Reality seems to have a negative bias,
doesn't it? Could it be true? Is everything really against you?
Reality doesn't really have any bias at
all, of course. But there are some ways the nature of reality
works against an optimistic point of view. Not always, and not
in all things, but it really sticks out when it happens. Why?
Because it's usually easier to notice when something goes wrong
than when things go right. That's why Murphy's Law has become
so popular: It expresses what seems to be true.
Murphy's original law says, "If anything
can go wrong, it will." That isn't true, of course, but
when you have a project and you're trying to make it go right,
and every aspect of it goes right all the various parts
are working well except one thing, what do you notice?
What is your attention on? What causes you to feel intense emotions?
What will you remember most? The one thing that went wrong. Most
of your attention is on the thing that made your project fail.
One of my favorite Murphy's Laws is, "The
chance of the buttered side of the bread falling face down is
directly proportional to the cost of the carpet." If it
lands face up, you may feel a little relief but you'll probably
forget about it soon after it happens. If the buttered bread
lands face down, on the other hand, especially on expensive carpet,
you may get upset, you'll have to clean it up, etc. It is more
emotionally-laden, involves more work and inconvenience and frustration,
and is therefore more memorable.
A good description of this phenomenon is
in the book, How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of
Human Reason in Everyday Life. The author, Thomas Gilovich,
says that the entrance to the Psychology Department at Cornell
University where he works has six doors. Every once in awhile,
the janitor neglects to unlock one of them. Gilovich enters the
building from different directions on different days, and every
once in awhile, he tries to go through a locked door. Even though
he wrote a book on how to avoid being fooled by perceptions like
these, it feels to him as if he always gets the locked door.
Why? Because every time he goes through an unlocked door, it
doesn't register in his mind as an event. Nothing really happened.
He went to work. No emotion. Nothing memorable.
But when he expects the door to open and
pushes on it and is stopped that little moment of surprise
and frustration is more memorable, and reminds him of every other
similar experience when he tried to push open one of those doors
and it stopped him. Lots of memories of a similar experience
come to mind at that moment, and no memories at all of going
through an unlocked door come to mind because there wasn't much
to remember about those times (even though there were far more
His natural conclusion, based on his personal
experience, is that he always gets the locked door. Notice, also,
that he never would find out if one of the doors was locked on
the other days. He doesn't try all six doors each day. If the
door opens, he goes through and goes on about his business. Reality,
in this sense, is biased. Every time he goes through an unlocked
door, reality does not alert him to the fact that one of the
other doors was locked and he avoided it. But reality alerts
him every time he tries to go through a locked door.
Making the conclusion, "I always get
the locked door," is trivial it won't make much of
a difference. But what if you make the same kind of conclusion
about your boss or one of your children? Your conclusion seems
to be a fact you have lots of evidence for. Your boss is always
angry. Your son never cleans his room. This phenomenon can lead
to the formation of pessimistic, cynical, or defeatist beliefs
and ways of looking at the world.
another way reality has a
Sometimes, no matter what decision is made,
the chances are good it'll turn out badly. But since reality
is not an experiment, you don't get to see what would have happened
if another decision had been made. We don't get to look at a
For example, the U.S. used a nuclear weapon
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many people believe that was a bad
idea. So many lives were lost. So much destruction. It wasn't
necessary to end the war.
Another alternative was to use conventional
warfare until Japan surrendered, which, given the way they fought
on the other islands, and given the fact that they did not believe
in surrender, may have cost many more lives on both sides. But
we don't get to see how it would have turned out had another
decision been made.
As horrible as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were,
that decision may have been the least horrible of the alternatives.
And if a different decision had been made, no doubt that decision
would have been criticized too. Reality was biased the
cards were stacked against the decision-makers no matter
what was decided, it would have terrible consequences.
Sometimes life demands you make a decision
between a bad choice and an even worse choice. The result is
sometimes a cynical attitude for all the terrible things people
have decided to do without really considering that we don't know
if the alternatives would have been worse.
Another way reality can appear to have
a negative bias is in dealing with others. Psychologists use
a game called The Prisoner's Dilemma to test various ideas. The
game mimics real life in a way: We need to choose to either cooperate
with someone for our mutual benefit or do something that benefits
only ourselves, and maybe even takes away from someone else.
For example, Joe steals a stapler from
the company he works for. It benefits him and takes something
away from the company. But Joe is also taking the risk of getting
caught and having a lot taken away from him. The Prisoner's Dilemma
has that feature also.
In the Prisoner's Dilemma, a game is set
up with two people who imagine they have committed a crime together.
They are brought in for questioning in separate rooms. Each are
offered the same deal. Let's say you are one of them. Here's
the deal: If you confess and your partner does not confess, you
go free and your partner gets ten years. If neither of you confess,
you each get only one year. If you both confess, you each get
five years. Imagine yourself with that dilemma. What would you
This is often considered a way to test
cooperative versus competitive attitudes. Usually the people
in a given experiment play it again and again with the same partner,
because this mimics real life even more closely. Most of the
people you interact with are people you will interact with again
and again. And how you interact in the future how competitive
or cooperative you treat any given person usually does
(and should) take into account how they have interacted with
you in the past.
One of the findings of these experiments
is pretty obvious: If you are a naturally cooperative person,
which I'll bet you are, and you are pitted against a competitive
person, you will lose. If I put a piece of candy on a table between
you and a competitive person, who is likely to get the candy?
The competitive person, not trying to be fair, will quickly grab
the candy. You will get nothing.
Hopefully you would learn in multiple interactions
to be more competitive with that person. But let's look at what
has happened. A more beneficial strategy (cooperation) has been
replaced with a less beneficial strategy (cut-throat competition).
This phenomenon can lead to a cynical or pessimistic view of
When you have interactions with the same
people over and over, you're likely to see more cooperative behavior.
But when interactions are between people who will never see each
other again, you're likely to see more cut-throat behavior. This
is simple to explain. If you are a natural cooperator, and you
let people in front of you on the freeway and yield and be polite
and kind, you'll sometimes run into competitive behavior, so
you'll get the short end of the stick again and again. Eventually,
because you remember negative events better than positive events,
your point of view will change and you may develop the belief
that the "world is full of selfish people" and since
you need to get to work on time too, you'll exhibit more competitive
behavior, and as time goes on in an impersonal environment, cooperative
people will turn into more competitive people out of what feels
And so you're likely to find people in
small towns being "nicer" (more cooperative) to strangers
and people in big cities colder and meaner (more competitive)
toward strangers. When people are packed together and forced
into impersonal interactions, reality is biased toward the negative,
toward selfishness, toward meanness, as cooperative people feel
forced into a lower state by the circumstances.
Another aspect of this is that if a person
has been convinced to deal with people competitively, their own
experiences will tend to validate their belief. If a person is
selfish and inconsiderate with others, she is much more likely
to experience a world that seems to be full of selfish and inconsiderate
people, making it seem obvious that with all these selfish and
inconsiderate (competitive) people around, she'd better act selfish
just to survive. Her original proposition that the world is a
tough place that requires a cold-hearted attitude will make itself
true. It functions as a self-fulfilling prophesy.
And one final way reality functions as
if it had a negative bias is that the brain seeks evidence to
confirm rather than to disconfirm. So as soon as one of these
pessimistic, cynical, or defeatist beliefs start to form, your
mind starts looking for evidence that you're right, and the belief
starts to coalesce and harden into a firm belief a firm,
mistaken, unnecessarily negative view of the world a view
that makes you less effective at dealing with the world (especially
other people), makes you feel bad more often, and a view that
actually harms your health. Reality's quicksand has caught another
perception of reality
Steven Jay Gould, a famous zoologist, says
the general public tends to believe humans are a violent species.
But we are remarkably friendly and kind to each other. He says
that when an ethologist (a person who studies wild animals living
in their natural environment) sees individual animals only have
one or two aggressive encounters for tens of hours, they would
rate it as a peaceful species. "But think," he says,
"of how many millions of hours we can log for most people
on most days without noting anything more threatening than a
raised third finger once a week or so."
The problem is, of course, that an act
of aggression or violence is supremely noticeable, and normal
courteous interactions are not nearly as noticeable. When the
lady at the checkout counter is polite, what is there to notice?
Does it make your day? Do you remember it later? Do you tell
anyone about it?
But what would happen if she insulted you
or slapped you? Would you remember it later? You bet you would!
Tell anyone about it? Are you kidding?!
There is a natural bias in our perception
and memory of reality. It is heavily biased toward the negative.
Not for all experiences obviously, we do remember good
events. But for a certain class of experiences, the bias is negative
(experiences where the expected event isn't very noticeable and
the negative event is very noticeable). This is one very important
way pessimism worms its way into your mind.
For example, Gilovich says that at big
schools, professors "learn early on that unless they are
careful, it is easy to be exposed mainly to the alibis and complaints
of the most difficult students and rarely see the more successful
and more pleasant students who make teaching so gratifying."
And of course that would be the case. The
good students listen in class so they have fewer dumb questions,
and fewer problems with the work, and they do their homework
so they don't show up in the professor's office asking for an
extension on a due-date or whatever. They are not nearly as noticeable
as the slacker students. Just by the nature of reality and perception,
the professor's experience will be biased toward a negative opinion
about students in general unless she compensates for it by deliberately
trying to notice the good students.
This glitch in reality is a major source
of the development of cynical beliefs. Think about how many things
function well in government, for example. Thousands upon thousands
of things go right every day. But when a senator does something
wrong, we hear about it for days or weeks in the news,
in the late night comedian's jokes, in conversations with your
co-workers. It is noticeable. It is easily remembered.
When senators do their normal work, what
is there to notice? What is reported? Would you ever hear on
the news, "A senator today did his job well?" No. It's
not newsworthy. You're not going to go around telling all your
friends about it. And why not? Because most senators on most
days do what they are supposed to be doing and that just isn't
news because it's so normal. And yet the end result of the media
magnifying reality's negative bias is that many people have formed
a cynical view of the world and of politics and big business
and you name it a view that isn't really justified by
the facts, but a view that seems completely justified by the
facts because the only facts about those things that makes it
to the normal person are negative events, which are newsworthy
because they are unusual.
If you were trying to sell something or
raise money for a cause, what would be an effective way to get
people to hand over their money? One tried-and-true method is
to scare people (about something like the safety of their tap
water or pesticides in their fresh fruit).
Awhile back (and for about six months)
our mailbox was flooded with requests for donations by lobbying
groups, all of them saying the Roe v. Wade decision is threatened
by the new judge (the decision legalized abortion in 1973 in
The lobbying groups were all saying the
new judge was against abortion, so there was a razor-thin
5-4 majority, and if anything happened, abortion could be illegalized.
If you dont want this to happen, they all said breathlessly,
then send us some money to help us fight it. And send it now!
But when I looked into it a little bit,
I found that the U.S. Supreme Court had a 6-3 majority in favor
of legalized abortion. Hardly "razor-thin." One of
those judges in favor of abortion did, in fact, vote against
abortion, but only once and it was a special case (a partial-birth
procedure using a particularly grotesque abortion method).
Justice Anthony Kennedy made it very clear at the time why he
voted against this very specific case. He even made a pointed
statement at the time that he was not in favor of legalizing
abortion and that his case was a special situation.
In other words, there was no crisis
in the Supreme Court. The lobbying groups, who rely on donations
to stay in business, bent the truth to get donations. And bent
the truth in a negative direction, making things seem worse than
they actually are. The use of this kind of scare tactic is yet
one more way pessimism worms its way into the minds of so many
The people responsible for these promotional
campaigns are probably not evil. But in the competition for donation
funds, who will get more money those who make us believe
a crisis needs our urgent help? Or those who dont?
Since I was young I always assumed people
working on the "noble" causes behaved honorably (and
people who are merely trying to make a profit do not). But by
a slow accumulation of contrary examples, I finally had to admit
that no matter what their mission, everybody has to pay their
bills to stay afloat, and if fudging the truth a little helps
a good cause, some will do it.
For example, ecology is a noble cause.
An ecologist at a university who has to obtain grants to do his
research has an incentive to make alarming predictions of future
doom. This might make his work seem more urgent than other people
asking for grant money, so he might win the grant by using this
tactic. He might have to bend the truth, but maybe the end justifies
the means. After all, at the moment, he has nothing to lose.
Nobody can prove hes wrong until time has passed. By then,
he will already have spent his grant money.
In 1970, Life magazine published an article
saying, Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical
evidence to support...the following predictions: In a decade,
urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution...by
1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching
earth by one half... This was a mainstream magazine.
They had plenty of experts to back up those
People who have an incentive to alter our
points of view even people working for noble causes
will sometimes use negative, distorted, and even fabricated information.
The negative angle sells, it gets on the front page, and it helps
recruit followers. That's all fine and dandy for the writers
and publishers, but those of us who see those headlines are influenced
to see the world more negatively than it really is.
It is not just lobbyists and professors
and nonprofit organizations who find it necessary to use negative
motivation. It is much bigger than that. Because of our own brain's
negative bias, this approach will work better than any alternatives
as long as people don't know about it.
But it ceases to work once you're aware
of it. If you'd like to help make the world a more positive place,
share this information with your friends and family. We don't
need to outlaw promotional distortions. A widespread understanding
of how it works will make it less profitable to promote pessimism.
Reality's negative bias is one of four
negative biases. Learn about the other three and find out how
to protect yourself by clicking here.
Click here for a