the impression.

The greater weight of negative or immoral behavior also affects the attribution process. Attribution research examines how one’s impressions of a person are influenced by both the person’s behavior and the situational forces that surround the behavior. For example, if a coworker makes a donation to a charity when asked by the boss, you may discount the possibility that the coworker has a helpful trait. But a person’s immoral behavior carries greater weight and may override this discounting tendency. For example, if a coworker is paid handsomely by the boss to swindle poor people, you are likely to see the coworker as immoral. Notice that the presence of the (situational) reward in this situation has little effect on your impression. In summary, when people hear about moral behavior, they take the situation into account when judging the person, but when they hear about a person’s immoral behavior, they are likely to judge the person to be immoral, regardless of the situation. People’s inferences about a person’s underlying motives may help explain this asymmetry. For example, a person who commits a harmful act (such as swindling poor people) for money is probably motivated by selfishness, a motive that is entirely consistent with an immoral trait.

Research on impression formation and attribution focuses on people’s reaction to strangers. What about close relationships? Are people more affected by the irritating behaviors of a romantic partner or spouse than by a partner’s positive behaviors? Research by John Gottman suggests that negative events count more in this domain as well. The researcher videotaped couples as they discussed conflicts in their relationships. Although couples demonstrated a variety of styles of conflict resolution, negative behaviors by the partners were more strongly related to the couple’s relationship satisfaction than were positive behaviors. Positive behaviors such as politeness, compliments, and gifts did help the relationship in minor ways. But negative behaviors such as insults and criticism were more decisive in determining whether the couple stayed together. In fact, Gottman reached the startling conclusion that a healthy relationship requires five times more good interactions than bad interactions.

Why Do Bad Things Have Greater Impact?

The broadest explanation for the negativity effect is that it has survival value. To appreciate this idea, think of the world as if it is a field filled with mushrooms and poisonous toadstools. A mushroom lover must be exceedingly careful when picking fungi for Sunday’s dinner. The tastiest mushroom brings only a moment of pleasure. In contrast, eating the wrong toadstool can lead to an untimely and painful death. More generally, people’s experiences with positive events (e.g., winning the lottery, sexual orgasm) may have less impact on their survival than their experiences with negative events (particularly those that risk bodily harm). As a result, it is adaptive for people to place greater weight on bad events than on good events.

A variety of specific psychological mechanisms may be involved in producing this negativity effect, including perceptual, cognitive, and affective factors. Bad events tend to receive more attention and more thorough processing than good events do. For example, when people are shown an array of human faces with different expressions, threatening faces are detected more quickly and accurately. This tendency to focus first on the negative may be relatively automatic. In a series of studies based on the Stroop paradigm, participants were shown personality trait adjectives and asked to name the color of ink in which the word was printed. Participants were slower to name the color when the word concerned a negative trait (e.g., sadistic) than a positive trait (e.g., honest). It appears that traits with negative meaning are distracting and slow down the color-naming process. Moreover, the participants in these studies were not deliberately focusing on the trait adjectives and, consequently, were probably unaware of the biasing impact of the negative words.

Perhaps the most elaborate theoretical explanations for the negativity effect involve cognitive mechanisms. For example, in seeking to explain the negativity effect in impressions and attributions, Glenn D. Reeder and Marilyn Brewer described the kinds of behavior that people typically expect from people with different types of traits. These trait-behavior relations often take an asymmetrical form. Specifically, people typically expect a person with a moral trait to emit moral behavior (e.g., helping people in need and giving generously to charity), but not immoral behavior (e.g., hurting other people). In contrast, people expect that a person with an immoral trait will emit both immoral behavior and moral behavior. It follows from these trait-behavior expectations, therefore, that immoral behavior will be more informative (or diagnostic) in the impression process because it must have been performed by an immoral person. Yet moral behavior is less informative because it could have been performed by either a moral person or an immoral person.

Finally, some research suggests that people’s evaluation of positive and negative events are governed by separate affective (or feeling) systems. For example, a person may feel ambivalent toward a romantic partner or family member, such that he or she feels both strong positive feelings and strong negative feelings at the same time. In general, however, it appears that the negative system evokes stronger and more rapid responses.

Exceptions to the Rule That Bad Is Stronger Than Good

Although bad seems to outweigh good when the two are juxtaposed, people are generally optimistic about the future, expect the best from other people, and hold pleasant memories of the past. For most people, life is generally a positive experience. Indeed, the preponderance of positive events in everyday life may contribute to the fact that negative events stand out (or are “figural” to the “ground” of positive events). Given the novelty of negative events, it stands to reason that people would pay more attention to them. Thus, people’s tendency to expect the best in life is not contradicted by their tendency to react more strongly to the worst in life.

Shelley Taylor described two complementary psychological processes that can account both for people’s optimism and their tendency toward the negativity effect. Bad or threatening events create a problem that requires a quick response. In contrast, good or desirable events can be ignored with little penalty. Consequently, negative events cause a quick and intense mobilization to meet the threat. Once the threat is over, a second psychological process of minimization begins to take effect. This second process helps people repair the trauma of the earlier process by directing their attention toward the positive aspects of experience.


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