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20200712 – The Power of Bad



The main idea of this book per authors is to explore power of bad – how much stronger it is than power of good, how it operates in the brain, how it distorts one’s perceptions of people and risks, how one can minimize those distortions, how to use the power of bad for positive purposes, and how to deal with the particular challenges of the negativity effect in business and the online world. It is also to look at the innate human strengths and conscious strategies that can be marshaled against the modern barrage of bad.


Prologue: The Negativity Effect
Authors start this with discussion of universality of negative attitudes, which on one hand is well known, but on other hand only recently become subject of serious research. Authors describe a number of experiments demonstrating that small amount of bad could spoil large amount of good and discusses this asymmetry. Another important point that authors make is that:” The negativity bias is adaptive; the term biologists use for a trait that improves the odds of survival for an individual or a group. On our ancestral savanna, the hunter-gatherers who survived were the ones who paid more attention to shunning poisonous berries than to savoring delicious ones.”

CHAPTER 1: How Bad Is Bad? Enlisting the Rational Mind
In this chapter authors refer to Baumeister who based on his own live experience developed “positivity ratio”, which is the number of good events required neutralize impact of every bad event. After that they discuss research into this ratio, its methodology and results that led to establishment of “Gottman ratio” 5/1. In other words, one needs 5 positive events to neutralize one negative. Another result related to emotional impact demonstrated that:” Research tracking workers’ moods during the day shows that a setback has between two and five times as much emotional impact as a positive event. Emotions make us less rational, and therefore more susceptible to the power of bad.” An interesting thing authors refer to is explanation of superstitions, which normally prevail because one needs several encounters with black cat when nothing negative happens to override one such encounter when something negative does. The authors discuss phenomenon of safety junkies – people who often irrationally increase their risks, for example driving instead of flying after 9-11, even if driving is much more dangerous. Finally, authors discuss ways to avoid emotional impact by developing some process and use example from the sport tactics.

CHAPTER 2: Love Lessons: Eliminate the Negative
Here authors move to discuss process of removing negatives in one’s love life. Authors use examples from classic literature for this purpose. At the end they present some specific strategies:

  • Don’t overpromise.
  • Don’t expect credit for going the extra mile.
  • Remember that bad is in the eye of the beholder.
  • Put the bad moments to good use.
  • Think before you blame. Beware
  • When you’re fighting, bring in an imaginary referee.
  • Get a second opinion.
  • Suspend judgment.
  • Don’t take the bait.
  • If you must respond, don’t escalate.
  • Follow the Negative Golden Rule.

 CHAPTER 3: The Brain’s Inner Demon: Wired for Bad
This chapter is about Felix Baumgartner who had unexpected psychological problem with long planned stratospheric jump, when he suddenly got paralyzed with fear and then had to apply significant effort with help from psychologist to be able to overcome this problem. Authors use it to discus works of fear in the brain and how to train the brain to overcome it.

CHAPTER 4: Use the Force: Constructive Criticism
This chapter starts with suggestion that bad could prompt people to act and even flourish as result. Authors reviews how slight change in the same review of a book can turn it from positive to negative and demonstrate that negative has a lot more impact than positive. After that authors discuss how to deliver bad news in the wrong and right way. Here are strategies:

  • Consider your objective.
  • Ask questions.
  • Once you’ve gotten the criticism across, use the power of bad to your advantage.
  • In doling out praise, don’t worry that it will seem overblown or insincere.
  • Be creative with your praise.

CHAPTER 5: Heaven or Hell: Prizes vs. Penalties
This chapter is about preference of stick over carrot as an incentive tool. Authors start with derby when nobody ever saw a jokey with a carrot dangling before horse, but all jockeys do have whips. Then they move to religions when fear of hell is much more powerful that anticipation of paradise. Finally, they discuss effective or non-effective applications in education and workplaces.  

CHAPTER 6: Business 101: Yes, We Have No Bad Apples
Here authors discuss typical American attitude to norms violation – bad apples. They make a very valid point that bad apples spoil the barrel and provide guide to different types of bad apples: The jerk, The slacker, and the downer. Author present experiments demonstrating how one bad apple decrease team performance by 35%. Finally, and most important, they provide recommendations how to deal with bad apple:

  • Protect yourself
  • Rearrange the barrels
  • Be careful whom label
  • Don’t expect bad apples to change on their own.
  • Isolate the bad apples.
  • Intervene early, and don’t be shy about it.
  • Don’t force the good apples to adapt to bad behavior.
  • Don’t hesitate to fire a jerk, but don’t be a jerk about it.

CHAPTER 7: Online Perils: The Sunshine Hotel vs. the Moon Lady
This chapter is about good and bad online reviews and how they can hurt business. Authors make a point that bad review are much more influencing that the good once and then provide recommendations on how to fight it: by providing really good service and saturating online reviewing with bad review designed in such way as to demonstrate that author is a jerk and therefore bad review should be discounted.

CHAPTER 8: The Pollyanna Principle: Our Natural Weapon Against Bad
This is another set of recommendations based on the story of Pollyanna – the girl that remained idiotically happy whatever bad things happened to her. Here is a set of recommendations of how to do it that authors provide:

  • Change the narrative.
  • Share your good news.
  • Rejoice (or at least fake it) when you hear someone else’s good news.
  • List your blessings.
  • Make time for nostalgia—and make more good memories.
  • Treasure the past, but don’t compare.

CHAPTER 9: The Crisis Crisis: Bad Ascending
This is another set of recommendations on how to deal with bad news. Authors recommend to start with three assumptions:

  1. The world will always seem to be in crisis.
  2. The crisis is never as bad as it sounds.
  3. The solution could easily make things worse.

After that they proceed to discuss that everything really got a lot better over the last few centuries and that there are lots of people who promote bad news because they believe it would be beneficial for them. Authors also provide recommendation on coping with bad news saturation.

CHAPTER 10: The Future of Good
In the final chapter authors somewhat surprisingly move to declare that despite obvious power of bad, the good’s prospects somehow improving over time: bad prophesies never realized, instead of starvation humanity had to deal with obesity, instead of nuclear war, the most peaceful time in history,  and despite all the negativity in the press, everything is getting somewhat better than it used to be despite memories filtering out bad, retain everything good, and overall generate nostalgy for the past that never existed. So, the key approach should be to take everything easy and approach both good and bad in reasonable and steady way.


I find the main ideas of these book that bad staff is powerful quite convincing and very much consistent with human psychology for which multitude of experiments demonstrate that people significantly more impacted by loss, that by gain. There are even quite consistent demonstrations that quantify these differences, by estimating how much more value is provided by retaining $100 versus gaining $100. I also agree with authors’ ideas on how one should handle bad news and overall approach to the bad staff in live. The constant fear and panic would do no good if one cannot prevent bad from happening, but steady and rational approach to whatever comes, do really allow avoiding bad if there is a chance to do it.

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