Psychology, Science

To be or not to not be, that is the question.

Are you a glass-is-half-full person or a glass-is-half-empty person? Aren’t they the same thing? Could two phrases, with the exact same meaning but different word choice, elicit different responses?

Here’s a game you can play that will tell you a little bit about how your brain works. The game is taken from Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, which I have featured in the “From My Bookshelf” link this week. You’ve probably guessed that there is some sort of trick involved with this, but I encourage you to just go with whatever response feels natural to you. There are spoilers ahead, so don’t read ahead until you have your responses clearly in your mind. Maybe even jot them down before reading on. Here it is:

You are about to play two games. In each game, you will be given an amount of money first, and then you will be asked to choose one of two options that will affect you further.

Game 1: You are first given $1000. Then you are asked to choose one of the following options.
Option A: 50% chance to win $1000 (or nothing)
Option B: win $500 for sure

Do you choose A or B? Make your decision before going on to the next one.

Game 2: You are first given $2000. Then you are asked to choose one of the following options.
Option A: 50% chance to lose $1000 (or nothing)
Option B: lose $500 for sure

Again, A or B? Don’t continue until you have decided.

Do you have your answers? Ok. Read on.

In Game 1, a large majority of respondents prefer Option B, the sure thing, over Option A. In Game 2, it is the reverse, a large majority of respondents prefer Option A, the gamble, over Option B. And if you think about it, it seems to make sense to choose that way. In Game 1, you can maximize your guaranteed wins by taking the sure thing. In Game 2, by taking the gamble you have the possibility of not losing anything. It is likely that your reasoning was similar to mine.

Here’s the twist. Both games are identical. Both games describe the exact same outcomes, they just use different wording. Don’t believe me? Go back and reread them. In both games, you are choosing between a guaranteed $1500 (Option B) and a 50/50 shot at either $1000 or $2000 (Option A).

So if the outcomes are exactly the same, why are we more likely to choose one way in one game, and choose the other way in the other game? You would think we would choose the same for both. It must have something to do with the way the two games are worded. It’s called negativity bias. Things of a more negative nature have a greater impact on us than neutral or positive things. In other words, we have a tendency to avoid negative things more strongly than we have to seek out positive things. So, even though the two games are identical, since one is worded positively in terms of gains and the other is worded negatively in terms of losses, we can encourage (or even manipulate) the player to choose one way or the other simply based on which version of the game we present. We can influence the way things are perceived just by the words we use, EVEN IF THE WORDS HAVE THE EXACT SAME MEANING.

Why do our brains work that way? It seems we are born to behave that way. The website, quoting Kahneman, offers up the following explanation:

Daniel Kahneman explains why this is: “The brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news. By shaving a few hundredths of a second from the time needed to detect a predator, this circuit improves the animal’s odds of living long enough to reproduce.” In other words, it was more important for our ancestors to be able to avoid a threat quickly than to gain a reward. If they missed a reward (say, a tasty rabbit), it wasn’t too big a deal; there would always be more rabbits. But if they weren’t able to avoid a threat, they might end up dead. Natural selection slowly shaped us to be on alert at all times, hyper-aware of anything that might cause us harm.

(for a deeper dive into negativity bias, see Vaish, Grossman, and Woodward 2013)

Negative things pop up more clearly on our radar because, in the cutthroat environment that existed throughout most of our evolutionary history, the effects of not noticing something positive were much more survivable than not noticing something negative. So our negative-detectors are much more sensitive and ring out much more loudly than our positive-detectors.

With a little reflection, we can see this bias popping up in our daily lives any time we overreact to some perceived slight, when someone takes that last bottle of juice we were heading towards at the supermarket or when someone cuts us off while driving. Anything we see as a loss will get us to react more strongly, even if it’s not really a loss.

It also shows up in politics, especially in the kinds of ads candidates will run. We hear a lot about “negative ads” or “attack ads”, and most people say they really don’t like them. I know I can get really sick of them. But thanks to the negativity bias, we are programmed to have a strong reaction to those types of ads, to some degree or another.

But even though we can experience firsthand how negative ads can affect our opinion of a candidate, such influences are short-lived. The research shows that, despite the noticeable short term effects, negative campaign ads have minimal effect on choice of candidate, over the long run. This suggests that our strong emotional snap-judgments will weaken over time as our slower rational mind takes control. The difference between the fast emotional response and the slower rational response is the subject of Kahneman’s book (which I really can’t recommend enough), and inspired the title.

That brings us to the good news! We can have some sort of control over this kind of bias, but it will take some work. You can’t get off that easy! If you are aware that this type of bias exists (like you are now!), and you can recognize when and how it is affecting your judgement, then you can take a step back and let that slower thinking rational mind do its thing. As Tony Schwartz, in his New York Times article “Overcoming Your Negativity Bias”, said:

Learning to put your attention where it serves you best requires the same sort of deliberate practice necessary to build any new skill. The problem is that we grow up in a world that doesn’t value the training of attention or the capacity to cultivate specific emotions.

A good starting place is simple self-awareness, because you can’t change what you don’t notice.

If you’re like me, this kind of thing fascinates you. It’s amazing that we can learn about how the most complicated object ever known to humankind works, even if it’s just a tiny fraction of what that there is to know. It’s amazing, but it’s also very important. Because if we want to be the drivers of our destiny, and not just passengers, we need to be curious and investigate and find things out. We need to know how things work.

Knowledge is power. Let’s be powerful.

1 thought on “To be or not to not be, that is the question.”

  1. Very fascinating… I actually chose B both times but have done some personal growth work in the last couple years after a major crises . So I guess as you said there is good news and we have the ability to think versus just react . I call it pressing my pause button .


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