Writers and Negativity Bias

We want to write more (or better or more successfully). Being a writer is and perhaps has always been a crucial part of our self-identity. We are as smart as the average bear and competent (enough, anyway).

In other words, we know what we want.

Therefore, we will make good choices that are in our own best interest.


The Irrational Writer

Depressed in Paris, by Toni Birrer
Depressed in Paris,” by Toni Birrer (CC BY 2.0)

Something I am very excited to explore in this series of posts (and the corresponding ebook) is how psychological research applies to our writing or any kind of sustained creative work. In particular, cognitive and behavioral psychology seeks to understand why we think, develop, and behave the way we do in order “to promote meaningful change in maladaptive human behavior and thinking” (APA, emphasis added).

Just as the positive psychology movement has concerned itself with improving the lives of everyone, not just those with mental illness, cognitive and behavioral psychology has in recent years developed applications for those who don’t feel particularly “maladaptive” but who just want to understand themselves better and make better choices (see Angela Duckworth’s playlist of TED Talks on human behavior)

Related to cognitive and behavioral psychology is behavioral economics, much of which focuses on helping us to see our glaring and persistent irrationality as a species. We might assume that our human default is rational thought, and that we behave irrationally only when something is wrong with us. However, as Dan Ariely explains, when it comes to decision-making, “We are more like Homer Simpson than Superman.”

Negativity Bias

How does this relate to writing? Over the next few weeks we will look at several examples, but I want to start with something called the Negativity Bias.

The Negativity Bias is a psychological phenomenon that causes us to remember, be affected by, and act upon negative experiences more readily than positive experiences. Or, in the words of one article on the topic, “Bad is Stronger than Good.” Evolutionarily speaking, this tendency is a good thing, helping us to avoid danger by being cautious and conservative in our actions.

The problem is that writing, like baseball, is an endeavor in which we often strike out more often than we hit home runs. When I first began freelancing almost twenty years ago, I remember reading that even writers who made a living with their writing could expect twelve rejections for every acceptance (or that a given article would be rejected as many as twelve times before it was rejected).

We writers cannot bank on a single home run with no missed swings. In fact, we will often strike out in the most awkward and embarrassing ways. That’s part of the deal. And even if we get that win-the-game home run, we will forget it far sooner than the failed attempts.

If we are serious about our writing, we will have a lot of negative experiences, whether in the forms of rejection letters, negative reviews, or just re-reading our own bits of embarrassing writing. Unless we have a strategy in place, we can easily begin to avoid future negative experiences, become risk averse, and stop writing or submitting altogether, all without our conscious selves even being aware of what is happening.

The Kudos List

How do we counteract the Negativity Bias? New York Times writer Alina Tugend shares an excellent suggestion in her article “Praise Is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall“:

“I have a ‘kudos’ file in which I put all the praise I’ve received, along with e-mails from friends or family that make me feel particularly good.” Read More

Why not keep a Kudos List to counteract all of those unfairly weighted negative memories? Make a list of everything good you can think of about your writing. Include awards and outside praise as well as more intangible moments or work that only you know about. List that time you won your grade school poetry prize, the high school journalism awards, and even the rejection letter that ended with the handwritten, encouraging “Please try us again!”(yes, those are from my list). When you can think of nothing else, make yourself include five more items. Then read and add to the list on a regular basis.

  • Does the Negativity Bias affect your writing?
  • What are some items in your Kudos List?

See Also

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