In the news like in advertising and in entertainment, constant appeal to negativity, fear, violence and conflicting thoughts is often the go-to technique. And there is both a neurological reason and a business reason for it: it works. Problem is, it is actually hurting people mentally and sometimes even physically at the same time. The good news is that recent science and business studies demonstrate that positivity is actually incredibly good for business, in terms of performance, sales, profitability and motivation. So now you can have your cake and eat it too, while being kind to your customers.
Why does negativity stick?
Most neuroscientists will tell you that negative thoughts appeal to the human brain faster and stick better than positive ones. And it shows in many ways:
- In relationships, scientists estimate that it takes 5 good interactions to make up for 1 bad one (source).
- We work much harder and are twice as motivated to avoid a loss than to gain something (Source)
- Painful experiences are 3 times more memorable than pleasurable ones (source).
According to renowned psychologist Rick Hanson Ph.D.: “Scientists believe that your brain has a built-in “negativity bias.” In other words, as we evolved over millions of years, dodging sticks and chasing carrots, it was a lot more important to notice, react to, and remember sticks than it was for carrots.” Indeed, you can always live another day to get another carrot, but if you don’t run away from that tiger or fight back the invader, you may never see another day. Game over. And as our brains are programmed to prioritize survival, ‘negative’ naturally becomes the priority in our minds.
Now, if this logic is no longer justified in the majority of our modern (mostly) peaceful industrial societies (note that I am referring to today’s refugee crisis or those fleeing war zones, for whom life-threatening situations may, sadly, still be very real).
But, if you are reading these lines, odds are you are “ok” and you are not facing daily life threats. So relax. Breathe. And go after the carrot.
Bad news just because it sells…
Yet the way the news media has been exploiting this situation is summarized in the journalistic mantra: “if it bleeds, it leads”. In other terms, fear and bad news helps sell more “news”. And sincemoney is what drives most press outlets today, they have naturally learned to prioritize bad news, fear, drama and negativity as the fuel to their stories. The problem is we now end up with 90% negative news (source). Just because it sells!
In marketing and advertising, this approach seems to be generalized as well. It has become “normal” for most of us to expect that ads paint an embellished and distorted version of reality (aka “lies”). No wonder 65% of millenials no longer trust advertising (source).
And that’s without even mentioning negative political advertising and personality trashing taking place (in the US) during election cycles, which reached a staggering 69% of all political ads in the recent 2018 midterms, up 61% from 2014 (source).
Negativity hurts, and advertisers are responsible
The problem: IT IS NOT OK to communicate that way because it has dire consequences on the audience, on people in general and on our societies at large. In other words, it is actually HURTING people.
According to the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the negative effects of advertising on teenagers include increased cigarette and alcohol use, obesity, poor nutrition and eating disorders.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) depression has become the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease. Globally, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015. And in the US, antidepressant use increased nearly 65% over a 15-year time frame, from 7.7% in 1999–2002 to 12.7% in 2014 (source).
And of course, on the extreme end of that spectrum we end up with (legal) drugs epidemics like the current opioid crisis, which kills nearly 70,000 Americans every year and for which Johnson & Johnson has recently been found guilty of a criminal marketing scheme by the State of Oklahoma and ordered to pay $572 million (source).
But there are also long term pervasive effects: as we use and abuse of negativity and violence in communication, news and movies, we train our brain to think these are normal outcomes. And literally, through neuroplasticity, we reprogram our brains to think negatively.
Now multiply all that negative overload by the equivalent of 34GB of daily content — the amount of content that we now consume every day– about 105,000 words, images and videos (source) and by the 5,000 ads hitting our brains – daily – and you get a good picture of how much negative we take in every day.
So the more negativity you ingest, the more negative you become. And if you are a marketer, a newsperson, or an advertiser using negative bias or techniques in your trade, then you are literally poisoning your audience.
Now, it must take some kind of cognitive dissonance to believe that biting the hand that feeds you (or your business) is a sustainable approach to growing that same business. And yet this is too often what seems to drive our world.
Good News: Positivity Sells!
THE GOOD NEWS: science now proves that positivity is actually very good for business: according to the Harvard Business Review, a recent study measured whether positive comments were more effective than negative ones across 60 business teams. And positivity wins, almost 6 to 1 (5.6 times actually).
According to a 2015 study, positive and happy employees are up to 20% more productive than unhappy employees. While for salespeople, happiness and positivity has an even greater impact, raising sales by 37% (source). And Forbes claims that 89% of employees with high levels of well-being reported high job satisfaction and nearly two thirds of those employees reported consistently putting in extra effort at work.
This is probably why the stock prices of Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work for” rose 14% per year from 1998 to 2005, while companies not on the list only reported a 6% increase. Positivity beats stress and negativity in terms of ROI by magnitude of 2 to 1.
So when you create your next marketing campaign, try positivity for a change: it sells!