• How often have you laughed at a joke knowing that it belittles, stigmatises or prejudices others?
  • Ever high-fived a friend or colleague when they’ve shared their ‘off-colour’, perhaps even illegal actions with you?
  • Do you find it easier to describe yourself, and others in negative, rather than positive ways?
  • Ever notice how many store book shelves are devoted to stories of criminality with little space for books on heroism and good deeds?

Just what is happening here? Is sharing a bad-news story more powerful than sharing a a good-news story? Are wrong doers more appealing than right doers? Will bad always triumph over good, spelling doom and misery for the human race as we continue to run on our hedonistic treadmills?

I’ve recently been speaking and training at several corporate events that include speakers that share their own personal stories of paying the price for breaking the law.  It’s a great way for attendees to know, for real, what the very serious outcomes for illegal behaviour can be.

While they’re speaking it’s helpful for me to gain insights by observing the reactions of the audience. My observations guide me to tweak my own story telling of successfully blowing the whistle on ‘South Africa’s Enron’, ensuring that the teaching moments move people toward further knowledge and action.

What hasn’t been helpful to me, until researching to understand, is my observation of event attendees roaring with laughter when speakers share their stories of personal acts of gross malfeasance, fist bumping their way to bribery and corruption. I’ve been further intrinsically challenged seeing attendees queue up for selfies with the wrong doer, side lining me as they push past. Women oozing coquettishness, men bravado. What the hell?

Sure, my ego felt bruised but I was more concerned about the ambient unethical messages profoundly influencing behaviour.  To the extent that a group of people internalise the same messages—beliefs, values, ideologies, aesthetics, symbols and stories—they share a culture. With what appeared to be idolising behaviour swirling around, waiting to be assimilated and internalised, would there be a greater propensity for wrongdoing?  Knowing that the words a potential offender uses during his conversation with him/herself are actually the most important elements in the process which gets him/her into trouble or keeps him out of trouble, would individuals contemplating their own non shareable problems now rationalise the violation of a trust?

Thankfully, my feelings of concern were driven away by gnawing curiosity. I reached out, researched, researched some more and can now share my findings with you. With thanks to Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, Susan Fiske, Dwight Riskeyz and Michael Birnbaum

The impact of both good and bad events and stories will wear off in time. Bad events wear off more slowly than good ones. With good events, happiness has a short peak but people become accustomed to the new ‘happy’ situation and are not more happy than they were before the improvement. This speaks to Prospect Theory whereby people become more upset about losing £50 than becoming happy by gaining £50.  The psychological effects of bad events outweigh those of the good ones.  Bad things will produce larger, more consistent, more multifaceted or more lasting effects than good things. This suggests that the negative responses and outcomes (bad events) that whistleblowers suffer outweigh any financial settlement or bounty (good events) they may be in receipt of.

Most people enjoy a little bit of gossip and it’s rarely of a positive kind.  That’s because we have more words for negative emotions than positive ones and we use them more frequently, accessing them one and a half times more often.And if you learn something negative about a new neighbour or colleague it carries more weight than learning something positive.

Our recall of experiences favour bad ones over good ones by four to one. We are hardwired towards negative events being powerful influences on future emotional states, more so than positive events.  We therefore pay more attention to them, re visiting them, sharing them and ultimately making them last longer. A potential outcome of this default focus is that negative patterns of behaviour can become perceived as business as usual and a culture of punishment ensues instead of the rewarding of good behaviours.

How often do you remember the compliments you receive? Positive feedback? Not so much, right? But we do remember the insults, negative feedback or being treated badly. That’s because we are more influenced by being treated in a negative way. Our recall of bad destructive behaviours is more readily available to us.  Even mere questions that create unwelcome views of ourselves create a negative memory bias of the person asking the questions. This is significant when it comes to leadership and the ability to Listen-Up.

In an experimental game of the Prisoner’s dilemma, when participants were asked to rate their opponent, the one who started off with the bad move was rated as stronger than the one who started off with the co operative move. Participants also rated the bad opponent as stronger than they themselves were, unlike the co operative opponent.

Humans are cognitive misers – we cannot afford to process all information to an equally full extent, so we prioritise our cognitive resources and focus on what we perceive as most threatening to us.

Negative information stimulates a special set of processes designed to cope with any perceived threat, no matter how nuanced. Even when a person is not threatened, ‘bad’ seems to lead to greater cognitive processing. Perceived undesirable traits receive more weight in impression formation than desirable ones. This speaks to Optimism bias where we generally overestimate the likelihood of good people and events and underestimate the likelihood of bad people and events. Our optimism bias builds the expectation that all people are good (think about the times you’ve met a person for the first time. Your default assumption is that they’re good, moral individuals and you give them the benefit of any doubt.) This is because good behaviour and events are considered common and expected whilst bad people and events are more revealing and hence more important to know.

“Given a person has done evil, an infinite number of good deeds may not produce a favourable overall impression” 

People categorise other individuals by using available informational cues. Extreme or negative behaviours are perceived as more diagnostic than moderate or positive behaviours. For example, the action of stealing is more informative about someone’s honesty than is the act contributing to charity.  Research suggests that to be morally good means to be consistently good,whereas immorality doesn’t require consistent immorality.  No one is consistently bad so to be categorised as bad, a few bad acts are sufficient for others to come to a conclusion.  For example, an individual may be regarded as a liar despite telling the truth on many occasions, but the same individual would not be regarded as an honest person if he tells many lies. Morally bad actions create a powerful effect on overall judgment and this effect is only slightly mitigated by adding morally good actions.  The overall goodness of a person is determined mostly by his worst bad deed with good deeds having lesser influence.  

Do you remember what the Godfather in Godfather II said? Watch 16 seconds below.

False Signalling 
Negative events and people tend to be remembered in a more accurate fashion than positive events and people.  This focusing of the memory network during either a fear-inducing event or hearing from someone who induces fear or anxiety makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint because our attention is focused on the details that are most likely to enhance our chances of survival if we encounter the situation or person again. For example, you want to know what the offer of bribery looks like, whether it’s enticing to you and whether the person seems likely to use it again. We pay more attention to a person we perceive as immoral because they are believed to be outside the social norm. This leads to fear and threat which in turn leads to the false signals of ingratiating behaviours.

The greater impact of bad over good is extremely pervasive. It is found in both cognition and motivation; in both inner, intrapsychic processes and in interpersonal ones; in connection with decisions about the future and to memories of the past; and in animal learning, complex human information processing, and emotional responses.

What can we do?
Goodness can triumph over bad by force of numbers. To maximise the power of good the number of good acts must be increased; Five rights make up for one wrong.  Create more good by at least five good acts for every bad act. Just as tracking your steps creates commitment which evolves into a pattern of behaviour, track your good acts.

Make an effort to recognise and appreciate the good that you have by celebrating each small success, being thankful for your health and having gratitude for supportive others.

Good acts entail consistency across time and events that cannot be created by one single good event, but can be destroyed by one single bad one. Be consistently good.

Evolve (priming and noticing) a broad orientation to respond more strongly to good than to bad. Consciously Cultivate good memories through reflection and reminiscence. By integrating good memories into an ongoing general perception of goodness you will sustain a broadly favourable view of your life.

Instead of focusing only on what not to do, which often threatens peoples’ self image, capture, harness and nurture individuals self concept of being good, moral people by providing training for Courageous Conversations – the ability to speak and listen up. Courageous Conversation training encourages employees to be engaged with their values and bring their moral agency to work. It strengthens ethical efficacy by exploring and rehearsing strategies they can pursue, the alliances they can form and the resources they can employ to defend the norm of good behaviour. The goal of this training is to protect the organisation as well as to ensure the well-being of all its members. It strengthens the skills that empower employees to contribute competently and effectively to maintaining a safe community for all.

Learn about Heroism by reading Professor Scott Allison’s blog 

Become Agile – rigid adherence to behavioural patterns that were useful in the past is not effective when met with new challenges and threats.

Create Diverse teams to maximise organisational evolutionary fitness for goodness to prevail.

Make a donation to Dr Phil Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project, a non profit organisation that encourages and empowers individuals to take heroic action during crucial moments in their lives.

Learn to Self Regulate in order to create the ability when response modifications are necessary and when they’re unnecessary,

Interested? Drop me a line,

Thank you for reading.  If you enjoyed my blog, please share it with your network and pass on the goodness.