It's a Bad World, but You're Wonderful

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Imagine that someone committed a murder. Now imagine that the murderer risked his own life to save another person. Would you forgive the murderer for his crime?

No?

So, how many lives would the murderer need to save to balance out his original sin?

5?

10?

In one study, the median answer was 25.

This is an example of what psychologists call the negativity bias, which is a powerful part of the human mind. In many different areas of life, bad is stronger than good. The brain searches for negative things and then fixates on them with tunnel vision.

Why are we overconfident? This trait may be hard-wired into the human brain.

As the murderer example shows, when we judge other people, malevolent acts often outweigh virtuous behavior. Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar: "The evil that men do, lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones."

In a relationship, bad behavior is far more damaging than good behavior is beneficial. You want a happy marriage? Well, being supportive and encouraging is great. But not being withdrawn or defensive is even better.

Psychologists have even worked out the magic ratio for success in relationships: 5:1. In other words, five positive interactions are needed to balance out every negative interaction. If the ratio falls below this, then the relationship will probably fail. Before you lash out at your partner, remember that you'll be playing catch up for a long time.

And it's not just relationships where we see the negativity bias. We're also very quick to spot potential threats. Give someone a grid of smiling faces with one lone angry face, and they'll promptly identify the discordant picture. But give someone a grid of angry faces, and tell them to find the one happy face, and they'll usually take much longer. In other words, our eyes are drawn to threatening images.

Or take another example. Whether it's money, friends, or competitions, the rule holds true: we hate losing more than we like winning. Indeed, losing something can hurt so much that we'll take great risks to win it back. The gambler who drops 50 bucks at roulette and then raises his bets to recover his losses pays for the lights in Vegas.

The negativity bias is pretty depressing, so why do we think this way?

The trait may be hard-wired into the brain after millions of years of human evolution. Back in the day, when we were hunter-gatherers, it was better to be safe than sorry. The key to survival and reproduction lay in avoiding even a single negative experience with a predator, poisoned food, or malevolent person. Like a fire alarm set to be "too sensitive," our brain evolved to quickly spot dangers in our environment.

If everything bad in the world looms large, you'd think that we'd be pretty down on our life chances.

Pass the Prozac.

But it's exactly the opposite. When it comes to judging ourselves, we have a positivity bias. People are generally overconfident, exaggerating their perceived skills, and likely success in life. We're better than the next guy. We're more attractive. We're smarter.

In one survey of a million high school kids, only 2 percent said they were below average leaders, while 70 percent thought they were above average. College professors are even more overconfident: 94 percent thought that their research was above average.

And we feel invulnerable to risk. Car accidents, crimes, and illnesses--these are things that happen to other people.

There is variation. Surprise, surprise--men are more overconfident than women. For example, women tend to believe that becoming an "expert" in a particular field requires, well, some expertise. Men sometimes think that skimming an Atlantic article will suffice. This might help to explain why the army of scribblers who write and edit Wikipedia articles is overwhelmingly made up of men.

Why are we overconfident? Again, this trait may be hard-wired into the human brain. Overconfidence encourages us to persevere in the face of adversity. In other words, living in a bubble of positive illusions can boost our life chances more than a completely accurate view of the world.

In sum, the world's a tough place, but at least we're all above average.

The problem is that these negative and positive biases can be harmful. We harshly judge others and spot threats where they don't exist. Meanwhile, overconfidence can encourage reckless behavior, taking individuals, businesses, or even entire nations, over the cliff edge.

And in combination, these biases can be especially dangerous. What if a leader saw the world as more threatening than it really was, while simultaneously being overconfident about the wisdom of using force?

Bush and Iraq, anyone?

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Dominic Tierney is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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