People often ask if your glass half full or half empty. This rhetorical question may actually be better referred to as a “loaded question.” When it comes to human behavior, our ability to make logical, sound reactions to the world around us is harder than what one may think. People have a tendency to not only focus on negative experiences, but to cling to them as well. Psychology has defined this tendency within its styles of negative thinking as negative filtering. The concept goes something like this: You have a tendency to focus on the negative. You may have a great performance with plenty of positive feedback from teammates, coaches and fans but one is mildly critical and you become all-consumed by this one reaction. You ignore all the positive feedback and focus primarily on the singular negative comment. If while reading this you could not relate to this concept of negative filtering, you have mastered a skill that very few have. However, more likely than not, this statement rung true to your experiences at some point or another. Looking at the initial question of our glasses being half full or half empty leads to an even better question: How do we defy our human tendencies toward the negative and consistently see our glasses as half full?
Allison Ledgerwood is a social psychologist that decided to tackle this question. She sought out to answer why it is that we let rejection and failure stick in our minds and let the positives pass quickly. She designed an experiment that intended to shed some light on the subject. The experiment consisted of two groups that were told about a new surgical procedure. Group 1 was initially told that the success rate of the procedure was 70% while Group 2 was told that the procedure had a 30% failure rate. Not surprisingly, Group 1 liked the procedure and Group 2 disliked it. It was then presented to Group 1 that they could think of the procedure as having a 30% failure rate. Conversely, Group 2 was told that they could view the procedure as having a 70% success rate. So what happened next? Group 1 changed their opinions and no longer liked the idea of the procedure, while Group 2 stuck to their initial opinion and still did not like the procedure. The study demonstrated that when a negative thought seeps into our brain, we have an extremely hard time seeing the positive. These results led researchers to believe that our minds naturally convert toward the negative implications of a situation…but just how easy is it to convert from negative to positive or vice versa?
In an extension of the initial study, participants were asked to solve a simple math problem. Again, two groups were formed but asked the same question two different ways:
Group 1: If 100 lives are saved, how many will be lost?
Group 2: If 100 lives are lost, how many will be saved?
The time it took for participants to solve the problem that went from gain to loss took around 7 seconds (Group 1). However, when calculating losses to gains, it took closer to 11 seconds (Group 2). This provides insight that our brains have an easier time processing loss/negatives but a much slower recovery when going from negatives to positives. For example, an athlete may be having the best game of their life and score a big goal and feel ecstatic about it. That same athlete could still be having the best game of their life but have one small mistake preceding their big goal. All of a sudden, the mentality has changed from, “Wow what a great goal–I am so happy!” to something more like, “It was the least I could have done after making a mistake.” While our brains may have a genetic disposition to find negatives and hold on to them, there are small steps we can take to find the positive out of situations as well. Perhaps that means letting our negative thoughts and judgments come and go. Maybe it means replacing negative self-talk with positive feedback. Next time, when you are confronted with a situation where it appears that your glass may be half full or half empty, remember that your perception is a choice. Your instinct may gear you toward the negative, but your mental strength can rebound you to see the positive.
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