How To Fight the 'Power of Bad' and the 'Negativity Effect'

Human beings are designed to remember trauma more than joy, bad times more than good ones. But John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister have good news on the despair front.


It's not just in your head: When it comes to how we all experience life, "Bad is generally stronger than good." 

We remember trauma more than joy, we're brought down by criticism more than we're elevated by praise, and we pay more attention to bad news than good. 

A new book called The Power of Bad, by journalist John Tierney and psychologist Roy F. Baumeister, explores "the negativity effect," or the "universal tendency for negative events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones." The negativity effect shapes everything we do, from our personal relationships to our careers to how we vote to what media we consume.

But The Power of Bad isn't one more cause for despair. Its subtitle is How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, and it offers practical tips on all sorts of ways to approach life so that we can be happy, productive, and well-adjusted.

Nick Gillespie sat down with Tierney, a contributing editor at the Manhattan Institute's City Journal and a former New York Times columnist and reporter, to talk about the root causes of the negativity effect and how to combat it.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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  1. The very premise, that we remember bad more than good, flies in the face of what I take to be the common memory of good things over bad; boot camp, for instance, fades to a barely remembered rite of passage. I remember the joy of finishing projects, and the exhilaration of solving problems, more than I remember the problems themselves.

    Government is routinely bad. By the stated premise, I should remember all the bad things, which is everything, more than the good, which is few and far between, Perhaps I am deluded, and government really does many many more good things than bad things, yet I forget them while focusing on the bad.

    My bad.

    1. I doubt there is a hard and fast rule as to which we remember. I clearly remember when I had my wisdom teeth removed, and a couple of root canals. I remember well several vacations to the beach, but have forgotten the terrible long, hot drives to get there.

      Very likely there are many factors that go into which events are memorable, including our state of mind at the time and the ‘totality of circumstances’ as one commenter used to say.

      1. You don’t have AC in your car?

      2. The hard and fast rule is the Biological Imperative. When viewed in that context we, conditioned for survival, will tend to differentially remember (or prioritize those memories of) the things that potentially aid or interfere with our survival.

        The loose hierarchy will be something like life threatening > life sustaining > life enhancing

        In reverse order, for example:

        Knowing that honey tastes really good
        Knowing that honey is edible
        Knowing that you shouldn’t try to argue with a bear over the honey

    1. Unplug Government Almighty! Replace it with government humble, limited!

      1. PS, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, “Happy Generic Holidays”, “Happy Whatever” to ALL of you motherfuckers out there!

        (Keep in mind, you MUST stop making love to any woman who becomes a mother, else you ARE a mother-fucker! It is known!)

        1. Confirmed! Merry Christmas Freedom Lovers!

  2. I would think that at a biological level pain avoidance generally outweighs pleasure seeking as a survival strategy. Pain is Nature’s way of telling you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing that’s causing the pain. It’s also well-known in psychological game-theory circles that most people are more risk-averse than reward-seeking. If you have nothing to lose, you’ll take risks but once you have something to lose you’re more fearful of losing what you have than hopeful of gaining more. The bad outweighs the good.

    It would of course be sexist and no doubt racist and Eurocentric of me to suggest that some people are more aggressive risk-takers who put more weight on potential rewards than on potential losses than others and that the aggressive risk-takers tend to fit a certain biological profile.

    1. “It’s also well-known in psychological game-theory circles that most people are more risk-averse than reward-seeking.”

      Bingo! I’m fairly well-read on psychology and sociobiology, and I have REPEATEDLY read EXACTLY that!

      It’s irrational, but one can re-state the EXACT same question as loss-oriented or gain-oriented, and get exact-opposite answers out of people!

      Michael Lewis, “The Undoing Project”, about unlearning that which is not true… It is NOT true that most of us think very rationally!


      1. It may appear irrational to game theorists, but that’s likely because their assumptions are wrong.

    2. “most people are more risk-averse than reward-seeking.”

      And some people, like degenerate gamblers, are posited to abnormally prioritize reward seeking over risk aversion.

      1. And psychopathy is argued to fundamentally be an abnormal lack of fear.

  3. Merry Christmas, you bastards.

  4. Merry Christmas, you knuckleheads!

  5. Merry Christmas to all! Even to the Professional Fake Libertarians, Obamatards, and Reason staff sockpuppet commenters.

  6. Discuss this article on Quora:


    Quora is a vibrant community where everyone must use their real names and a “be nice, be respectful” policy is strictly enforced.

    1. Stealing traffic, championing censorship and bitching about Reason in a way that you think will let you pretend you weren’t.

      Fuck off Jeff. Leave if you don’t like it here.

      “where everyone must use their real names”

      Only a dinosaur would believe that nonsense.

    2. This post isn’t the real Reason (swidt) I came here and posted bullshit for a few months.

      It’s just a coincidence that I’m a proven liar, and then I promote and post a link to another political board. Where I have an account that’s totally neutral btw.

      I also used the word “vibrant” like a fucking bot.

      Also, I’m not Jeff.

  7. Sorry, but as others have pointed out, this isn’t true. An example is that our recall of physical pain diminishes overtime to the point we recall less pain than actually happened.

    1. I’d have to say you’re wrong.

      This might explain why women will go through childbirth a second time, but I don’t know of any men who’ve willingly been kicked in the nuts a second time. Explain that, smart guy.

      1. Right because it is not because of physical pain so much as emotional factors.

        Haven’t read the book but it seems like the author is saying that in general negative experiences tend to outweigh positive ones in our thinking. That may be true but it is a big generalization. We all know Perky Penny and Gloomy Gus and are somewhere in that spectrum without any conscious effort on our part. I think we process negative events mostly on a subconscious level. Either extreme can be pathologic and lead to bad decision making.

  8. Nice article I liked it, thank you for sharing, but in my case, I remember good things more than bad. I found myself standing alone to face the storm. And later found the storms an opportunity.
    You must have a look at these positive thoughts with images
    Thank you .

  9. You’re supposed to remember bad shit to avoid repeating it. Those who don’t are generally stupid, like a lab rat who repeatedly gets shocked, or are well protected from bad experiences through the efforts of others.

    1. its easy to ge rid of the bad things. Sniff it out at the source. In this country most of the bad things are caused by or enabled by one primary source, which is progressives.

      Just force the progressives list and things get better pretty fast. Plus, freedom will ensue.

  10. Seems to me, there was a lot of support for this in the Reason editor decision room, because of all the bad effects of TDS on many of the Reason staff.
    I suspect much of the biased MSM coverage of Trump helped lead to negative feelings towards Trump. Certainly some of the decisions made in the many businesses in which Trump has an interest and the six business bankruptcies don’t help his image. Perhaps some of the Reason staff took Trump’s “fake news” allegations personally, but I didn’t see it that way at all. Trump was obviously correct about the MSM lying for 3 years telling us Trump was a Russian spy, puppet, stooge and/or just colluder with Putin.
    I voted for Johnson, but the way I see it, Trump is the most libertarian president in my lifetime, even more so than Reagan.

  11. You can be pretty sure that if memory evolved to be selective in particular ways, there are good reasons for it to be that way; tinkering with it is ill advised.

  12. I was thinking about what some people commented on regarding things like childbirth and bootcamp.

    It seems to me like we are talking apples and oranges. I think the hypothesis on the table is that we remember individual bad experiences more than individual good experiences. Nick mentioned some like being insulted rather than praised. The trauma of losing a child vs. the joy of having one. (Although, those are even complex).
    But, things like childbirth aren’t an individual negative and an individual positive. The effort and pain a mother exerts would be a negative, but it is all part of the process of giving birth to a new human life. The same for difficulties in boot camp compared to finishing. The negatives aren’t bad things in vacuum. It comes down to “nothing worth having is easy”.
    I haven’t read the book, nor listened to the podcast. But my guess would be that to overcome the negative effect, we should try to look at the individual bad things that happen as part of an overall process to get better.
    For instance, if a woman had to push an 8 lb tumor through the birth canal, she would probably remember that as an incredibly bad experience. But, pushing a child out is part of a process that is worth it at the end. If someone just started yelling at you on the street, or your boss did for no reason, that would suck. If your DI is yelling at you, and the end result is to graduate and become a better soldier (sailor, airman, Marine, etc.) then it becomes worth it.

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