Getting Stuck in the Negatives (and How to Get Unstuck) by Alison Ledgerwood (Transcript)

Alison Ledgerwood on Getting Stuck in the Negatives (and How to Get Unstuck) at TEDxUCDavis – Transcript

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Alison Ledgerwood – Associate Professor of Psychology, UC Davis

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.

And here’s something I noticed a few years ago about how I seemed to think. Here is a typical week in my life which usually seems to revolve entirely around publishing papers. So here I am in the maximum of my artistic abilities as a stick figure. Going along at baseline and a paper I got accepted. I get this rush, this blip of happiness. And then I’m back to baseline by about lunchtime.

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.

And 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 the failure seem to stick in our mind so much longer than a success? Well together with my colleague and her voice in the political science department, I started thinking about this question, and this question of do our minds get stuck in the negative? 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. And 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.

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So if you describe the glass as half full, this is called gained brain because you’re focusing on what’s gained. Then people like it. But if you describe the same glass as half empty, a lost 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?

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. And 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 mind.

And 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 lost frame that they saw at the beginning of the study.

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We conducted another experiment. This time we told participants about the current governor of an important state who is running for reelection 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 about 10,000 jobs.

And then half the participants read that under the current governor’s leadership, 40% of these jobs have been saved. And they like the current governor. They think he’s 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.

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