in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #574: The Power of Bad — Overcoming the Negativity Effect

Have you ever been heaped with praise, only to ignore it in favor of focusing on the lone piece of criticism you received?

That’s the power that bad things wield, and it’s a power that humans need to learn how to both harness and mitigate. 

My guest today lays out both sides of that coin in a book he co-authored with psychologist Roy Baumeister. His name is John Tierney and the book is The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. We begin our conversation discussing how much stronger bad is than good, and how many good things it takes to offset a single bad one. We then dig into the implications of the fact that bad things have a much stronger impact than good ones, including how you really only need to be a good enough parent to your kids, the best way to deliver criticism to others, and why religions that emphasize Hell have historically won more adherents than those that focus on Heaven. We also talk about how negativity is contagious and why it’s true that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. We end our conversation with a look at whether or not social media is a negative force in our lives, and John’s advice on how to not let those he calls “the merchants of bad” in the media make us think that things in the world are worse than they really are. 

Lots of insights in this show on how both to use the power of bad to your advantage, and overcome its negative effects.

Show Highlights

  • Why do negative experiences carry more weight than positive in our lives?
  • Why do humans even have a negativity bias? 
  • What is the positivity ratio?
  • The merchants of bad 
  • How to go on a “low bad” diet 
  • Why it’s okay to have unrealistic views of the people you care about 
  • How negativity hurts parents 
  • Being able to take criticism without letting it kill you (and how to best deliver it, too) 
  • When it comes to motivation, are sticks or carrots more powerful?
  • How religions throughout history have used sticks effectively 
  • How social media and online negativity fuels our unhappiness
  • Why the most unhappy and pessimistic people are in the wealthiest countries 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Poster of The Power of Bad by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister.

Connect With John

John’s website

John on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Have you ever been heaped with praise only to ignore it in favor of focusing on the lone piece of criticism you received? That’s the power that bad things wield, and it’s a power that humans need to learn how to both harness and mitigate. My guest today lays out both sides of that coin in his book that he coauthored with psychologist Roy Baumeister. His name is John Tierney, and the book is The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.

We begin our conversation discussing how much stronger bad is than good, and how many good things it takes to offset a single bad one. We then dig into the implications of the fact that bad things have a much stronger impact than good ones, including how you really only need to be a good-enough parent to your kids, the best way to deliver criticism to others, and why religions that emphasize hell have historically won more adherents than those that focus on heaven. We also talk about how negativity is contagious and why it’s true that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. We end our conversation with a look at whether or not social media is a negative force in our lives, and John’s advice on how to not let those he calls the merchants of bad in the media make us think that things in the world are worse than they really are. Lots of insights in this show on both how to use the power of bad to your advantage and overcome its negative effects. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

All right, John Tierney, welcome to the show.

John Tierney: Thanks very much, Brett. Nice to be here.

Brett McKay: You have co-written a book called The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. Your coauthor is Roy F. Baumeister. We’ve had him on the show before to discuss his work on willpower. Also, he wrote a book about masculinity a while back ago.

John Tierney: Yeah, it’s a great book.

Brett McKay: It is.

John Tierney: Yeah.

Brett McKay: This book is based on a paper that Roy did a couple years ago called Bad is Stronger Than Good. Where did he get this hunch for this hypothesis that bad things are stronger than good things, in our brain at least?

John Tierney: Roy had been thinking about this for a long time, in fact. His first inkling of this came decades earlier when he was a young guy in a relationship with a woman who… He had great times with her, she was wonderful in many ways, but she also had a real temper. At times, he was really madly in love with her, and at other times he was despairing, “This is never going to work.”

He didn’t know what to do, so he fell back on the classic stratagem of a social scientist. He started collecting data. At the end of every day, he would write down, “Was this a good day or a bad day? Am I glad to be in this relationship today, or would I rather be out of it?” He wasn’t sure what he’d find, and he thought, “I guess if there are at least four good days for every bad day, then that would be good enough for me,” but he wasn’t sure. “If it was one-to-one, that would be bad, and I should get out of this.”

He did it for about six months, and he found that after a while the ratio remained steady. It was two good days for every bad day. This was right in between his range. He didn’t quite know what it meant. He didn’t really reach any scientific reasoning, but in his gut he got out of the relationship.

He just thought about this ratio, which is now known as the positivity ratio, which is the number of good things for every bad thing. He thought about this a little bit. In the ’80s and ’90s, behavioral economists were doing experiments in loss aversion showing that people cared much more about losing money than they did about gaining money, that it hurt much more to lose a dollar than the joy of making a dollar. And there were some other experiments. Some psychologists had found that a bad first impression was much easier to get than a good first impression, and it was also tougher to lose.

He noticed a couple of these things and wondered, “I wonder why bad things are stronger than good things there.” He and some colleagues looked into this, and they thought, “The way we’ll do this is we’ll try and find counterexamples. Let’s find some examples where good things are stronger, and then we’ll be able to figure out what exactly is it that gives bad its greater power in some situations.” To their surprise, they looked for the literature in psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, they just could not find counterexamples. Bad was relentlessly strong. The bad parenting made a big difference. Good parenting didn’t really make that much difference. Bad health made a big difference in your life. Good health didn’t make such a difference. Penalties, a bad outcome motivated you more than a reward or good outcome.

They put all this together and then wrote this paper called Bad is Stronger Than Good, and at the same time another psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Paul Rozin, he was working on this from a different angle, but he’d also noticed this same general pattern. This was something that… It was this really important phenomenon about life, that bad is stronger than good, but it really hadn’t been noticed because it crossed into so many different fields. They were the first to put this together, and since then it’s now known as the negativity effect, also called negativity bias. It’s been studied. There have been hundreds of papers studying this, confirming it, analyzing it, and figuring out what to do about it.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about this ratio that Roy has found, as well as other people have found in other domains. Positive psychologists have found this. Economists have found this. This gives an idea of roughly, not exactly but roughly, how much stronger bad is to-

John Tierney: Well, there have been a bunch of different studies. Other people have done what Roy did. They’ve had people keep diaries every day and answer questions every day, and they classify the day as a good day or a bad day. They find that people tend to… People who are doing okay tend to have three good days for every bad day.

Behavioral economists have done their own studies. How many dollars do I have to offer you as a reward to get you to risk losing one dollar? The results ranged a little bit. When you’re talking about money, people can be more rational. If you offer them $2, they’re willing to risk losing a dollar, which is itself irrational, of course, but most cases…

They’ve also done studies of they track workers’ moods during the day and see how many good interactions they have, how many bad interactions, what’s the impact of each one. They’ve looked at couples in the laboratory as they talk to each other, and they measure the good things they say and the bad things they say. They actually measure their physical responses as they’re talking to each other.

What the studies show generally is that it usually takes three good things to have the impact of one bad thing. We recommend the rule of four, which is if you want to do better than that, try to do at least four good things for every bad thing. That means that if you’re late for one meeting, you’re not going to make up for it by showing up early the next time. You’ve got to do more than that. If you say one bad thing to someone, one hurtful thing, plan on saying at least four nice things to try and make up for that.

Brett McKay: Yeah, we’ve seen that. We’ve talked about relationships on the show, the five-to-one that John Gottman found. Arguments aren’t going to kill a relationship, but you have to have five positive interactions with your partner to make up for that.

John Tierney: Right. They said five. That’s way above the norm. The higher the positivity ratio, generally the better. In some studies, when they’ve analyzed people’s positive emotions and their feelings, they found some people just have sky high. They claim to have no negative feelings; everything is positive. That’s a bit deranged. Those people are a bit manic. But in general, five is even better than four usually. The higher the positivity ratio, generally the better it is. Bad is stronger than good, but good can prevail by basically swamping bad with numbers. You overwhelm it by force of numbers.

Brett McKay: Why is bad stronger than good? Why do we have this negativity bias? Obviously, we have it for a reason. It’s adaptive. Our ancestors decided, “This actually is good for you to focus on the negative more than the positive,” so what’s going on there?

John Tierney: Right. Yeah, you’re exactly right about it being adaptive, that on the ancient savanna, the guys who sat around focusing on how great this berry tasted are not going to do as well as the guys who were more alert for “Let’s make sure it’s not poisonous. Let’s watch out for that hungry lion out there,” basically being alert, because it takes only one mistake to kill you. To pass on your genes, the more vigilant you are, the more attention you pay to bad things, the better chance that your genes will be passed on. Therefore, it’s really important… It’s not so important to favor the great taste of a food, but it’s really important to remember which foods are poisonous, which ones will make you sick.

There’s a real good adaptive reason for it, and it’s still useful. One mistake can still really hurt you, and one mistake can still be fatal. One mistake can still ruin your career. One bad step can ruin your reputation. It is important, and there are real benefits to this negativity bias because it does protect you.

The other reason that this negativity bias evolved is that it teaches you. It’s the best way to learn, that you learn more from failure than from success. When you succeed at something, that goes great, but you don’t learn a lot because everything went well. When you get a bad mark on a test, when you fail at something, it forces you to look at what went wrong, what did I do wrong, and to improve. Because the pain of failure is so great, the pain of bad is so great, it motivates you to avoid that the next time. I don’t want this to happen again.

There are real good reasons why it’s there. Young people are especially susceptible to negativity bias, and this makes evolutionary sense, too, because when you’re young that’s when you really need to learn. You’ve got to pay attention. You’ve got to look around at the world, figure out what you’re doing wrong, and so paying attention to the mistakes and to the bad stuff makes a lot of sense at that age. Teenagers are so self-conscious. They’re figuring their way in the world, and they’re very attuned to any sort of bad things that happen to them, any bad reactions they get.

Brett McKay: Well, you said that this negativity bias is still adaptive in our modern world, but is there any ways that it’s out of sync with our modern environment?

John Tierney: It is. Again, the analogy back to the ancient savanna, it was adaptive back then when food was scarce. During lean times, you should fatten up and eat as much as you can. That was adaptive then. But when you’re surrounded by junk food all day long that’s tempting you all day long, it’s not so adaptive, and so we end up with this huge problem of obesity from people eating too much and eating the wrong kinds of food.

Similarly, today we are in a high bad environment. We are just surrounded by people all day long on television, on our phones, on our many screens, basically the merchants of bad, we call them, and they’re trying to scare you because they know the easiest way to get your attention on a screen is to appeal to that, is to scare you. There’s a crisis in the world. There’s a danger to your life. Is Your Partner Cheating on You? Five Signs They’re Doing That, these ads that pop up on your screens.

We’re surrounded by that all day long, and the news media… I’ve been a journalist my whole adult life, and we’re the worst at it. That’s one of the reasons that I got into this, because I was wondering, why do we constantly look for bad news, and why do we hype the bad news so much? Most trends in the world are positive, and we can take the most positive trend and find one bad example, and that’s what we write about. It’s a crisis, and so we’re out to scare people.

In this high bad environment, we recommend going on a low bad diet. You basically need to curate what you see and watch, and what you focus on, so that you don’t get this distorted view of the world. Junk food is fine in moderation, but you don’t want to gorge on it. You don’t want to gorge on bad either.

Brett McKay: What the rest of the book talks about is looking at the power of bad, this negativity effect, on how we can use it, harness it for our benefit, but also how to mitigate the downsides. One area where you look at how you can use the bad effect to improve your life are relationships. How do negative moments that we experience in our life, how do they affect relationships? If you want to improve a relationship, does it help more to increase positive experience or just eliminate the bad stuff?

John Tierney: Well, researchers have analyzed this by tracking couples over a long time. They’ll watch when they meet and then see which relationships last and which ones don’t, and they observe their behavior at different times. What these studies show is that it’s the bad stuff that matters, that it’s how you deal with negativity that matters, that the initial passion, how good you feel about it, that doesn’t last, and that’s not enough to sustain a relationship. The couples that are able to avoid… The best thing you can do is avoid negativity by being sensitive to your partner and just watching out for things that bother them, even if that seems stupid to you.

Also, you have to guard about the way that you look at your partner. In relationships that last, people tend to develop what researchers call positive illusions about their partner. They trained themselves or they’ve got some knack for this, for overlooking their partner’s flaws. They have this unrealistic view of their partner, and it’s really helpful in a relationship. The nice thing is that after a while, the partner at first doesn’t really believe this thing about themselves, but if their partner really believes it, they come to see it themselves, and so you both feel better.

There have been experiments… Brain-scanning experiments were fascinating where they track couples, and they looked at the ones that broke up and the ones that stayed together. When they went back and looked at their initial brain scans when these people were first in love, they found that the couples that stayed together, the big difference, and they weren’t expecting this, it was a surprise to them, they found that the couples that were destined for success, the part of their brain that’s involved in making negative judgment, they tamped down the activity in that part of the brain when they were shown a photograph of their beloved. Basically, their brains were just shutting down that negative judgment when they looked at their partner.

Now, all of us, that’s not something you can just do… You can’t tell your brain to shut down there, but you can make more conscious efforts not to focus on your partner’s flaws and to basically learn to give them the benefit of the doubt. One of the biggest mistakes people make, psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error, is that if your partner shows up late for dinner and they tell you, “Well, I got delayed at the office. The traffic was bad,” you can either attribute that to “Well, yeah, there were just circumstances beyond their control. They couldn’t help it. That’s why they’re late,” but what we often tend to do is think, “No, they’re selfish. They don’t care about me. They don’t mind keeping me waiting. They don’t love me.”

You tend to attribute this one bad thing, this bad action, you attribute it to some permanent character flaw. That’s what’s called the fundamental attribution error, which is something that was actually caused by temporary external circumstances, we blame on their character. We see a driver run a stop sign, and we think automatically he’s an awful driver, whereas sometimes if we make that same mistake, we go, “Well, I just didn’t see it. The stop sign was blocked by a tree.”

When couples have studied people’s attributional style, as they call it, they found that couples who tend to immediately say, when something goes wrong, they say, “Yeah, that’s just the way he is. Just typical they do that. This is what drives me crazy about them,” that the couples that do that are much more likely to break up. The ones who were more likely to give their partner the benefit of the doubt, to think, “Yeah, traffic was probably bad, or it was just an unusually bad day at the office. I’m not going to blame them for it.”

The other thing is when something goes wrong, when they say something that bothers you, when they do something, we love the advice that Ruth Bader Ginsburg got from her mother-in-law on her wedding day. The mother-in-law told her, “In every marriage, it sometimes helps to be a little deaf,” that basically being able to ignore something bad that happened instead of getting angry and retaliating, that just goes a long way in reducing the negativity in a marriage.

Now, there are some things that you do have to respond to. You shouldn’t be a doormat and let your partner run all over you, but if you do respond, it’s really important to stay calm and don’t sulk, don’t angrily retaliate, don’t accuse them of being a bad person or make accusations. Just explain calmly why something bothers you, and don’t escalate the conflict, because bad emotions are so powerful, they have so much impact, and they’re so contagious, that if you respond angrily, they’re going to get even angrier. You just start this cycle of retaliation, and so a minor disagreement just escalates to a major fight.

Now, there have been interesting experiments, they play a game called Dictator, where people have to decide how to divide up money and they take turns. When one person starts behaving negatively, it just escalates and it just gets worse and worse, and the people get angrier and angrier at each other and more and more selfish. You’ve basically got to try to avoid doing bad things, avoid overinterpreting things that your partner has done, and when things do go wrong, give them the benefit of the doubt, or at least stay calm and don’t escalate.

Brett McKay: Well, another area of life where we have relationships is with our kids, and parents these days are really anxious about if they’re parenting right, if they’re doing enough, so they get these books on how to raise resilient kids and how to get their kids to be a star athlete or do well in school, and they pay for all this stuff. But your research in the book that you highlight says that probably isn’t doing that much, and you’d be better off just being a good-enough parent.

John Tierney: Yeah. This is some of the cheerier research I think, really, because what it shows is you don’t have to kill yourself. You don’t have to be the super-parent. You don’t have to be a tiger mom or a helicopter parent. This is an aspect of the negativity effect where bad parenting makes a big difference; good parenting does not make that much difference. As long as you’re not neglectful, as long as you’re not abusive, as long as you’re not violent, your kid is going to turn out okay no matter what else you do, as long as you avoid the bad stuff.

These are studies about the effect of the home environment and the parents on kids’ IQs. What it shows is that a bad home environment can really stop a child from reaching his full IQ, but a good home environment, whether it’s good or whether it’s stellar, whether they hire the best tutors and pay for the best schools, that doesn’t raise the child’s IQ. All you can really do is avoid the bad stuff from happening. As long as you avoid the bad stuff, you don’t have to go to every soccer game. You don’t have to help with every school project. We advise people to be just a good-enough parent. Just avoid the mistakes.

That holds true for all kinds of roles in life. Be a good-enough spouse. Be a good-enough friend. Be a good-enough boss. Be a good-enough worker. You don’t have to be a superstar. You don’t have to go all these extra miles to do it. You should focus on avoiding the bad stuff.

There’s interesting research about how much credit you get for doing extra, and this was inspired by a researcher who noticed that when stuff from Amazon arrived late, she was really irritated, but when it came early she didn’t feel particularly grateful. They did a bunch of experiments where somebody would promise to help someone solve puzzles, and if they didn’t fulfill the number of puzzles that they helped with, people really gave them bad marks; but if they did 50% extra, if they did extra work, they got very little extra credit.

There were some other experiments showing the same thing, that if people got tickets from a ticket broker that were worse than they were expecting, they were furious. If the seats were better, then they didn’t really give the broker much extra credit.

You get relatively little extra credit for doing more than you promised. But if you fall short of what you promised, then you pay a big price. Just focus on not breaking promises, not on being the superstar parent who does so much more than is expected.

Brett McKay: Yeah, at work, manage expectations. Underpromise, overdeliver. Don’t overpromise and then underdeliver, because people are going to remember that more.

John Tierney: Right. People remember the promises you didn’t keep. They remember the bad.

Brett McKay: I think an area where we’ve all experienced the negativity bias or the negativity effect is when we receive criticism. It’s painful, and it’s even painful whenever someone says something good, even if other people are praising what you’ve done at work, whatever, there’s that one guy who says, “Hey, this could be better.” That’s the thing you focus on. There’s a tendency to want to avoid criticism, but criticism is what lets us get better. Are there any tactics that you and Roy came across where we can get the benefits of criticism without it stinging so much and where we just focus on it and become debilitated by it?

John Tierney: Yeah, there’s two aspects of it. As far as on the receiving end, one bit of practical advice we offer… When I started writing, I was writing an op-ed column at The New York Times, and I’m kind of a libertarian and The New York Times audience is not like that, and another journalist who had been a liberal writer at The Wall Street Journal editorial page, he was in the opposite position. He was writing for an audience that differed. His one piece of advice to me was “Don’t read the mail,” because you’re just going to get excoriated.

Our advice is, especially in dealing with online comments, because people get this and they go through it, and as you say, the one bad comment, you get all these supportive comments, “Congratulations,” “Good work,” but there’s one snarky thing, and that’s what stays with you. It’s like writers read a review of a book where it’s a rave, but all they can think about is that one line faulting something in the book.

One bit of advice is, if you can, you do want to learn from the criticism. When you post something online and people react to it, there may well be something useful in the response, but if you read the stuff yourself, you’re just going to fixate on the bad stuff and it’s debilitating, as you say. So have someone else read it for you, pick out the useful stuff, keep out basically the useless snarky stuff, and also try to follow that four-to-one ratio, that they give you at least four good things for every bad thing.

Now, when it comes to giving criticism, most of us are pretty bad at that, I think. Psychologists have found when they ask people how they like to give criticism, if there’s good news and bad news, most people would rather start with the good news. It’s a lot more pleasant to start a conversation to tell someone that. Say, you say the nice things, “You’re doing a great job with this, and I like that. You did that well. Oh, and here’s one area that I’m concerned about, we need to work on.” That’s the easiest way to give the criticism is to ease into it and start out as Mr. Nice Guy.

But most people, if you ask them how they like to receive good news and bad news, they would rather get the bad news first. That’s actually the best way to deliver it, because when you start out with a lot of praise for someone, they’re listening, but then when you hit them with that bit of criticism, the power of bad is so strong, it’s just that jolt to the brain. The brain immediately focuses on that, and it forgets the praise.

An example of this, when a computer crashes, the tech people say, “Well, what were you doing right before the computer crashed?” and people often just can’t remember at all what they were doing because that sudden awful thing, “Oh my God, the computer’s crashed,” you just forget what happened before that. You were just so focused on this new threat. It’s the same way when you get criticism. You forget the praise. And if you save the criticism for the end, then people block out; that’s all they remember, and they’re demoralized.

You might start out with saying… If you’re evaluating an employee, you say, “You had a good year, and we’re looking forward to another good one,” so they know they’re not going to get fired, but basically get the bad stuff out of the way early. Then, after you give the bad stuff, then their brain is on high alert, and then they’ll start paying attention and remembering the good stuff. You pivot from the bad to the good, try to do at least four good things for every bad thing, and try to look at things from a positive standpoint.

You say that “Maybe you had trouble working with some people this year, working with a team, but you’re great on your own. We’re going to do more solo projects for you next year.” Frame the criticism in a positive way, that this was a problem, but we’re going to solve that by doing this the other way.

Brett McKay: It sounds like you don’t even do the criticism sandwich where you go positive, negative, positive. Just start negative, then end with four increasing positive things.

John Tierney: Right. Yeah, basically that’s it, I think. That’s the way to do it. Now, you also, and we cite some research in this, that you don’t want them to walk out just only remembering the positive, and they really will remember the criticism, but it does help at the end to remind them a bit that we do have some things we have to improve. I think get most of the criticism out of the way, then lavish some praise on, and end with reminders of how we’re going to improve next year, so they’re still motivated. There’s still that power of bad to motivate them to improve, because that’s what you need to improve is you need that motivation, and there’s nothing like the negativity effect to motivate people.

Brett McKay: Well, speaking of motivation, there’s been a debate within psychology and managerial science on what’s the best way to motivate employees,. Then you also see this with family, with parents. What’s the best way to motivate kids to do what you want them to do? There’s that age-old debate. Is it sticks or carrots? Lately, it seems like it’s more carrots. Provide rewards. Help people flourish. But you guys highlight research, no, sticks are actually more powerful than carrots.

John Tierney: Right. That whole saying about the carrot or the stick, it comes from… There were these 19th-century cartoons and advice for parents that the way to motivate a horse or donkey to go forward was you dangle a carrot in front of them instead of hitting them with a stick. It was this little parable to tell you that rewards worked better. As we say in the book, did anyone ever see a horse winning the Kentucky Derby with a carrot in front of it? The jockeys are using the whip.

In our interpretation of that parable of the carrot versus the stick, is that people would rather use the carrot. It’s much more pleasant to do that than it is to… Punishing people isn’t fun unless you’re a sadist. But, in fact, the stick is generally more effective. There’s a lot of research on this. Unfortunately, this lesson got lost, especially with children and in schools, thanks to the self-esteem movement that we had in the 1970s and ’80s. Now, that was really one of the sorrier mistakes in psychology.

Roy Baumeister, my coauthor, when he started his career he was working on self-esteem, and it looked like a promising area. Then he realized that the psychologists just had it backwards. They thought that, well, because people who succeed have high self-esteem, if we can just boost kids’ self-esteem, they’ll succeed. He realized that they had the causation backwards. When you succeed, that boosts your self-esteem, but when you boost someone’s self-esteem, it doesn’t help you succeed. It doesn’t work that way.

The consequences of that is this “everybody gets a trophy” philosophy that evolved with kids, and nobody loses. That has translated into the education system where there’s just been rampant grade inflation, both at the high school level and at the college level, where the average grade in places is an A- now. As a result, students in both high school and in college, they are learning less than they used to in the past.

There’s some clever experiments. There’s a famous one with young kids where they were given a serious of tasks to learn, and some of the kids received a marble as a reward for every right answer they did, and they would put the marble in the jar. The other kids got a jar full of marbles, and they took out a marble for each wrong answer. The kids who had the marble taken out learned a lot faster than the kids who got the reward.

They found that in other examples where they’ve offered bonuses to teachers if their students did well that year and raised their test scores. But sometimes as a comparison they gave some teachers the money ahead of time and said, “If your kids do not learn better this year, we’re going to take that bonus away, so it was framed as a penalty rather than a year-end bonus. The teachers who faced that penalty, their students did better than the ones who got the reward at the end.

In general, it’s better… Penalties are stronger than rewards. We’re not against rewarding kids. You want to give a child bonus for every A on his report card, give him a reward for that, fine, but I would also deduct money when they’re slacking off and they’re not doing well. I think schools should really give honest grades. Instead of trying to make students feel, when kids do bad in a class, they should get a bad grade because they’re not going to learn otherwise.

Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting when in that chapter you talk about carrots versus stick, the interesting tidbit that you started off with was religion, and that you highlight research that religions that focus on hell and damnation actually flourish more than the ones who just talk about heaven and angels and goodness and whatever.

John Tierney: Yeah. It’s a fascinating trend. I was really intrigued by it. There’s a sociologist of religion named Rodney Stark who has traced this, and you really see it in the history of religion in America, where back in colonial times America was not a very religious place. The Puritans and the early settlers had been very devout, but people, I think they had six drinks a day. There were more taverns in, I think, Boston than in Amsterdam, and lots of premarital sex, lots of illegitimate births.

Then there was this great awakening that happened in the early 18th century, and what happened was it was these hell-fearing ministers went around preaching damnation. Jonathan Edwards gave his famous sermon Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God. At that point, the established religions were the Anglican religion, which became Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism, and they preached a more gentle, cerebral kind of religion. Their ministers went to Harvard and Yale, and some of them didn’t particularly even believe in hell. But the Methodists, who were considered these uneducated rubes and looked down very much by the religious establishment, the Methodists became the largest religious denomination in the United States.

Then they eventually went mainstream. Their ministers started going to seminaries, they started preaching a more benevolent message, and then they promptly faded, where it was hell-fearing Baptists and Catholics became the dominant ones. Then when the Catholic Church, in the Vatican II Council in the 1960s, they softened a lot of their things, and they suffered a big decline in membership, and so you get Evangelicals and Pentecostals rising.

There is this thing that what gets people into the pews on Sunday is fear of hell much more than the promise of a celestial reward. There’s been some really interesting research that psychologists have done where they’ve looked at surveys around the world, and they have found that in countries where more people believe in hell versus people who just believe in heaven, in those countries there’s a lower crime rate.

They did a very clever experiment in the lab once where they were giving students a test and they told them that there was a glitch in the computer that made it possible to cheat, but please don’t do that, we’re going to fix this glitch. Of course, the researchers were watching to see who cheats, and they found that… They saw who cheated and who didn’t, and they found that what predicted it, it didn’t really matter if you were religious or not, most of the other variables didn’t matter, but what did matter was how you conceived of God. If you thought of God as a more punishing, vengeful God, then you were less likely to cheat, that hell is stronger than heaven, at least when it comes to deterring bad behavior.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, another example, manifestation of the negativity effect. Another place where people see it is on teams, this negativity effect. There’s that Osmonds song, “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.” Is that true? Is Donny right, or does one bad apple actually spoil the whole bunch?

John Tierney: Well, the Osmonds, the whole meaning of that cliché changed because of that song. Now, it used to be one rotten apple spoils his companions, and that goes all the way back to Chaucer. Benjamin Franklin did it. Then The Osmonds came out with this song “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch,” which in the first place, apples don’t really grow in bunches, right? So the meaning of that cliché changed, where suddenly it was the one bad apple is not representative. Yeah, something went wrong there, but that’s just one bad… Everyplace will have a few bad apples. That doesn’t mean the whole place is bad.

In fact, what the research shows is that negative behavior is, in fact, contagious. Bad apples do spoil their companions. Then there have been interesting experiments where they’ve looked at people working in teams. The researchers thought that if you measure the average ability of the team members, that would predict how well the team works. What actually predicted how well the team would work was the performance of the worst person on the team, because one person, one bad apple brings down the whole team.

There were some really interesting experiments where they had people acting out different varieties. Researchers classified bad apples into several categories. There’s the jerk, who’s just obnoxious to people and belittles them. There’s the downer, who’s just depressed and convinced everything will turn out wrong. There’s the slacker, somebody who doesn’t pull his own weight. They hired an actor to portray each of these types, and he would sit down with the group.

When he was a jerk… This was a bunch of business students who were supposed to be coming up with a strategy for a company. When he was a jerk, he’d sit there, and somebody would suggest an idea and he would say, “Have you ever taken a business course before?” just really belittle them. And when he was a slacker, he’d just put his head down on the… He’d just sit back and look at his phone and do it. Then when he was a downer, he would just look so sad. He would get himself in the mood for the role by pretending his cat had died, and he just put his head on the table.

The interesting thing was that they found, as they expected, that putting this one bad apple on the team would hurt its performance, and that did indeed happen. But what really surprised the researchers was how contagious the behavior was, that if they brought in the one jerk to work on the team, the other people started acting like jerks, too, and not just in retaliation against this one jerk. They started behaving badly toward each other. When there was one slacker in there, pretty soon everyone was just “Oh, whatever, let’s just get this over with.” They started slacking off too. When the downer was in there, the other people would just start getting depressed, too, and they’d go, “What’s the point of this thing?”

This bad behavior is very contagious, and it’s more important when you’re hiring people, when you’re assembling a team, to avoid bad apples, and get rid of them if you have to, than it is to concentrate on hiring the absolute best person. The power of bad is so powerful that that’s what determines how well things will go.

Brett McKay: So a good-enough employee might be-

John Tierney: Yeah, exactly. It’s nice to get good ones, but really just the bad apples are what will kill you. The same thing in business where it’s the unhappy customers who can really do damage to you. A one-star review hurts you much more than a five-star review helps you. You need to really focus on avoiding unhappy customers, and that’s more important than concentrating on the good ones. If you’ve got to focus, make sure to avoid those unhappy ones.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s end with talking about the place where a lot of people feel, and there’s been a lot written about this, that increases our negativity bias, a place you alluded to earlier. It’s just the online world. First off, is it really true that… You see all these studies where being online increases things like depression, anxiety, loneliness, etc., and people write about that and say you’ve got to quit the internet because of this. Is that really true, or is that a manifestation of our negativity bias?

John Tierney: I think that’s a manifestation of journalists’ negativity bias. I’d heard that, too, and I thought, “Yeah, it does make sense.” In fact, when writing this book, I thought, “Well, this is another reason to write this book, is we’ve got so much… Social media has just increased the problems of the negativity effect.” I saw the studies about Instagram envy and Facebook depression, and people saying the more time you spent, the worse it was.

But then I started looking into it more, and what I found… Throughout my journalistic career, I’ve always found it… We write in the book about what I call the crisis crisis, that we’re constantly inventing crises, that when you look into things, you see that the scares don’t pan out. That was what I found about social media, too, that when people really looked at all the research, when they did meta-analyses of different studies, they found that these problems like Facebook depression and Instagram envy were really overstated, that, yes, there are some people who are affected, a woman who is really concerned about her own weight, her own body image, who spends a lot of time looking at these beautiful models on Instagram, that can have some bad effects for her, but she already had that problem to begin with. For most people, it doesn’t have that bad effect.

Then what the research shows is that for young people worried about peer pressure, it’s the people that they know in the real world that really matter to them. The online world isn’t bringing in all this awful stuff.

The good news about social media is that people tend to be more positive on social media than the mass media is. I’ve been a journalist all my life, and I’m what I call one of the merchants of bad, because mass media, to attract a mass audience, you go for those common things that everyone responds to, and most of them are bad. We’re all afraid of dying. we’re all afraid of getting sick. we’re all afraid of being injured. The easiest way to get a big audience, to appeal to a lot of people instantly, is to scare them with something, is to exploit that negativity effect, whereas social media…

Now, there are people on social media who do that, who spread a lot of vitriol, and we hear about all the flame wars and the vicious stuff that gets said on social media, but that is not the norm. What’s nice about social media is that it allows people to concentrate on positive things.

The positive stuff that interests us tends to be more idiosyncratic. We don’t all have the same taste, if we’re interested in science or history or psychology, so it’s not so easy to get a mass audience appealing to those positive interests, but social media lets you do that. You form your own group. You find a website. You do that. You do podcasts like… We’re talking now for 45 minutes, an hour about positive stuff mostly, about how to make life better. We’re not scaring people about “Did you hear about the latest terrorist attack? Did you hear about the latest outrage that the other political party did?” We’re talking about science, positive things, scientific research and how to make life better. There’s so much of that on social media.

In The Power of Bad, we cite the research showing that people tend to spread positive things more than negative things on social media. They share positive news stories. They don’t send a lot of pictures of playground massacres to their friends. They send beautiful pictures of nature. They share stories about new advances in science, new books that they like, new theories that they’ve heard.

There’s research, also, that on Twitter, that people who tweet positively tend to get more followers, and that positive tweets actually get spread more widely. Now, the negative tweets get retweeted more quickly, and you have that phenomenon where suddenly everyone is piling on something; there’s this mass outrage. But in general, it’s the positive stuff that travels farther, that gets retweeted more often.

In that sense, we’re hopeful about the future because I think as people learn to follow this low bad diet, if you curate your social media feed, if you go to the right websites, if you follow the right people and have the right friends, people who share positive stuff, if you follow that rule of four and try and get four uplifting things for every downer, you’ll get a much more accurate view of the world. You’ll see how much is going right in the world, and that’s much better than sitting around thinking that the world is going to hell.

One of the saddest things that I see today is that virtually every measure of human welfare is improving, we are the luckiest people in history, there’s never been a better time to be alive, and yet the richer we get, the healthier we get, the more gloomy we get about the world. It’s very strange. In international surveys, when you ask people how optimistic they are about the future, it is people in rich countries like the United States, who have it better than anyone else in history, who are the most pessimistic, whereas people in poorer countries, they’re more realistic. They realize how much life has gotten better for them, whereas the people in the United States, we have it so good that we have time to basically come up with all these first-world problems and convince ourselves that things are awful.

There’s an old saying, “No food, one problem. Much food, many problems.” We just have the luxury to worry about lots of things. And it’s fine to worry about problems, because when we address problems, we come up with solutions, but we need to keep our perspective that things are getting better for most people in the world, and there’s a lot more good going on than bad.

Brett McKay: Well, John, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

John Tierney: The book is called The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. It’s published by Penguin Press. I’ve got a website, Penguin Random House has got a website for it, and I guess I’d have to say the book is available at your bookstore and at Amazon. I hope people buy it, and I hope that people use the book to harness the power of bad when it’s useful and overcome it when it’s not useful.

Brett McKay: Well, John Tierney, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

John Tierney: Thank you, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was John Tierney. He is the coauthor of the book The Power of Bad. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

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