Everyone has an opinion about the election. This blog post is not about this writer’s opinion on Hillary or Trump. I’m more interested in what, if anything, we can learn from the election that goes beyond politics. I want to dig deeper because, well, I’m a writer, and that’s what I like to do.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that most people I speak to about the election are casting their vote not based on someone they support but against someone they dislike or even fear. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that we are living in a time of disillusionment with government, which could explain why people are voting this way. But let’s look beyond my limited scope of family, friends, and acquaintances, and further back in time.
In the 1984 and 1988 elections, the National Election Study surveyed voters, who rated presidents based on a number of personality traits (Klein, 1991). The analysis revealed that on average, character weaknesses in candidates were proven more predictive of overall evaluations than character strengths. In another finding, one negative behavior conveyed by a candidate was shown to neutralize five positive behaviors (Koenigs, 1975).
In psychology, this is called the “negativity effect” or “negativity bias.” We have positive expectations of others so a negative behavior stands out. “Risk aversion” argues that people are risk-driven but also compelled to avoid loss. The president has the power to effect the people—like sending troops to war—and we are more concerned with the likelihood of negative outcomes than positive ones (Kahneman and Tversky, 1979).
In 2015, a bunch of dudes came up with a scientific report about risk aversion as an evolutionary adaptation. Animals display risk aversion when foraging in an area if they cannot reliably find food there or if they have encountered predators (Fox, 2007). In order to survive, animals avoid risk; they see the negative in a situation over the positive, and make a decision based on that perspective. Even in neurology, there is evidence that different regions of the brain process value and risk assessment, which implies that neural circuitry encodes a risk sensitivity (Adami, 2015).
Politics, psychology, evolutionary biology, and neurology aside, this is all to say…what? That human nature is to be negative? I wrote this so you probably know already that I’m coming to some sort of conclusion. I see these findings as evidence that life is better than it seems. For if we naturally perceive things worse than they really are, doesn’t that mean that things are better than we realize?
If you buy this argument despite that persistent negativity bias circling in your brain right now, you may begin to perceive things differently for a moment—more positively, but also, more realistically. We follow news that feeds us negative stories over positive ones (and we, in turn, pay more attention to them) and talk of all the problems in the world (yet trends state that in fact we live in the most peaceful time in our history: rates of genocide and mass killings, deaths in armed conflicts, and homicide have gone down in the world; democracies have increased and autocracies have decreased AND become less oppressive (Mack, 2014). We fear terrorist attacks yet our fear is unjustified (the chances of a person dying in a terrorist attack is as likely as being struck by lightning (Biddle, 2016)).
Don’t give in to negativity. Optimism is not some dreamlike ideal. Question the media, society, and others. If you’re feeling like life is hard, embrace the challenge. Life would be a bore without it. Don’t let yourself be influenced by others who can only see the glass half empty. Look for the reality. And the reality, according to this one individual who absorbs media like everyone else, is that things are not as bad as they seem. In fact, we have a lot to be grateful for. We just have to look beyond what we’ve been told to see it.
Biddle, Stephen “Can the US do more to prevent ISIS inspired attacks?” PBS News Hour 12 June 2016.
“Dudes” Adami, Christoph, Hertwig, Ralph, Hintze, Arend, and Olson, Randal S. “Risk Sensitivity as a Revolutionary Adaptation.” Scientific Reports 5, Article Number: 8242 4 February 2015: Print.
Fox, CR and Trepel, C “The neural basis of loss aversion in decision-making under risk.” Science Article Number: 315 (5811): 515-8 26 January 2007.
Kahneman, Daniel and Tversky, Amos “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk.” Econometrica, 47(2), pp. 263-291, March 1979.
Klein, Jill "Negativity Effects in Impression Formation: A Test in the Political Arena." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 17(4): 412-418 1991.
Koenigs, Robert J, Richey, Marjorie H, Richey, Harold W. and Fortin, Harold “Negatie Salience in-Impressions of Character: Effects of Unequal Proportions of Positive and Negative Information.” Journal of Social Psychology, 97, 233-241 1975.
Mack, Andrew and Pinker, Steven “The World Is Not Falling Apart.” Slate 22 December 1014: Print.
Williams, Ray. "Are We Hardwired to Be Positive or Negative?" USA Today 19 June 2015 US ed. Print.