Alison Ledgerwood on Getting Stuck in the Negatives (and How to Get Unstuck) at TEDxUCDavis – Transcript
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.
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.
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.
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. And 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 lost 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.
Well, 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 a third study to test how easily people could convert from one frame to another. This time we told participants, imagine there’s been an outbreak of an unusual disease and 600 lives are at stake. And we asked participants in one group, if 100 lives are saved, how many will be lost?
And we asked participants in the other group, if 100 lives are lost, how many will be saved? So everyone just have 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. Took them about seven seconds on average. But when they had to convert from losses to gains, well now it took them far longer, almost eleven 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 towards 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. And you can see it tanked just like we all remember and then by late 2010, it had 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 seemed 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 than to change the economy itself.
On a more personal level what this research means to me is that you have to work to see the upside. Literally this takes work. This takes effort. And you can practice it. You can train your mind to do this better. There is research out of U.C. 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 great that misery loves company that venting will help get rid of our negative emotions, that we will 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 the friend who never called us back and 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 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.
And 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 times 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 who left her an extra large tip. Our minds may be built to look for negative information and to hold onto 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.