Getting stuck in the negatives (and how to get unstuck) | Alison Ledgerwood | TEDxUCDavis
Transcriber: Tijana MihajlovićReviewer: Ellen MaloneyHi 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 talka little today about how people think. I’m fascinated by this question. I’m a social psychologist,which basically meansI’m a professional people watcher. So, this is what I do;I try to figure out how humans thinkand how we might be able to think better. Here’s something I noticeda few years ago about how I seem to think;here’s a typical week in my life,which usually seems to revolve entirelyaround publishing papers. So here I am,at maximum of my artistic abilitiesas a stick figure,going along at baseline,and a paper gets accepted. I get this rush, this blip of happiness,and then I’m back to baselineby about lunch time. 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 stopthinking about it. Here’s the craziest part:even if another paper gets acceptedthe next day, well, that’s nice,but somehow I can’t getthat pesky rejection out of my head. So, what is going on here?Why does a failure seemto stick in our mindsso much longer than a success?Together with my colleague Amber Boydstunin the Political Science Department,I started thinking about this question,this question of, “do our mindsget stuck in the negatives?”We all know intuitivelythat there are different waysof thinking about things. The same glass, the saying goescan be seen as half-full or half-empty. There’s a lot of researchin the social sciences showingthat depending on how you describethe 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 the gain frame,because you’re focusingon what’s gained,then people like it. But if you describe the same glassas half-empty, a loss frame,then people don’t like it. But we wondered what happenswhen you try to switchfrom thinking about it one wayto thinking about it another way. Can people shift back and forth,or do they get stuckin one way of thinking about it?Does one of these labels, in other words,tend to stick more in the mind?Well, to investigate this question,we conducted a simple experiment. We told participants in our experimentabout a new surgical procedure,and we randomly assigned themto one of two conditions. For participants in the firstcondition, the first group,we described the surgicalprocedure in terms of gains;we said it had a 70% success rate. For participants in the second group,we described the procedurein terms of losses;we said it had a 30% failure rate. So it’s the exact same procedure,we’re just focusing people’s attentionon the part of the glass that’s full,or the part of the glass that’s empty. Perhaps unsurprisingly,people like the procedurewhen it’s describedas having a 70% success rate,and they don’t like itwhen it’s describedas having a 30% failure rate. But then we added a twist:we told participants in the first group,”You know, you could think of thisas a 30% failure rate. “And now they don’t like it anymore;they’ve changed their minds. We told participants in the second group,”You know, you could think of thisas a 70% success rate”,but unlike the first group,they stuck with their initial opinion;they seemed to be stuck in the initialloss frame that they sawat the beginning of the study. We conducted another experiment. This time we told participantsabout the current governorof an important statewho is running for re-electionagainst his opponent. We again had two groups of participants,and we described the current governor’strack record to them in one of two ways. We said that when the currentgovernor took office,statewide budget cuts were expectedto affect of about 10,000 jobs,and then half of the participants readthat under the currentgovernor’s leadership40% of these jobs had been saved. They like the current governor;they think he is doing a great job. The rest of the participants readthat under the currentgovernor’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 informationin terms of losses,and now they didn’t likethe current governor anymore. For participants in the second group,we reframed the informationin terms of gains,but just like in the first study,this didn’t seem to matter. People in this groupstill didn’t like the current governor. So notice what this means. Once the loss framegets in there, it sticks. People can’t go back to thinkingabout jobs savedonce they thought about jobs lost. So in both of these scenarios actuallythe current governor gets oustedin favor of his opponent. At this point we were getting curious:why does this happen?Could it be that it’s actuallymentally harder for peopleto convert from losses to gainsthan it is for themto go from gains to losses?So we conducted the third studyto test how easily people could covertfrom one frame to another. This time we told participants,”Imagine there’s beenan outbreak of an unusual diseaseand six hundred lives are at stake. “We asked participants in one group,”If a hundred lives are saved,how many will be lost?”And we asked participantsin the other group,”If a hundred lives are lost,how many will be saved?”So everyone just has to calculate600 minus 100, and come upwith the answer of 500but whereas people in one grouphave to convert from gains to lossesin order to do that,people in the second grouphave to convert from losses to gains. We timed how long it took themto solve this simple math problem,and what we found was thatwhen people had to convertfrom gains to losses,they could solvethe problem quite quickly;it took them about 7 seconds on average. But when they had to convertfrom losses to gains,well now it took them far longer,almost 11 seconds. So this suggests that once we thinkabout something as a loss,that way of thinking about ittends to stick in our headsand to resist our attempts to change it. What I take away from this researchand from related researchis that our view of the worldhas a fundamental tendencyto tilt toward 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 harderto see the upside of things. And this matters. So, think about the economy. Here’s economic well-beingfrom 2007 to 2010. You can see it tanked,just like we all remember,and then by late 2010 it has recoveredby most objective measures. But here’s consumer confidenceover the same time period. You can see it tanksright along with the economy,but then it seems to get stuck. Instead of reboundingwith the economy itself,consumers seem to be psychologically stuckback there in the recession. So oddly then, it may take more effortto change our mindsabout how the economy is doingthen to change the economy itself. On the more personal level,what this research means to meis that you have to workto see the up-side. Literally, this takes work,this takes effort. And you can practice this;you can train your mind to do this better. There’s research out at UC Davis,showing that just writingfor a few minutes each dayabout things that you’re grateful forcan dramatically boostyour happiness and well-being,and even your health. We can also rehearse good newsand share it with others. We tend to think, right,that misery loves company,that venting will help get ridof our negative emotions,that we’ll feel better if we just talkabout how terrible our day was. And so we talk, and we talk, and we talkabout the boss who’s driving us crazy,and that friend who never called us back,and that meeting at workwhere every little thingthat could go wrong, did. But we forget to talkabout the good stuff. And yet, that’s exactlywhere our minds need the most practice. So, my husband who hasthis disconcerting habitof listening to what I sayother people should do,and then pointing outthat, technically speaking,I’m a person, too, has taken to listening to mefor about two minuteson days when I come home all grumpyand complaining about everything,and he listens, and he says,”Okay, but what happenedtoday that was good?”So I tell him about the studentwho came up to me after classwith this really interesting,insightful question,and I tell him about the friendwho emailed me out of the bluethis morning just to say, “hello”. And somewhere in the telling,I start to smile,and I start to think that maybemy day was pretty decent after all. I think we can also workin our communitiesto focus on the upside. We can be more awarethat bad tends to stick. One mean comment can stickwith somebody all day, all week even,and bad tends 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 timesomebody snapped at you,you forgave them?What if the next time you hada really grumpy waitress,you left her an extra large tip?Our minds may be builtto look for negative informationand to hold on to it,but we can also retrain our mindsif we put some effort into itand start to see that the glassmay be a little more fullthan we initially thought. Thank you.