My younger daughter came home from school today with the results of some exams. While we were sitting in traffic, she told me that she didn’t get a ten (A+) on her math test because of some stupid mistakes. She did it almost perfectly, but can only look at the mistakes and repeat that she should have paid more attention to details. Sound familiar? The bad is stronger than good for most of us.
This phenomenon is commonly known as the negativity bias. We tend to give more attention and weight to negative experiences, information, and emotions than to positive ones. This affects perception, decision-making, and memory.
Asymmetry in impact
Negative events or experiences tend to have a more significant and lasting impact than positive ones. If we explore this impact in the realm of interpersonal relationships, we can see how it works in feedback, trust, and conflict, to name a few examples.
For instance, a critical comment from a partner may be remembered longer than several compliments. The emotional impact of criticism can lead to self-doubt and increased sensitivity to future interactions. Positive statements, while appreciated, may not have the same lasting impact on self-perception and the relationship.
The idea of a ratio of at least five positive interactions to one negative interaction to mitigate the asymmetry of impact was popularized by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, and it’s called the “positivity ratio”. It is based on the idea that positive interactions can help buffer the effects of negative events. Over time, the cumulative effect of positive emotions can contribute to our psychological well-being. When we feel good, our creativity, resilience, and problem-solving skills increase.
Of course, this 5:1 ratio is only a guideline. Some studies suggest that the ratio may depend on factors such as personality and personal circumstances. What really matters is the quality and authenticity of the positive interactions, rather than the quantity.
Reframing the negative interactions
But we need the so-called negative interactions to grow. So, there’s a difference between something we don’t like that helps us grow, and pure criticism that only diminishes our self-confidence. And often the line between the two of them is too thin.
Let’s face it, most people don’t know how to give proper feedback that helps us improve while taking care of our emotional field. And that’s part of the problem.
Feedback seeks improvement and growth, acknowledges strengths, and provides specific and actionable suggestions. It allows individuals to focus on practical steps to improve their behavior or performance.
It recognizes effort and fosters engagement and motivation. All in all, it helps prevent the effects of negativity.
You might think that criticism is part of the growing process. But it isn’t. When we manage people, we have to pay attention to these negative interactions. Otherwise, the bad will always be stronger than the good.