The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


The Paradox of Positivity

“Unlocking the inherent heliotropic tendencies in people often requires conscious effort because most of us have learned to give priority to the negative.”

Kim S. Cameron | June 5, 2017
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A man embraces the negative and positive consequences of rock climbing up a cliff side.



A paradox exists in human beings.  On the one hand, people are “heliotropic”—they are inclined toward light, and they flourish in the presence of positive energy.  Abundant empirical evidence supports this natural positive inclination. (For references to the studies cited below, see Cameron, 2017). For example, people are more accurate in processing positive information, whether the task involves verbal discrimination, organizational behavior, or the judgment of emotion. They think about a greater number of positive things than negative things, and each positive thing is thought about for a longer period of time.  In free association tasks, people tend to respond with positive rather than negative words, as when asked to identify the first thing that comes to mind. Positive associations are more frequent than negative associations, and positive responses occur more quickly and have larger quantity than negative responses.  Positive items also take precedence when people make lists, and people more frequently recall positive life experiences than neutral or negative ones.  They also mentally rehearse positive items more than negative items. Positive memories tend to replace negative memories over time, and positive items are registered in memory more accurately than negative items so they can be recalled easier and more accurately. Because positive information is stored more accessibly than negative information, it tumbles out more rapidly and accurately.  People tend to seek out positive stimuli and avoid negative stimuli, as when given a choice about looking at smiling faces or frowning faces or pleasant scenes versus disturbing scenes. When people see positive and neutral stimuli equally often, they report that the positive stimuli are more frequent than the negative.  According to Hollingsworth (1910: 710): “The canonization of saints, the apotheosis of strenuous historical characters, the obituaries of our friends, the reminiscences of childhood, all testify to this natural and universal habit of forgetting the bad and exalting the good.”

Paradoxically, however, common experience also suggests that people pay attention to negative feedback more than positive feedback, and traumatic events have greater impact on individuals than positive events.  In a review of psychological literature, Baumeister and colleagues (2001) concluded that “Bad is stronger than good.” Human beings react more strongly to negative phenomena than to positive phenomena. Events that are negative (e.g., losing money, being abandoned by friends, and receiving criticism) elicit greater reactions than positive events of the same type (e.g., winning money, gaining fiends, and receiving praise). Negative feedback has more emotional impact on people than positive feedback, and the effects of negative information and negative events take longer to wear off than the effects of positive information or pleasant events.  A single traumatic experience (e.g., abuse, violence) can overcome the effects of many positive events, but a single positive event does not usually overcome the effects of a single traumatic negative event. Negative events have a greater effect on people’s subsequent moods and adjustment than positive, and negative or upsetting social interactions weigh more heavily on people (they produce more depression and bad moods) than positive or helpful interactions. Conflict takes a greater toll on people’s mental health than positive social relations helped bolster mental health. Moreover, undesirable human traits receive more weight in impression formation than desirable traits, so that to be categorized as good, one has to be good all of the time, but to be categorized as bad, one only has to engage in a few bad acts. An impression of moral goodness is easily negated by an immoral act, but an impression of immorality is not easily overcome by engaging moral acts. Bad events, in other words, produce more emotional reaction, have bigger effects on adjustment measures, and have longer lasting impacts than good events.

So how do we reconcile these two seemingly paradoxical tendencies in human beings?  One explanation has to do with emphasis.  An overemphasis on either the positive or the negative tends to be dysfunctional.  Over time, a constant focus on the negative leads to paranoia, defensiveness, and degeneration. In fact, psychological defense mechanisms (e.g., repression, regression, transference) exist to protect against an overabundance of the negative. Similarly, the effect of constant positivity is also dysfunctional, as illustrated by an unrealistic Pollyannaish perspective or a complete absence of corrective feedback.  An Arab proverb is apropos: “All sunshine makes a desert.”  In other words, both positive and negative elements are needed for the perpetuation of positive, life-giving outcomes.  Some of the greatest triumphs, most noble virtues, and highest positive achievements have resulted from the presence of the negative.  However, when both the positive and the negative are present, the negative tends to outweigh the positive.  This suggests that, for most people, an over-emphasis on the positive is needed to balance out the effects of the negative.

A second explanation is that most people learn from a very early age to pay attention to the negative, otherwise they could be in danger.  There is not an inherent inclination to avoid putting your hand on a hot stove, or avoid running into the street after a ball, or not mistreating a sibling.  We all had to learn those lessons—that negative events are associated with danger or threats to survival.  Everyone learned those lessons well in order to survive.  As a result, most people have learned to ignore the heliotropic effect in the competitive world of everyday life.  They learned to give priority to the negative rather than the positive.  Some even label positive phenomena as soft, syrupy, touchy-feely, or naïve in the real world.  Consequently, in order to achieve the positive benefits associated with unleashing the heliotropic effect (highlighted in my and my colleagues’ research), greater attention to the positive is required. Extraordinarily successful outcomes have been shown to result from an emphasis on positive factors.  Unlocking the inherent heliotropic tendencies in people often requires conscious effort because most of us have learned to give priority to the negative.  Our research shows, in fact, that deliberately seeking for light and positive energy produces the highest levels of individual and organizational well-being and performance.

 

References

Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., and Vohs, K. D., 2001. Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323–70.

Cameron, K.S.,  2017. “Paradox in positive organizational scholarship.” In Lewis, M., Smith, W., Jarzabkowski, P., and Langley, A. (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Paradox. (Chapter 11). London: Oxford University Press.

Hollingsworth, H., 1910. The oblivescence of the disagreeable. Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, 7: 70914.