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The antidote to negativity is to keep asking why

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The antidote to negativity is to keep asking why

Feb 09, 2024 | 12:21 pm ET
By Dana Wormald
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The antidote to negativity is to keep asking why
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An immigrant family wades through the Rio Grande while crossing from Mexico into the United States on Sept. 30, 2023 in Eagle Pass, Texas. Border security and immigration have become major issues in ongoing negotiations to fund the U.S. government. A recent surge in immigrant crossings have overwhelmed U.S. border authorities. (Photo by John Moore | Getty Images)

I’m stuck between two worlds of perception. On one hand, everything seems pretty terrible right now. I worry fairly consistently about climate change, war, poverty, racism, sexism, political division, political disengagement, the potential for political violence, threats to public education, mass shootings, a lack of affordable housing and health care, and, more generally, the fact that we appear mired in an era of normalized cruelty, inhumanity, and ignorance.

That’s all.

But I’m also aware of the human penchant for negativity in all things great and small. I know that when I tell myself I’m having a bad day, I’m much more likely to view every personal interaction and event through that lens. To say “I’m having a bad day” or “He’s a bad person” is to make yourself blind to any and all contradictory information. The stakes become much higher when all-encompassing negativity is applied to, say, policy debates. How are we better off, for example, by claiming that all or most who receive public assistance are freeloaders or that all or most illegal immigrants are dangerous criminals? More than stereotyping or bigotry, these negative perceptions represent a state of arrested development, and as we’ve learned all too well in recent years, it’s a dangerous state to be in.

Here’s how Dr. Austin Perimutter, writing in Psychology Today a few years back, describes this particular tendency: “Negativity bias refers to the fact that humans focus on negative events, information, or emotions more than their positive counterparts. In more dangerous times, this bias may have provided an evolutionary benefit (e.g., we were more likely to notice potential threats to our safety). But in the modern world, our preference for the negative has been harnessed to keep our attention.”

It sure has.

That said, to “look on the bright side” doesn’t quite seem to fit the bill these days either; none of us can afford to avert our eyes. Real progress – political or personal – is possible only through depth of understanding. But on that path, there are other biases lurking in the shadows.

“​​If you have decided that robberies are common in your hometown,” Perimutter writes, “confirmation bias makes it more likely for you to latch onto the data that supports this belief. Your brain will selectively focus on the information that helps your preexisting theory, ignoring conflicting facts.”

Good information gathering – and good politics and journalism – should be about unearthing roots wherever they may be. You ask “Why?” again and again, even when it leads you into a seemingly unnavigable abyss, because it’s just not enough to scrape away a couple of layers and say, “Here’s the heart of it.” But it is easier to stay shallow, and that’s the trap. Negativity bias can lead you to a false perception – that all is bleak and the cause is clear – and confirmation bias will keep you there.

And that’s precisely where it feels like we’re stuck – but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Every “Why?” is a rung on the ladder that gets you out.

Take, for example, the immigration crisis. This is an area where I have limited knowledge of the historical, political, and economic factors that have led us to this policy moment. But my first question isn’t, “How do we keep illegal immigrants from crossing the border?” My first question is, “Why are they there?” What would make someone pack up all they could carry, grab their child by the hand, and walk away from everything and everyone they’ve ever known in exchange for a dangerous journey into an uncertain future in a country that doesn’t seem to want them? Is the lack of walls and border security the root issue, or do political, agricultural, or economic factors in the migrant’s home country form the roots? And if you believe the internal humanitarian struggles of another nation are of no concern to America, how do you explain the border crisis?

I know, those are big questions and even bigger conversations. I know, too, that the word “crisis” implies urgency. But if there is hope to be found, it will be found only at the roots. These shallow exchanges that we longingly call national debates are getting us nowhere – and maybe that’s the point when there are elections to be won.

“… in the modern world, our preference for the negative has been harnessed to keep our attention.”

This column was originally published by the New Hampshire Bulletin which is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.