One of the most dangerous developments in recent years is that negativity has become chic. It's cool to be cynical. It's hip to be pessimistic. Optimism and enthusiasm are in danger of being perceived as naive or gullible or childish. An intelligent adult who knew what was going on in this world would be cynical and pessimistic about other people and about the world in general.
This cultural bias toward pessimism and cynicism has gotten a big push from the media. We'll get into that a little later. All we need to note here is that the media has an influence on how we communicate with one another. You are influenced by what you see others doing. And one of the things you see a lot of others doing — especially on television — is being cynical and pessimistic. Quite a bit of entertainment and humor is sarcastic, negative, complaining, and full of putdowns of one sort or another. And almost all network news is pessimistic and defeatist. Those sound like extreme statements, but they are, in fact, well-researched and understated conclusions.
Here's an example: Look at the following list of bumper stickers a store had for sale. They are meant to be funny, but check out the negative, sarcastic emotion they display. And they display the attitude, sort of like an advertisement for a point of view:
WARNING: I have an attitude and I know how to use it.
All stressed out and no one to choke!
Guys have feelings too, but like…who cares???
Sorry if I looked interested. I'm NOT.
Well, here's a quarter. Call someone who cares!
I have only one nerve left…and YOU'RE getting on it!!
Radio talk shows try to be entertaining and "cutting edge." In the attempt, they often focus on negative events and negative gossip about famous people. It is for humor, and as a kind of us-against-them way of joining with the listeners.
These are only a couple examples. This negativity is all over the media. Because people are naturally influenced by what they perceive to be the norm, all this input has influenced people to think more negatively than they otherwise would. Watching television, you get the impression that a pessimistic, cynical, defeatist point of view is normal. That is part of the reason communication in general has a negative bias — television has already had an influence on most people you meet. It is likely that any given person you meet watches and listens to their television more than they do to live human beings. It would be difficult to underestimate the influence of television on attitudes in our culture.
We are naturally influenced to think the way we believe others think. It is a built-in tendency. Yes, even you. Even if you are independent, self-reliant, and think for yourself. You are still human, you're still a primate, and you still have feelings not entirely in your control.
This tendency made small hunter-gatherer groups more cohesive a hundred thousand years ago, but now that tendency can cause problems. First of all, what others think might be counterproductive or false. Besides that, you might not understand what others think. You might believe they think X when they really think Y. And of course, some people will deliberately try to mislead you into thinking lots of people have a particular opinion, when perhaps it's a minority opinion.
And not only that, what someone thinks might have been influenced by what they believe you think.
This is tricky business. We are influenced by others while at the same time they are influenced by us. But consider how easily you can be misled about what someone else thinks. People you talk to have a social obligation to agree with you. In polite company, it isn't courteous to argue. Disagreeing can be somewhat upsetting and most people avoid it when they can. Studies have found people tend to show much more agreement than they actually feel. If I'm telling you how much I hate the boss and how unfair she is and how she shouldn't be that way, you will tend to sympathize with me. Even if you disagree with me, you have a social pressure to modify your stance so you don't offend me or make me feel you're against me. People who don't naturally do this are often offensive to others. It's a common relating skill most of us learned fairly early.
So I might get a misleading impression of your agreement with my point of view. You don't really agree with me but I have the impression you do, which bolsters my own certainty I'm right. It happens all the time.
the need for entertainment
Whenever someone is talking to someone else, there is a pressure to make the communication worth listening to. This pressure encourages the speaker to adjust the delivery to make a better story. Even without any malicious intent — and this applies to media as well as to your friends — when telling any story, the pressure on the communicator will naturally cause him to emphasize the important parts and downplay the trivial details. A speaker doesn't want to bog the story down in too much detail or he'll lose the listener. So there is a selection going on and in that selection, sometimes important facts are left out and the message is misleading.
Information tends to be even less accurate when the story is heard second-hand because as the story goes through one telling, certain things are emphasized and certain other things are de-emphasized, and then when the story goes through another telling, the trimmed story is then trimmed again. The story gets tighter and has more exaggeration in it — without anyone even trying to exaggerate — making it a better story (more interesting to the listener). The technical terms for this are sharpening and leveling. Read a clear explanation of the research about this in Thomas Gilovich's book, How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. This doesn't necessarily make the story negative, but since negative news is more attention-getting, the stories most likely to be passed along are most likely negative.
Another source of inaccuracy that can potentially bias communication toward the negative is that a person tends to withhold good news and talk about her misfortunes. There are many good reasons for doing this. First of all, it prevents her listener from becoming jealous and it prevents the speaker from sounding like a braggart.
She might want to withhold good news out of fear you will stop your support. If you get the impression she is better off than you, you might not want to help her any more. So she'll withhold good news and share her complaints. You get a negatively-slanted impression of her world.
Gossip happens easily and naturally when people talk. We participate in it, even against our will, not only one-on-one, but by watching talk shows and news programs, which are often just gossip on a large scale.
What is gossip? It is people giving and receiving information about other people. Gossip is really the hallmark of belonging. If others share the latest gossip with you, it's a pretty clear sign you are one of the group. If nobody tells you the latest gossip, you're probably considered outside the group.
A pretty common subject of gossip is fairness. Who is cheating? Who is untrustworthy? I'm not talking about local customs here. The drive to gossip is biologically driven. We have a "gossip instinct." We evolved most of our social drives in the context of a small hunter-gatherer group. Our ancestors evolved in groups who interacted with the same few people all their lives. Information about trustworthiness would have been very important to survival, especially in a species where group members rely on each other. Violations, cheating, sex scandals — all the things that make gossip "juicy" — these are all valuable information in a tight-knit hunter-gather group, and we want to hear that kind of stuff (especially about people in power or people we know) and share it with people in our inner circle.
We no longer live in small, tight-knit groups, but our genetic machinery hasn't changed. Humans in every society ever studied gossip. And they all gossip about the same kinds of things.
Gossip often takes the form of complaining about someone behind their back. It has been argued that we do this because we fear saying it to their face. We get it off our chests by saying it to someone else. We even have developed a theory about how this is healthy: We're "venting" our anger. Studies have repeatedly shown that venting does not dissipate anger, but actually increases it. But people still do it. And they hang onto the venting theory to justify this otherwise questionable act. Why? Because they are compelled by their own biology. They are genetically driven to gossip. And then they try to justify it. I say "they" to keep you and I out of it, but we have done it too.
One kind of gossip we are biologically driven to is largely about grievances. Human beings all over the world spend a pretty good chunk of time talking about grievances and listening to grievances. And trying to decide how fair the grievances are.
This activity would have aided survival in a hunter-gatherer clan in at least three ways. One is to discover information about who is a cheater. Who does not pay back favors? When you know that, you know who not to share resources with. You know who to avoid cooperating with.
When you have some extra food, you wouldn't share it with a cheater. You'd share it with someone who has a reputation as a generous person. And as a way of bolstering your own reputation as a helpful person, you share information about cheaters with people you trust. It helps them, and they'll want to pay you back. That may be why gossip functions as a form of bonding. The speaker can give inside information to an ally. The ally usually feels grateful for the information and for being privy to privileged information.
The second way talking badly about others would help us survive in a hunter-gatherer tribe is that it creates an "us" at an emotional level. It's a way of uniting with others against a common enemy. We-the-oppressed feel bound together when we talk about the oppressor. We-the-superior feel united when we talk about the idiots. We feel together, part of the same in-group, part of the same tribe, joined. Fine and dandy, but this form of communication allows lampreys to invade the mind in masses. This natural, built-in inclination of ours is a vulnerable weak spot. Pessimism and cynicism can enter here without much resistance.
The third way it would be biologically helpful to talk to others about grievances is for revenge. When you've been cheated, you can get back at the cheater by hurting his reputation. So you can help your allies and hurt your enemies with very little effort by gossiping. In a small group who spent their whole lives together, reputation would have made a big difference. Even now, in big, impersonal cities and big, impersonal companies, it can still make a difference.
Gossip seems wrong. We don't like that we do it. We feel ashamed when we participate in it. But we are compelled against our will — compelled by gossipers who want us to listen, compelled by our own natural curiosity, and compelled by our own inner drive to talk about others. Anyone who has ever tried to stop talking about people behind their backs will discover it is much more difficult than you'd think it should be. The drive is very strong.
emotions are contagious
Another way communication can allow the lampreys of negativity to invade your mind is that emotions are contagious. So without any even talking, you can feel more pessimistic or cynical just by hanging out with someone. Their emotions are communicated even if they don't say a word.
In an experiment on charisma, they put three people in a room. One of them had tested high on emotional expression (one of the elements of charisma) and the other two tested low. When they first arrived in the room, they took a mood test. Then they sat there for a period of time. Nobody spoke to each other the whole time. At the end, they took another mood test. Here's the interesting part: The two people who didn't display much emotion had moved toward the mood of the expressive person. Just being in the same room as the person changed their mood.
We'll be talking later about what can be done about this, but for now we are trying to see where the lampreys of pessimism and cynicism can enter your mind. Where are you vulnerable?
And of course, when people speak, their moods can be even more contagious. And worse, when a person is in a bad mood, the bad mood itself changes the way they perceive the world. They may share this point of view with you, and it can be quite convincing and demoralizing. The point of view sees what's wrong without seeing what's right.
For example, a woman is talking to her husband: "Fred, you're so self-centered. When you cooked yourself a meal today, you didn't ask me if I was hungry. You've always been self-centered."
Nadine was already in a bad mood for other reasons, but when Fred did this, it reminded her of similar times in the past. What Nadine isn't seeing at the moment is that Fred has changed a lot in the past two years — changed deliberately. Yes, he used to be rather self-centered, but he really isn't any more and on a normal day Nadine would agree. But her bad mood is filtering that information out of her awareness at the moment and all she sees are all the other times Fred was being selfish like he was today.
It would be understandable for Fred to feel at least a little demoralized by Nadine's accusations. He was in fact being selfish today, which he now feels bad about, and when Nadine brought up previous memories of it, he felt even worse. So now his bad mood is changing the way he perceives the world too.
Communication is often a source of negative feelings because:
1. gossip tends to be about grievances and complaints,
2. it is cool to be cynical
3. people are more likely to communicate on a negative level if they perceive it to be the correct way to behave
4. we have a pressure to alter information to make it more worth the listener's time
5. people withhold good news from you to keep your support and avoid making you jealous
6. it is often easier to agree about what is wrong than what is right
7. what you don't like comes to mind easier than what you do like
8. emotions are contagious
Communication is often a source of negative feelings. It is another point of vulnerability to infection by pessimism and cynicism.
Now let's talk about defeatism. One of the most consistent sources of defeatist thinking will not be found in your own head, but in the talk of others. When you have a goal, you'll usually have at least one person telling you it can't be done or it shouldn't be done.
Why would people try to prevent you from achieving your goal? There are several possible reasons. They might be trying to protect you from the misery of failure. Or they are jealous and don't want you to be more successful than they are. Or they are naturally negative and automatically see why it can't be done. Or they themselves have had a big goal and you're hearing all the reasons they have told themselves of why they had to give up their dream. And some people are just naturally negative.
So when you're pursuing your goals, don't be at all surprised to discover that some of the people closest to you are seemingly out to stop you. To give you an example of the typical variety of defeatism you are likely to encounter on your way, let's look at the example of Brooke Ellison. When she was eleven years old, she was hit by a car and paralyzed from the neck down. When she woke up in the hospital and found out what happened, one of her first questions was, "Will I be left back?" She was worried she'd be kept back in school.
Her mom, Jean, promised her she wouldn't. People warned Jean about giving Brooke "false hope." But what does that mean? A promise is a commitment, not a hope. Hope is weak and wishful. A commitment is determined. And the way things get accomplished in this world, if they can be accomplished at all, is by committing yourself to something and then refusing to give up when you hit setbacks. Hope and false hope are both irrelevant to the outcome. Warnings about false hope are examples of defeated, discouraging, demoralizing communication. Beware of the lampreys. It is more difficult to stay motivated and committed in the face of that kind of communication.
Brooke sometimes heard her doctors talking about her as if she wasn't there. And sometimes their talk was pessimistic and defeated. Their talk was pervaded by the presupposition of the hopelessness of her case. Brooke's father eventually demanded the doctors never speak like that within earshot of Brooke. He didn't want her determination for accomplishing her goals to be crushed by the naysaying defeatism of uncaring doctors.
This is the kind of thing you will have to guard against on your path to your goals. You'll often get the most defeatism from the "experts." I sometimes come across lists of quotes by experts on different subjects. For example:
Waldemar Kaempfert, managing editor of Scientific American and the author of a book on flying said in 1913, "The aeroplane is not capable of unlimited magnification. It is not likely that it will ever carry more than five or seven passengers."
Albert Einstein said in 1932, "There is not the slightest indication that [nuclear] energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will."
Ken Olson, the president of Digital Equipment Corporation (second only to IBM as a computer manufacturer) said in 1977, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home."
Tom Petit, a political correspondent for NBC said in 1980, "I would like to suggest that Ronald Reagan is politically dead."
These were experts in their field, and pathetically defeatist in their thinking. Anyone trying to accomplish something out of the ordinary is likely to hear something similar about their project. Brooke did.
Brooke had to study almost constantly because it took her more time to do everything. It took longer to complete her assignments. She needed someone to write for her and turn pages for her. Her mom helped her out.
And Brooke did well in junior high. In high school she signed up for a difficult science-research class. The teacher told her, "Frankly, Brooke, I'm not sure whether you're able to handle this program." The teacher wasn't being cruel. She was actually motivated by kindness. And you will very often get defeatism from loving people. Remember how the lamprey invaded the Great Lakes? It wasn't by malevolent people bent on destroying the trout industry. It was by well-meaning people trying to do something beneficial: Opening a way for ships to carry goods to thousands of people. Kindness does not guarantee a good result. In a way, defeatism coming from someone who cares about you is more destructive than if it comes from someone you don't respect — you are more open (and therefore more vulnerable) to it.
Near the end of high school, Brooke applied to Harvard and was accepted. Even here, Brooke got discouragement from someone close to her. Brooke's sister didn't understand why Brooke wanted to go away from home.
Not all the people close to you are enemies of your goals, of course. In fact, they can be your greatest source of strength. Brooke couldn't have accomplished what she did without her mother, who helped her study and went to school with her, who encouraged her, who made her a promise and kept it.
At Harvard, Brooke had to deal with more cynicism and other forms of negativity. "Despite my A-plus average and 1510 on my SATs," said Brooke, "some people thought I was selected only because I was in a wheelchair. They thought I wouldn't succeed if I went."
Whenever you communicate with others, you are vulnerable to lamprey invasions. Pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism can enter your mind and drain the life and vitality out of you. A little later, we'll look at how you can protect your vulnerable spots. For now, just know that they can be protected.
And by the way, Brooke graduated from Harvard magna cum laude (with high honors).
Communication is one of the four ways pessimism can worm its way into your mind. Read about the other three and find out how to protect yourself by clicking here.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.