Stopping the bad being stronger than the good

Stopping the bad being stronger than the good

By Jonathan Power

May 8, 2019

hadn’t realized they were living in a world, as Barack Obama once said, is the
best time to be alive in human history. Yet the bits and pieces of this
information had been around for a long time and I’ve drawn on them in many of
my columns.

the fact is that human beings have what Oxford Professor Dominic Johnson and
Dominic Tierney call a “negativity bias”- “A subconscious predisposition that
humans exhibit whether or not they are aware of it”.

thesis explains a lot, especially in international relations- threat inflation,
the outbreak and persistence of war, the neglect of opportunities for
cooperation, and the prominence of failure in institutional memory and

modern times the worst example of this was the threat inflation launched by
President George W. Bush in tandem with Prime Minister Tony Blair on the danger
posed by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. They exaggerated beyond measure the likelihood
that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The media didn’t do a good enough job and allowed the political leaders to get away with their misinformation campaign. The media too was victim to the human trait of negativity bias, but then it too often is.

This led to an unnecessary invasion which caused immense suffering in Iraq, destabilized the whole region, led to the effectiveness of ISIS and stoked the Syrian war.

do people have negativity bias? Psychologists believe that the dominance of bad
over good emerged as an adaptive trait to avoid lethal dangers in human
evolutionary history.

first glance, a systematic misperception of the world seems to be
counterproductive. However, argue Johnson and Tierney, it is likely to have
helped survival and reproductive success in tribal societies. They gave less
weight to positive events which, while welcome, couldn’t compare with the
consequences of negative events which might be matters of life and death.

hair-trigger sensitivity to threat and the “fight or flight” response are
widely evident across all mammals and can arise in humans via the release of
adrenaline even before people perceive the source of the stimulus.

and journalists have identified many examples where the external peril was
exaggerated. In the nineteenth century the British were obsessed with the
possibility that Russia would invade India. In the 1960s much of the West came
to believe in the American hype about the severity of the Soviet missile
threat. These days we had Iraq and now Iran.

Russia is being seen as a predatory bear and, under US influence but with
European connivance, the boundaries of NATO have been pushed right up to
Russia’s borders – counterproductively. It has triggered Russian suspicions of
Western intent and led to renewed Russian hostility.

from neuroscience suggests that positive and negative information is processed
in different parts of the brain. The unconscious mind is especially sensitive
to threats. Negative information is received by the sensory thalamus and sent
directly to the amygdala (the brain’s “threat centre”) which can trigger fear
before the information enters conscious awareness.

effects can be long-lasting. To some extent this is beyond people’s control or
even recognition.

Fortunately, today enough people are well enough educated, well read and experienced that they have the intelligence to counter innate negative impulses. Yet we know from the Korean War, Vietnam, the Iraq invasion and the expansion of NATO that this group is not large enough to be the dominant influence, either on politicians or on the media.

The way most of the media works is that editors instinctively believe bad information has greater potency than equivalent good information.

and the media are often fixated on some historical precedent – for example the
meeting between Hitler and Chamberlain at Munich. Appeasement is seen as a
negative, a word to be thrown at the cautious, the wiser, the better informed
of the lessons of history and those who are generally more positive.

in day-to-day life we all have to appease certain people – a teacher, a doctor,
an employer or a landlord to make life tolerable. Confrontation often doesn’t

it is with statecraft. A good example today is the hyping of the dangers posed
by China.

us can stop the bad being stronger than the good.

Jonathan Power

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