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How to Be More Positive About Negativity

It’s hard not to be negative about the current tone of public discourse. The drone of ill will in all forms of media seems ubiquitous in our times.


  • In complex social organizations, individuals continually influence one another. The question is whether the influence is positive or negative. 
  • Two psychological principles, emotion reciprocity and negative reactivity, account for much of the divisions in our country.
  • To positively influence people, tell a coherent story, based on what they already believe, rooted in their humane values and their hopes.

t’s hard not to be negative about the current tone of public discourse. The drone of ill will in all forms of media seems ubiquitous in our times. I occasionally get disgusted with it and must remind myself that my negative reactions are just adding another cry of blame and whimper of powerlessness to the dissonance.

All social animals continually influence one another. Living in the most complex social organization, we humans influence each other unconsciously, inadvertently, and intentionally. It’s difficult not to influence those with whom we interact. The only question is whether the influence is positive — for the well-being of all parties — or negative, that is, dismissing, devaluing, threatening, or hurtful.

In my post about influencing loved ones, I wrote that the easiest thing in the world to do is influence people negatively. Whether you’re an intimate partner, coworker, social advocate, or politician, all you need do is act intellectually or morally superior or use shaming or insulting expressions. It doesn’t matter if you’re factually right, if you sound arrogant, your influence will be negative and your efforts to influence will be self-defeating. You will seem untrustworthy to those who disagree with you. Social psychology tells us that people accept facts as truth only when related by someone they trust. The remarkably low trust in public officials is due in part to their attempts to motivate voters with anger and fear rather than build trust. 

Two principles of psychology explain why we sound so negative these days. Emotion reciprocity means that whatever emotion you put out, you’re likely to get back. But emotion reciprocity has a negative bias, as negative emotions get priority processing in the brain, probably due to their immediate survival significance. Without a ratio of more frequent positive emotions, negative feelings dominate experience and memory.

Negative reactivity is a powerful force in human interactions, more so now that we can interact digitally with masses of people we’ve never met. We tend to react negatively to the negative expressions of others. If we agree with them, we become more negative in reaction — “I hate that, too!” If we disagree, we tend to intensify negativity in reaction, though not necessarily overtly. That is, we think more negative thoughts and experience more dysphoric feelings when we review the interaction in our heads, sometimes for days. 

Negative reactivity is not simply tit for tat, although we may tell that to ourselves. Rather, it has built-in escalation, favored by natural selection. We don’t want to hurt the saber tooth tiger as much as it hurt us — you bit my hand, so I’ll bite your paw! We want to destroy its capacity to hurt us. Negative reactivity means that parties become more extreme in reaction to each other.

Negative reactivity keeps us focused on what we don’t like and don’t want, at the cost of what we do like and do want. It makes us be against more than we’re for. 

Escape the Trap of Negative Reactivity

Accept that people have different perspectives — that’s the true meaning of diversity.

Relate to people primarily on a level of basic humanity and secondarily about opinions, interpretations of facts, and social policies.

Argue to learn rather than win; you’ll be surprised what you can learn when you don’t make people defensive.

Focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want, what you’re for, not what you’re against.

To positively influence anyone, you can’t simply relate facts. For one thing, most facts are open to a range of interpretations, and interpretations are subject to multiple cognitive biases. Relying solely on facts, you may sound manipulative, with a hidden agenda. To positively influence people, you must tell a coherent story, based on what they already believe, rooted in their humane values and in their hopes.

Climate change is a good example because it evokes personal powerlessness; it requires global efforts of governments to make a difference. If you believe that climate change poses a serious threat to the species and do not wish to negatively influence those who disagree with you, you must use the formula of positive influence:

  1. Validate their distrust of government 
  2. Appeal to humane values
  3. Ground your “facts” in hope

It might sound something like this:

“It’s hard to trust the government with complex issues. I especially felt that way in the 1970s about the Clean Air and Water Act. But I must admit, the air and water are cleaner now. Any change wrought by government should be cautious, and we must be vigilant to ensure they’re doing what they need to do. When I think of all the children left homeless by superstorms, wildfires, and rising tides, I want all our children and grandchildren to be safe, to appreciate nature rather than fear it. I think we can accomplish it with minimal economic loss. What do you think?”

This approach won’t positively influence everyone, but it should reduce negative reactivity in most people.

On some issues, such as abortion, there’s little chance of positively influencing those who disagree with you because your fundamental beliefs are incompatible. But we must recognize that demonizing those who disagree will only worsen the conflict and add to the stress that affects everyone in the country both physically and psychologically. We become like spouses demeaning our partners in front of the children.

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