Episode 395: The “Negativity Effect” and the “4-Horsemen” of Disaster. How They Affect Your Home, Loved Ones and Work

Episode Summary

This week, I share the best advice from the noblest of companions, the one who holds long life in the right hand and wealth and honor in the left, one that is worth more than silver and gold and is more valuable than jewels: wisdom. We discuss Roy Baumeister‘s “Negativity Effect” and John Gottman‘s relationships’ “4-Horsemen of Apocalypse.”

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to the Becoming Your Best podcast series. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host. Welcome! We’re honored and privileged to have you with us. Among my electronic folders and files, one is named “Humor, Thoughtful, Inspiring Ideas, Wisdom Literature, and Training Exercises.” Well, this folder contains the best, most meaningful thoughts and wisdom ideas that I have been fortunate enough to come across over the years. When I see a really good one, I just grab it and add it to that file, and then periodically have the opportunity to review it. It is so uplifting and inspirational.  

All of these resources that we’re going to discuss today in this podcast come from that file. And preparing for this podcast has already had a huge influence for good—a desire in my heart to move the bar up. So, I’m grateful for this, happy to be able to share them. I will share a few examples of these timeless jewels and their focus. And it’ll be a primary thought today in the language of “Becoming Your Best.” And I might add, this whole podcast—the purpose of this podcast, “Becoming Your Best Podcast,” which is included in the vision and purpose—is to share principle leadership and inspirational ideas that help you, our listeners, in your journey of becoming your best.  

And today’s focus will be on having transformational teams and relationships, and especially those that are most close to you. In particular, I might add, in today’s podcast, it will be as if we are having, together with us, two extraordinary resources in the process. One is Roy F. Baumeister, a renowned social psychologist who was interviewed by Jennifer Graham, a journalist who works with a prominent newspaper. And then also, in the very same vein of subject, we will discuss “The Four Horsemen” by legendary John Gottman. He is one of the most revered marriage therapists and counselors on the planet. And in every study we’ve seen, and in our own research, having high trust and treating people with kindness and respect are foundational to high-performing individuals, teams, and relationships. And so, what we’re discussing today is definitely high stakes. 

In our seminars and training, we point out how “Becoming Your Best” is both a mindset and a skill set. The fact is that you will lead a life by design, or you will live a life by default, maintaining a healthy, positive, “Becoming Your Best” type mindset. In other words, your good, better, and best—and your best is yet to be—which is led by your own inspired personal vision and annual goals, together with developing the skill set.  

So, the first is the mindset that you envision, which points the direction—the things you’ll do, which dominates your mind, which becomes part of your DNA—together with your skill set, puts you in a better position to have greater happiness, strong relationships, peace, prosperity, and to be a better leader.  

So, here are some of the thoughts and fun jewels in my folder that have had an impact on me and apply today. Over 2,700 years ago, we find in Proverbs, this description of wisdom, and it’s just as true today as when it was recorded. And humanity has so much in common when you think about this. Here it is: “Wisdom is worth more than silver; it makes you much richer than gold. Wisdom is more valuable than precious jewels. Nothing you want compares with her. In her right hand, wisdom holds a long life, and in her left hand are wealth and honor. Wisdom makes life pleasant and leads us safely along.”  

Now, I love the fact that these podcasts have a transcript with them. So, if you happen to like any of these quotes, you have a direct resource and access to them.  

Here are a couple of more that actually go along with this. One is called “The Old Crow and the Young Crow.” “The old crow is getting slow; the young crow is not. Of what the young crow does not know, the old crow knows a lot. As knowing things, the old crow is still the young crow’s master. What does the slow old crow not know? How to go faster. The young crow flies above, below, and rings around the slow old crow. But what does the fast young crow not know? Where to go.” I love that. It’s a good one. There’s some truth in that.  

Now, here’s another very quick one, which I think does apply: “You don’t stop laughing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop laughing.” And so, yes, there is a spirit of Becoming Your Best that literally endures throughout our entire life, every day.  

And the last one I’ll share, which has to do with focus: “The panic-stricken golfer charged into the clubhouse, grabbed the pro by the arm, and said, ‘You have to help me. My drive off the tee sliced out of bounds, hit a guy riding a motorcycle. He lost control, swerved into the path of a truck. The truck jackknifed, rolled over, and broke apart. It was carrying hundreds of beehives. And now the angry bees are attacking everyone in sight. It’s a disaster. What should we do?’ Well, the first thing is, you’ve got to keep your arm straight. And remember to get your right hand a bit more under the club.” Now, that is a focused golf pro.  

Let’s get right into our subject matter today. And I’m going to entitle this particular podcast, “The Negativity Effect and the Four Horsemen.” Now, let’s start right off with jumping into the negativity effect that impacts marriage, parenting, business, and politics. As we think about this, that’s because of a principle called the “Negativity Effect.” The tendency of the human brain to attribute more importance to bad things than to good ones.  

So, our author, Roy F. Baumeister, a renowned social psychologist, explores this phenomena in a new book, “The Power of Bad,” which was co-written by John Tierney. Baumeister, he’s an Ohio native, who lives part-time, actually, in Provo, Utah, where his wife, Diane, is a Professor of Applied Social Psychology at Brigham Young University. He was already renowned in his field before his groundbreaking research on negativity was published. This was some time ago; he had a paper in 2001 called simply, “Bad is Stronger than Good.” 

So, in taking on negativity, Baumeister, who holds a doctorate in social psychology from Princeton, examines an evolutionary tool that helped our ancestors survive in their precarious times. Back then, it made sense: on our ancestral savanna, the hunter-gatherers who survived paid more attention to shunning poisonous berries than to the savory and delicious ones. They were more alert to predatory lions than to tasty gazelles.  

So, today, however, the negativity effect can turn otherwise rational people into gloomy prophets of doom. And the bias helps to sustain what Baumeister calls a “crisis crisis,” the sense that everything is terrible and getting worse. In fact, he and Tierney write, life for the average American has never been better, although you wouldn’t know this from turning on a cable news show. “Never before has the average person faced such a small threat from dying in war or other forms of violence,” they write. Ninety percent of the world’s people have enough to eat; life expectancy in the poorest countries has increased by 30 years, and rates of literacy and education are up around the world. “Just about every measure of human well-being has improved except for one: hope.”  

In an interview with the Deseret News, Baumeister, a psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, explained how negativity bias affects parenting, religious faith, business, and relationships. What partners should do if they want to stay together, and why the book’s ultimate message is uplifting, even though the title is negative. And I might add, the contents of today’s podcast have a huge impact in all of these areas, on our teams and our relationships, in our business, in our homes. So, the interview has been edited for clarity and length. So, here we go.  

Deseret News starts off by saying, “You published your research on the negativity effect in 2001. Why was this idea so revolutionary in the field of social science, given that its biological underpinnings are ancient?”  

Roy Baumeister responded, “Well, people have just not noticed the patterns. And in a couple of areas, people have noticed that bad things were consistently stronger than good. For example, economists knew about loss aversion, how people are concerned with not losing money. And some researchers had noticed that bad information about somebody carries more weight than good information. And then there were a lot of others. We happened to spot this coming up in the literature over and over again; no one had seen the big picture until I had come around,” quoted Roy.  

Here’s the next question: “There’s something profoundly depressing about the premise of your book, that bad things are so powerful that they can override good, that years or even decades of goodwill can be swept away by a negative encounter or event. Yet, the tone of your book is hopeful. Why?”  

The answer by Roy Baumeister: “We’re both basically upbeat, Tierney and I, and indeed, writing it helped us realize that part of this general pessimism about society is a trick of the mind. Things are not as bad as they seem. But people are always clamoring to get attention by saying there’s a crisis around the corner. I saw something in the paper today about a vaping crisis. So why does everything have to be a crisis? But that’s what gets people’s attention. That’s what the mind is oriented towards. But life is actually quite good today. To be born in the United States after the Second World War is like winning the lottery in terms of all the times and places you could have been born. It’s a lovely time of peace, prosperity, comfort, riches, and effective medical care. Sometimes, I think that people born in the United States after World War Two should never complain about anything, but our minds naturally gravitate towards the bad.” 

Here’s the next question: “In your book, you talk about the number of positive events that it takes to overcome one that is negative. You say that you can’t erase one negative interaction with a good interaction. Instead, you have to essentially overwhelm the bad with the good, with a positivity ratio of at least four to one. So how much good does it take to overcome bad?” 

And before we hear the answer, I just want to say that in the world of leadership, this concept is huge. In other words, focus on the good, bringing out the best within people. And we may, of course, in the spirit of good leadership and management, provide constructive feedback. We can teach; we can provide examples. But as we bring these things up, we also reaffirm the good, and we do it in a way that brings out the best within people versus just leaving people hanging with this big negative that can crush the spirit. So, that’s really what we’re talking about today.  

Here is Roy’s answer about the 4:1: “Well, that’s a crude thing. It’s not like you murder someone and four times and helping an old lady across the street is going to make up for it. But the point is, don’t say, ‘I did something bad; I should do something good to make up for it.’ You should do four goods to make up for it, to set your mind on a healthy course. In other words, you’re getting into the right groove of recognizing the good in a positive way to respond if you see the bad.” Relationship researchers have gotten on to this ratio, that for a marriage to succeed, there has to be five times as many good interactions as bad ones. We’re going to talk more about that with John Gottman. 

Here’s the next question: “You write that parents should be content with being good enough and not perfect mothers or fathers. Why is that?” 

Rob: “A lot of mothers, some fathers too, drive themselves crazy trying to outdo each other, and compete, and try to be perfect. If you look at the data, being perfect or being sort of average makes very little difference in terms of how the kids turn out. The real place where parenting makes a difference is at the extreme low end, the abusive and neglectful parents; that can be really bad for the kid. But if you’re not in the worst 5% or 10%, you don’t need to worry about it. Remember, it’s the few bad things that have a disproportionate impact on the relationship or the whole team. To improve things, start out by eliminating the negative —” that’s his advice — “Cultivate the positive; it’s so important. But the first thing is to avoid doing really bad things that would have a lasting damage to the relationship with the project, or whatever. And then remember, life is usually good, but good wins by force of numbers. And don’t get carried away by predictions of problems, or disasters, or dangers. Remember that the mind is unfortunately designed to overreact to those types of things, and people will use that to manipulate and influence you, or even trick you. Take a moment to reflect on the good side to balance out the negative things.” 

Well, I love that discussion. I love the research by Roy Baumeister, and now we’re going to connect that to another huge database of research by John Gottman. He literally is revered as one of the top specialists of marriage. For decades, he’s observed married couples from his institute in Seattle, actually having couples come in and stay overnight in their facility there, and then observing them, of course, by permission. And he’s actually come to the point where he said, “From my experience, from what I know, from my research, I can predict with about a 93% accuracy whether a couple will stay together or not.” 

Now, we’re going to discuss something that he’s written that is literally a pillar in research, following on Roy Baumeister’s comments on the negativity effect and how does that influence our relationships. He addresses this by talking about the Four Horsemen preceding the apocalypse, all in the sense of relationships. And all relationships, even the most successful ones, have conflict. It’s unavoidable. And fortunately, our research shows that it’s not the appearance of conflict, but rather how it’s managed, that predicts the success or failure of a relationship and marriage. We say ‘manage conflict’ rather than ‘resolve,’ because relationship conflict is natural and has functional, positive aspects that provide opportunities for growth and understanding. And there are problems that you just won’t solve due to natural personality differences between you and your partner. But if you can learn to manage those problems in a healthy way, then your relationship will succeed. 

And we see this, by the way—this is a footnote by me—we see it not only in family relationships, partners, with children, with grandchildren, but we see it with your teams, with individuals in your organization. So let’s look at the first steps to effectively managing conflict, and that’s to identify and counteract the Four Horsemen when they arrive in your conflict discussions. And if you don’t, you risk serious problems in the future of your relationship. But, like Newton’s third law, for every horseman, there is an antidote. And you can learn how and when to use them. So, let me just outline what the Four Horsemen are. And he predicts, by the way, that these four things are exactly what create broken relationships; it’s not sustainable. If you have one or both partners that are using these, then you’re in trouble. So, that’s why it’s so important to be aware of them. And they fall right into this negativity effect because they can damage a relationship. Here are the Four Horsemen:  

  1. Criticism, which is verbally attacking personality or character. That’s the first one. 
  2. Contempt, attacking sense of self with an intent to insult or abuse. 
  3. Defensiveness, essentially, this is victimizing yourself to ward off a perceived attack and reverse the blame. 
  4. Stonewalling, this is withdrawing to avoid conflict and convey disapproval, distance, and separation. 

So, these are the Four Horsemen: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Let’s look at each one. And, by the way, you can download a free PDF version of the Four Horsemen and their antidotes; we’ll include the link here within our podcast notes.  

The antidote to criticism is a gentle startup. A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, but criticism attacks a person’s very character. And the antidote for criticism is to complain without blame. By using a softer, gentle startup, avoid saying “you,” which can indicate blame, and instead talk about your feelings using “I” statements and express what you need in a positive way. To put it simply, think of these two things to formulate your soft startup: “What do I feel?” and “What do I need?” Here’s an example that Dr. Gottman gives:  

Criticism: “You always talk about yourself. Why are you always so selfish?”  

Antidote: “I’m feeling left out of our talk tonight, and I just need to vent. Can we please talk about my day?”  

Now, notice that the antidote starts with “I feel” and leads into “I need,” and then respectfully asks to fulfill that need. There’s no blame or criticism, which prevents the discussion from escalating into an argument. 

Okay, here we go. The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect. And I might add, when you think about these and you think about the 12 principles of highly successful leaders, they are the antidote to the negativity effect and to the Four Horsemen; this is a good example of that. So, contempt shows up in statements that come from a position of moral superiority. Some examples of contempt include sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. Contempt is destructive and defeating; it is the greatest predictor of divorce and must be avoided at all costs. The antidote to contempt is to build a culture of appreciation and respect in your relationship. And there are a few ways to do that. One of our mottos is “small things often.” And if you regularly express appreciation, gratitude, affection, and respect for your partner, you will create a positive perspective in your relationship that acts as a buffer for negative feelings. And the more positive you feel, the less likely you’ll feel or express contempt. Another way that we explain this is our discovery of the 5-to-1 magic ratio of positive to negative interactions that a relationship must have to succeed. If you have five or more positive interactions for every one negative interaction, then you’re making regular deposits into the emotional bank account, which keeps your relationship in the green. And I might say, from reading John Gottman’s research later on, he actually escalated that up to 14-to-1; I love it. And that’s something I’ve been trying to do. He gives an example of how you might do it:  

Contempt: “You forgot to load the dishwasher again. You are so incredibly lazy,” while rolling his or her eyes.  

Antidote: “I understand that you’ve been busy lately, but could you please remember to load the dishwasher when I work late? I would appreciate it.” 

So, those are the two different ways that you can do it. I love it. The antidote here works so well because it expresses understanding right off the bat. This partner shows how they know that the lack of cleanliness isn’t out of laziness or even malice, and so they do not make a contemptuous statement about their partner or take any position of moral superiority. Instead, this antidote is a respectful request and ends with a statement of appreciation.  So, these are good ways of how to do it.  

The antidote to defensiveness — take responsibility. Defensiveness is defined as self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack. Most people become defensive when they’re being criticized, but the problem is that being defensive never helps to solve the problem at hand. Defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner; you’re saying that the problem isn’t me, it’s you. But as a result, the problem is not resolved, and the conflict escalates further. The antidote is to accept responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict. Here’s an example:  

Defensiveness: “It’s not my fault that we’re going to be late; it’s your fault since you always get dressed at the last second.”  

Antidote: “I don’t like being late, but you’re right; we don’t always have to leave so early. I can be a bit more flexible.” 

So, as they go through this discussion, that’s a great response. By taking responsibility for part of the conflict—trying to leave too early, which is what this other person was feeling right about their partner—even while asserting that they don’t like to be late, this partner prevents the conflict from escalating by admitting what their role is in the conflict. From here, the couple can work towards a compromise. I love that; again, that’s really good. 

Defensiveness—I’m just gonna read that example: “It’s not my fault that we’re going to be late,” because this person is leaving early. “It’s your fault since you’re always getting dressed at the last second.”  
Antidote: “I don’t like being late either. But you’re right. But we don’t always have to leave so early. I can be a little more flexible.” I love it. Here we go. 

The antidote to stonewalling: psychological self-soothing. So, stonewalling is when someone completely withdraws from a conflict discussion and no longer responds to their partner. That usually happens when you’re feeling flooded or emotionally overwhelmed. So, your reaction is to shut down, stop talking, and disengage. And when couples stonewall, they’re under a lot of emotional pressure, which increases heart rates, releases stress hormones into the bloodstream, and can even trigger a fight-or-flight response. 

In one of our longitudinal research studies, we interrupted couples after 15 minutes of an argument and told them we needed to adjust the equipment. We asked them not to talk about their issue, but just to read magazines for half an hour. And when they started talking again, their heart rates were significantly lower, and their interaction was more positive and productive. So, what happens during that half hour? Well, each partner, without even knowing it, psychologically soothed themselves by reading and avoiding discussion. They calmed down, and once they felt calm, they were able to return to the discussion in a respectful and rational way. 

Therefore, the antidote to stonewalling is to practice psychological self-soothing, and the first step of self-soothing is to stop the conflict discussion and call timeout. Here’s an example: “Look, we’ve been through this over and over again. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of reminding you.” Here’s the self-soothing: “Honey, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed. And I need to take a break. Can you give me 20 minutes, and then we can talk?” 

So, if you don’t take a break, you’ll find yourself either stonewalling and bottling up your emotions, or you’ll end up exploding at your partner—or both. And neither will get you anywhere. None of this is helpful. So, when you take a break—and it should last at least 20 minutes, because it will take that long before your body physiologically calms down—it’s crucial that during this time, you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is he always picking on me?”). Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music, reading, or exercising. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as it helps you calm down. 

Well, there you’ve got the skills: mindset, skill set. The mindset is, “I want to lead a life by design, of happiness and joy, and doing good things—being principle, utilizing the 12 principles in my life.” And the skill sets are like what we’ve talked about today: avoiding the negativity effect and using the antidotes for the Four Horsemen. Now, you know what the Four Horsemen are, and how to counteract them with your proven antidotes. You’ve got the essential tools to manage conflict in a healthy way. And as soon as you see criticism or contempt galloping in, remember their antidotes—be vigilant. The more that you can keep the Four Horsemen at bay, the more likely you are to have a stable and happy relationship in every area of your lives. 

Well, it’s been fun visiting today. Remember: “Wisdom is worth more than silver; it makes you much richer than gold. Wisdom is more valuable than precious jewels; nothing you want compares with her. In her right hand, wisdom holds a long life; and in her left hand are wealth and honor. Wisdom makes life pleasant and leads us safely along.” 

It’s been a delight to have you with us today in this podcast. I hope that you’ve had an idea and inspiration, some motivation that will help you better along your pathway of becoming your best. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. Wishing you a good day. 

Click here to download the “4-Horseman PDF”

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader

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