Formula for Not Being a Jerk



Once there was an old woman sitting beside a dusty traveling route between towns. A traveler came over the hill and sat down beside the woman to rest, and they started a conversation. The woman asked where the traveler had come from, and he said "I just came from the town up the hill to the East. I'm so glad to have left that town -- the people there were just horrible! Rude, selfish, boorish fools. Now I'm headed to the town down the hill to the West. What are the people in that town like?" The old woman nodded and said "I expect you will find them the same way." The traveler carried on, and before long, a second trailer came over the hill and sat down with the woman to rest and chat. "I've just come from the town up the hill to the East." said the second traveler. "The people there were just delightful -- friendly, welcoming, helpful and kind. Now I'm headed to the town down the hill to the West. What are the people in that town like?" The old woman again nodded and said "I expect you will find them the same way."


In his newsletter, James Clear writes:

"Different meanings can be assigned to the same events.

Look for evidence of how the world is encouraging you, and you will find it.

Look for evidence of how the world is burdening you, and you will find it.

Choose an explanation that empowers you."


Negativity bias is our human tendency to give greater weight to negative events than positive ones. Psychologists, who are wary of casting any human behavior in stone, say that the persistent appearance of negativity bias makes it the closest thing we have to a behavioral "law." Our negativity bias is thought to have an evolutionary basis; in the hardscrabble survival days, it was more important to remember that a saber-toothed tiger would eat us, than to remember which flower smelled the nicest.

Thought it's most apparent in the news media, negativity bias affects our relationships too; our friendships, marriages and the relationships between parents and children. Luckily, negativity bias can be counteracted in a couple of ways. The first way is through a disproportionate number of positive actions. Remember that we give more weight to negative events than positive ones; so it takes more than one happy action to counteract an unpleasant one. Jon Tierney, co-author of "The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We can Rule It" helpfully provides a formula for counteracting negative actions:


"In general, it takes about four good things to overcome one bad thing. Now, that’s a rule of thumb. It doesn’t apply to every kind of thing, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind in evaluating the impact of your actions, in evaluating how you’re doing in your life. You know that if you’re late for one meeting, you don’t make up for it by showing up early the next time."


We can also control negativity bias in our own lives by using the second antidote: focusing on the positive. In the parenting realm, Ralphie from Simply on Purpose calls this, "look for the good" and "don't water the weeds." In our interactions with strangers, it could be resisting the urge to prescribe negative intentions to peoples' actions; maybe I assume that the woman in Aldi banged into my shopping cart because she's distracted or clumsy, not because she's rude (this is an easy assumption, because everyone who shops at Aldi is delightful and intelligent). In the media realm, Tierney suggests reading positive, uplifting stories about human and scientific advancements and reading only the basic facts, not the punditry and analysis, about troubling events ("I'll read one paragraph about what happened. That's all I want to know about it.").


Here are a few more:



Jon Tierney quote from Freakonomics Radio Podcast Episode 417: Reasons to be Cheerful