When you communicate with anyone, you are
vulnerable to becoming infected by pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism.
Not all communication is negative, of course, just as your eyes
are not merely a vulnerable place for a virus invasion. Their
main function is to allow you to see. Even so, it is worth knowing
how your eyes are vulnerable so their weaknesses can be protected.
Same with your mind. And one of the ways the lampreys of pessimism,
cynicism and defeatism can enter your mind is in conversation
with others. Here we'll look at the different ways conversation
can infect you with negativity. In the next section, we'll show
you how to protect yourself.
One of the most dangerous developments
in recent years is that negativity has become chic. It's cool
to be cynical. It's hip to be pessimistic. Optimism and enthusiasm
are in danger of being perceived as naive or gullible or childish.
An intelligent adult who knew what was going on in this world
would be cynical and pessimistic about other people and about
the world in general.
This cultural bias toward pessimism and
cynicism has gotten a big push from the media. We'll get into
that a little later. All we need to note here is that the media
has an influence on how we communicate with one another. You
are influenced by what you see others doing. And one of the things
you see a lot of others doing especially on television
is being cynical and pessimistic. Quite a bit of entertainment
and humor is sarcastic, negative, complaining, and full of putdowns
of one sort or another. And almost all network news is pessimistic
and defeatist. Those sound like extreme statements, but they
are, in fact, well-researched and understated conclusions.
Here's an example: Look at the following
list of bumper stickers a store had for sale. They are meant
to be funny, but check out the negative, sarcastic emotion they
display. And they display the attitude, sort of like an advertisement
for a point of view:
WARNING: I have an attitude and I know
how to use it.
All stressed out and no one to choke!
Guys have feelings too, but like
Sorry if I looked interested. I'm NOT.
Well, here's a quarter. Call someone who
I have only one nerve left
getting on it!!
Radio talk shows try to be entertaining
and "cutting edge." In the attempt, they often focus
on negative events and negative gossip about famous people. It
is for humor, and as a kind of us-against-them way of joining
with the listeners.
These are only a couple examples. This
negativity is all over the media. Because people are naturally
influenced by what they perceive to be the norm, all this input
has influenced people to think more negatively than they otherwise
would. Watching television, you get the impression that a pessimistic,
cynical, defeatist point of view is normal. That is part of the
reason communication in general has a negative bias television
has already had an influence on most people you meet. It is likely
that any given person you meet watches and listens to their television
more than they do to live human beings. It would be difficult
to underestimate the influence of television on attitudes in
We are naturally influenced to think the
way we believe others think. It is a built-in tendency. Yes,
even you. Even if you are independent, self-reliant, and think
for yourself. You are still human, you're still a primate, and
you still have feelings not entirely in your control.
This tendency made small hunter-gatherer
groups more cohesive a hundred thousand years ago, but now that
tendency can cause problems. First of all, what others think
might be counterproductive or false. Besides that, you might
not understand what others think. You might believe they think
X when they really think Y. And of course, some people will deliberately
try to mislead you into thinking lots of people have a particular
opinion, when perhaps it's a minority opinion.
And not only that, what someone thinks
might have been influenced by what they believe you think.
This is tricky business. We are influenced
by others while at the same time they are influenced by us. But
consider how easily you can be misled about what someone else
thinks. People you talk to have a social obligation to agree
with you. In polite company, it isn't courteous to argue. Disagreeing
can be somewhat upsetting and most people avoid it when they
can. Studies have found people tend to show much more agreement
than they actually feel. If I'm telling you how much I hate the
boss and how unfair she is and how she shouldn't be that way,
you will tend to sympathize with me. Even if you disagree with
me, you have a social pressure to modify your stance so you don't
offend me or make me feel you're against me. People who don't
naturally do this are often offensive to others. It's a common
relating skill most of us learned fairly early.
So I might get a misleading impression
of your agreement with my point of view. You don't really agree
with me but I have the impression you do, which bolsters my own
certainty I'm right. It happens all the time.
the need for entertainment
Whenever someone is talking to someone
else, there is a pressure to make the communication worth listening
to. This pressure encourages the speaker to adjust the delivery
to make a better story. Even without any malicious intent
and this applies to media as well as to your friends when
telling any story, the pressure on the communicator will naturally
cause him to emphasize the important parts and downplay the trivial
details. A speaker doesn't want to bog the story down in too
much detail or he'll lose the listener. So there is a selection
going on and in that selection, sometimes important facts are
left out and the message is misleading.
Information tends to be even less accurate
when the story is heard second-hand because as the story goes
through one telling, certain things are emphasized and certain
other things are de-emphasized, and then when the story goes
through another telling, the trimmed story is then trimmed again.
The story gets tighter and has more exaggeration in it
without anyone even trying to exaggerate making it a better
story (more interesting to the listener). The technical terms
for this are sharpening and leveling. Read a clear explanation
of the research about this in Thomas Gilovich's book, How We
Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday
Life. This doesn't necessarily make the story negative, but since
negative news is more attention-getting, the stories most likely
to be passed along are most likely negative.
Another source of inaccuracy that can potentially
bias communication toward the negative is that a person tends
to withhold good news and talk about her misfortunes. There are
many good reasons for doing this. First of all, it prevents her
listener from becoming jealous and it prevents the speaker from
sounding like a braggart.
She might want to withhold good news out
of fear you will stop your support. If you get the impression
she is better off than you, you might not want to help her any
more. So she'll withhold good news and share her complaints.
You get a negatively-slanted impression of her world.
Gossip happens easily and naturally when
people talk. We participate in it, even against our will, not
only one-on-one, but by watching talk shows and news programs,
which are often just gossip on a large scale.
What is gossip? It is people giving and
receiving information about other people. Gossip is really the
hallmark of belonging. If others share the latest gossip with
you, it's a pretty clear sign you are one of the group. If nobody
tells you the latest gossip, you're probably considered outside
A pretty common subject of gossip is fairness.
Who is cheating? Who is untrustworthy? I'm not talking about
local customs here. The drive to gossip is biologically driven.
We have a "gossip instinct." We evolved most of our
social drives in the context of a small hunter-gatherer group.
Our ancestors evolved in groups who interacted with the same
few people all their lives. Information about trustworthiness
would have been very important to survival, especially in a species
where group members rely on each other. Violations, cheating,
sex scandals all the things that make gossip "juicy"
these are all valuable information in a tight-knit hunter-gather
group, and we want to hear that kind of stuff (especially about
people in power or people we know) and share it with people in
our inner circle.
We no longer live in small, tight-knit
groups, but our genetic machinery hasn't changed. Humans in every
society ever studied gossip. And they all gossip about the same
kinds of things.
Gossip often takes the form of complaining
about someone behind their back. It has been argued that we do
this because we fear saying it to their face. We get it off our
chests by saying it to someone else. We even have developed a
theory about how this is healthy: We're "venting" our
anger. Studies have repeatedly shown that venting does not dissipate
anger, but actually increases it. But people still do it. And
they hang onto the venting theory to justify this otherwise questionable
act. Why? Because they are compelled by their own biology. They
are genetically driven to gossip. And then they try to justify
it. I say "they" to keep you and I out of it, but we
have done it too.
One kind of gossip we are biologically
driven to is largely about grievances. Human beings all over
the world spend a pretty good chunk of time talking about grievances
and listening to grievances. And trying to decide how fair the
This activity would have aided survival
in a hunter-gatherer clan in at least three ways. One is to discover
information about who is a cheater. Who does not pay back favors?
When you know that, you know who not to share resources with.
You know who to avoid cooperating with.
When you have some extra food, you wouldn't
share it with a cheater. You'd share it with someone who has
a reputation as a generous person. And as a way of bolstering
your own reputation as a helpful person, you share information
about cheaters with people you trust. It helps them, and they'll
want to pay you back. That may be why gossip functions as a form
of bonding. The speaker can give inside information to an ally.
The ally usually feels grateful for the information and for being
privy to privileged information.
The second way talking badly about others
would help us survive in a hunter-gatherer tribe is that it creates
an "us" at an emotional level. It's a way of uniting
with others against a common enemy. We-the-oppressed feel bound
together when we talk about the oppressor. We-the-superior feel
united when we talk about the idiots. We feel together, part
of the same in-group, part of the same tribe, joined. Fine and
dandy, but this form of communication allows lampreys to invade
the mind in masses. This natural, built-in inclination of ours
is a vulnerable weak spot. Pessimism and cynicism can enter here
without much resistance.
The third way it would be biologically
helpful to talk to others about grievances is for revenge. When
you've been cheated, you can get back at the cheater by hurting
his reputation. So you can help your allies and hurt your enemies
with very little effort by gossiping. In a small group who spent
their whole lives together, reputation would have made a big
difference. Even now, in big, impersonal cities and big, impersonal
companies, it can still make a difference.
Gossip seems wrong. We don't like that
we do it. We feel ashamed when we participate in it. But we are
compelled against our will compelled by gossipers who
want us to listen, compelled by our own natural curiosity, and
compelled by our own inner drive to talk about others. Anyone
who has ever tried to stop talking about people behind their
backs will discover it is much more difficult than you'd think
it should be. The drive is very strong.
emotions are contagious
Another way communication can allow the
lampreys of negativity to invade your mind is that emotions are
contagious. So without any even talking, you can feel more pessimistic
or cynical just by hanging out with someone. Their emotions are
communicated even if they don't say a word.
In an experiment on charisma, they put
three people in a room. One of them had tested high on emotional
expression (one of the elements of charisma) and the other two
tested low. When they first arrived in the room, they took a
mood test. Then they sat there for a period of time. Nobody spoke
to each other the whole time. At the end, they took another mood
test. Here's the interesting part: The two people who didn't
display much emotion had moved toward the mood of the expressive
person. Just being in the same room as the person changed their
We'll be talking later about what can be
done about this, but for now we are trying to see where the lampreys
of pessimism and cynicism can enter your mind. Where are you
And of course, when people speak, their
moods can be even more contagious. And worse, when a person is
in a bad mood, the bad mood itself changes the way they perceive
the world. They may share this point of view with you, and it
can be quite convincing and demoralizing. The point of view sees
what's wrong without seeing what's right.
For example, a woman is talking to her
husband: "Fred, you're so self-centered. When you cooked
yourself a meal today, you didn't ask me if I was hungry. You've
always been self-centered."
Nadine was already in a bad mood for other
reasons, but when Fred did this, it reminded her of similar times
in the past. What Nadine isn't seeing at the moment is that Fred
has changed a lot in the past two years changed deliberately.
Yes, he used to be rather self-centered, but he really isn't
any more and on a normal day Nadine would agree. But her bad
mood is filtering that information out of her awareness at the
moment and all she sees are all the other times Fred was being
selfish like he was today.
It would be understandable for Fred to
feel at least a little demoralized by Nadine's accusations. He
was in fact being selfish today, which he now feels bad about,
and when Nadine brought up previous memories of it, he felt even
worse. So now his bad mood is changing the way he perceives the
Communication is often a source of negative
1. gossip tends to be about grievances
2. it is cool to be cynical
3. people are more likely to communicate
on a negative level if they perceive it to be the correct way
4. we have a pressure to alter information
to make it more worth the listener's time
5. people withhold good news from you to
keep your support and avoid making you jealous
6. it is often easier to agree about what
is wrong than what is right
7. what you don't like comes to mind easier
than what you do like
8. emotions are contagious
Communication is often a source of negative
feelings. It is another point of vulnerability to infection by
pessimism and cynicism.
Now let's talk about defeatism. One of
the most consistent sources of defeatist thinking will not be
found in your own head, but in the talk of others. When you have
a goal, you'll usually have at least one person telling you it
can't be done or it shouldn't be done.
Why would people try to prevent you from
achieving your goal? There are several possible reasons. They
might be trying to protect you from the misery of failure. Or
they are jealous and don't want you to be more successful than
they are. Or they are naturally negative and automatically see
why it can't be done. Or they themselves have had a big goal
and you're hearing all the reasons they have told themselves
of why they had to give up their dream. And some people are just
So when you're pursuing your goals, don't
be at all surprised to discover that some of the people closest
to you are seemingly out to stop you. To give you an example
of the typical variety of defeatism you are likely to encounter
on your way, let's look at the example of Brooke Ellison. When
she was eleven years old, she was hit by a car and paralyzed
from the neck down. When she woke up in the hospital and found
out what happened, one of her first questions was, "Will
I be left back?" She was worried she'd be kept back in school.
Her mom, Jean, promised her she wouldn't.
People warned Jean about giving Brooke "false hope."
But what does that mean? A promise is a commitment, not a hope.
Hope is weak and wishful. A commitment is determined. And the
way things get accomplished in this world, if they can be accomplished
at all, is by committing yourself to something and then refusing
to give up when you hit setbacks. Hope and false hope are both
irrelevant to the outcome. Warnings about false hope are examples
of defeated, discouraging, demoralizing communication. Beware
of the lampreys. It is more difficult to stay motivated and committed
in the face of that kind of communication.
Brooke sometimes heard her doctors talking
about her as if she wasn't there. And sometimes their talk was
pessimistic and defeated. Their talk was pervaded by the presupposition
of the hopelessness of her case. Brooke's father eventually demanded
the doctors never speak like that within earshot of Brooke. He
didn't want her determination for accomplishing her goals to
be crushed by the naysaying defeatism of uncaring doctors.
This is the kind of thing you will have
to guard against on your path to your goals. You'll often get
the most defeatism from the "experts." I sometimes
come across lists of quotes by experts on different subjects.
Waldemar Kaempfert, managing editor of
Scientific American and the author of a book on flying said in
1913, "The aeroplane is not capable of unlimited magnification.
It is not likely that it will ever carry more than five or seven
Albert Einstein said in 1932, "There
is not the slightest indication that [nuclear] energy will ever
be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered
Ken Olson, the president of Digital Equipment
Corporation (second only to IBM as a computer manufacturer) said
in 1977, "There is no reason for any individual to have
a computer in their home."
Tom Petit, a political corresponent for
NBC said in 1980, "I would like to suggest that Ronald Reagan
is politically dead."
These were experts in their field, and
pathetically defeatist in their thinking. Anyone trying to accomplish
something out of the ordinary is likely to hear something similar
about their project. Brooke did.
Brooke had to study almost constantly because
it took her more time to do everything. It took longer to complete
her assignments. She needed someone to write for her and turn
pages for her. Her mom helped her out.
And Brooke did well in junior high. In
high school she signed up for a difficult science-research class.
The teacher told her, "Frankly, Brooke, I'm not sure whether
you're able to handle this program." The teacher wasn't
being cruel. She was actually motivated by kindness. And you
will very often get defeatism from loving people. Remember how
the lamprey invaded the Great Lakes? It wasn't by malevolent
people bent on destroying the trout industry. It was by well-meaning
people trying to do something beneficial: Opening a way for ships
to carry goods to thousands of people. Kindness does not guarantee
a good result. In a way, defeatism coming from someone who cares
about you is more destructive than if it comes from someone you
don't respect you are more open (and therefore more vulnerable)
Near the end of high school, Brooke applied
to Harvard and was accepted. Even here, Brooke got discouragement
from someone close to her. Brooke's sister didn't understand
why Brooke wanted to go away from home.
Not all the people close to you are enemies
of your goals, of course. In fact, they can be your greatest
source of strength. Brooke couldn't have accomplished what she
did without her mother, who helped her study and went to school
with her, who encouraged her, who made her a promise and kept
At Harvard, Brooke had to deal with more
cynicism and other forms of negativity. "Despite my A-plus
average and 1510 on my SATs," said Brooke, "some people
thought I was selected only because I was in a wheelchair. They
thought I wouldn't succeed if I went."
Whenever you communicate with others, you
are vulnerable to lamprey invasions. Pessimism, cynicism, and
defeatism can enter your mind and drain the life and vitality
out of you. A little later, we'll look at how you can protect
your vulnerable spots. For now, just know that they can be protected.
And by the way, Brooke graduated from Harvard
magna cum laude (with high honors).
Communication is one of the four ways pessimism
can worm its way into your mind. Read about the other three and
find out how to protect yourself by clicking here.
Click here for a