WELCOME TO A TED TALK by ALISON LEDGERWOOD
Here’s something I noticed a few years ago about how I seem to think; here’s a typical week in my life, which usually seems to revolve entirely around publishing papers. So here I am going along in my research and a paper gets accepted.
I get this rush, this short term blip of happiness, and then I’m back to normality by 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 stop thinking about it.
Here’s the craziest part: even if another paper gets accepted the next day, well, that’s nice, but somehow I can’t get that pesky rejection out of my head. So, what is going on here? Why does a failure seem to stick in our minds so much longer than a success? So, I started thinking about this question, this question of, “do our minds get stuck in the negatives?” We all know intuitively that there are different ways of thinking about things.
The same glass, the saying goes, can be seen as either half-full or half-empty.
There’s a lot of research that shows that depending on how you describe the glass to people – either 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 focusing on what’s gained, then people like it. But if you describe the same glass as half-empty, a Loss Frame, then people don’t like it.
But we wondered what happens when you try to switch from thinking about it one way to thinking about it another way. Can people shift back and forth, or do they get stuck in 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 experiment about a new surgical procedure, and we randomly assigned them to one of two conditions. For participants in the first condition, the first group, we described the surgical procedure in terms of gains; we said it had a 70% success rate.
For participants in the second group, we described the procedure in terms of losses; we said it had a 30% failure rate. So it’s the exact same procedure, we’re just focusing people’s attention on the part of the glass that’s full, or the part of the glass that’s empty.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, people like the procedure when it’s described as having a 70% success rate, and they don’t like it when it’s described as having a 30% failure rate. But then we added a twist: we told participants in the first group, “You know, you could think of this as 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 this as a 70% success rate”, but unlike the first group, they stuck with their initial opinion; they seemed to be stuck in the initial Loss Frame that they saw at the beginning of the study.
We conducted another experiment. This time we told participants about the current governor of an important state who is running for re-election against his opponent. We again had two groups of participants, and we described the current governor’s track record to them in one of two ways.
We said that when the current governor took office, statewide budget cuts were expected to affect of about 10,000 jobs, and then half of the participants read that under the current governor’s leadership 40% of these jobs had been saved.
They like the current governor; they think he is doing a great job. The rest of the participants read that under the current governor’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 information in terms of losses, and now they didn’t like the current governor anymore. For participants in the second group, we reframed the information in terms of gains, but just like in the first study, this didn’t seem to matter.
People in this group still didn’t like the current governor. So notice what this means. Once the Loss Frame gets in there, it sticks. People can’t go back to thinking about jobs saved once they thought about jobs lost.
So in both of these scenarios actually the current governor gets ousted in favour of his opponent. At this point we were getting curious: why does this happen? Could it be that it’s actually mentally harder for people to convert from losses to gains than it is for them to go from gains to losses? So we conducted a third study to test how easily people could covert from one frame to another.
This time we told participants, “Imagine there’s been an outbreak of an unusual disease and 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 participants
in the other group, “If a hundred lives are lost, how many will be saved?” So everyone just has to calculate 600 minus 100, and come up with the answer of 500 but whereas people in one group have to convert from gains to losses in order to do that, people in the second group have to convert from losses to gains.
We timed how long it took them to solve this simple maths problem, and what we found was that when people had to convert from gains to losses, they could solve the problem quite quickly; it took them about 7 seconds on average.
But when they had to convert from losses to gains, well now it took them far longer, almost 11 seconds. So this suggests that once we think about something as a loss, that way of thinking about it tends to stick in our heads and to resist our attempts to change it.
What I take away from this research and from related research is that our view of the world has a fundamental tendency to tilt toward the negative. It’s pretty easy to go from good to bad, but far harder to shift from bad to good. So oddly then, it may take more effort to change our minds about how the economy, say, is doing than to change the economy itself. On the more personal level, what this research means to me is that you have to work to 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. Just writing for a few minutes each day about things that you’re grateful for can dramatically boost your happiness and well-being, and even your health.
We can also rehearse good news and share it with others. We tend to think that misery loves company, that venting will help get rid of our negative emotions, that we’ll feel better if we just talk about how terrible our day was.
And so we talk, and we talk, and we talk about the boss who’s driving us crazy, and that friend who never called us back, and that meeting at work where every little thing that could go wrong, did. But we forget to talk about the good stuff.
One mean comment can stick with 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 time somebody snapped at you, you forgave them? What if the next time you had a really grumpy waitress, you left her an extra large tip? Our minds may be built to look for negative information and to hold on to it, but we can also retrain our minds if we put some effort into it and start to see that the glass may be a little more full than we initially thought.
| Alison Ledgerwood | TEDxUCDavisAs