Ep 125: What To Do With a Negative Teen

Episode Summary

Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, bestselling author of Willpower and The Power of Bad, helps us understand our tendency to focus on the negatives and why it’s not all bad. Not winning “the best parent” awards? Turns out that’s not what matters for a successful teen.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

When teens find out their friends are hanging out without them, or they didn’t get a part in the school play, they suddenly act like it’s the end of the world! No matter how hard you try to convince them that it’s really not a big deal and that there will be other opportunities in the future, they just can’t seem to get over it. Then, even when they appear to be back to their usual self for a while,  it seems like every week something new goes wrong. They just can’t stop making mountains out of molehills!

This focus on the negative expands just past dramatic teens–you might notice it in your own experiences. Even when you have ten positive interactions with your coworkers, it’s always the one that goes badly that plays over and over in your mind when you’re trying to sleep at night. You may find yourself scrutinizing your own parenting the same way, thinking about a single mistake even when you usually knock it out of the park.

To understand our preoccupation with the unfortunate, we’re talking to Dr. Roy Baumeister, author of The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. After his research paper about the human obsession with bad events garnered a remarkable amount of citations, he decided to sit down and write a book about why people tend to think too much about the things that go wrong.

Dr. Baumeister and I dive into why negative experiences feel so much more significant than positive ones. We also talk about how to dole out bad news and criticism, and the mind’s peculiar reaction to social rejection.

Why We Obsess Over the Bad

When our ancestors were foraging through the forest, they weren’t focused on how nice the sun felt or the beauty of the sunset–they were trying not to die! They were much more likely to take note of events like sudden illness or bad weather because these things may have cost them their life if not addressed. Individuals who were able to concentrate on the negative likely lived longer than those who were caught up in pleasures, leading our modern minds to become preoccupied with negative events.

This explains why our current culture seems to be so infatuated with doom and gloom. Our 24 hour news cycle blasts us with info about impending threats and nightmare scenarios. We obsess over the most frightening possible existential threats because our minds are just trying to help us stay alive. It’s the same reason we have so many more words to describe misery and despair. Dr. Baumeister and I talk about how words like “trauma” have no positive equivalent.

These evolutionary forces are also the reason why teenagers act so melodramatic. Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, they’re preparing to take on the world on their own. They’re deeply affected by bad experiences because deep down, they’re in the process of gaging their chances of survival.

As a species, we consider fitting in as an important part of these survival tactics. When we can roll with the pack, we’re better prepared against the dark forces we’re so focused on. If we find ourselves not fitting in, however, our body has a curious reaction.

The Strange Effect of Social Rejection

Since we tend to focus too much on negative events, it seems likely that experiencing social rejection might cause us an immense amount of emotional pain. However, Dr. Baumeister discusses how his research actually demonstrates otherwise. When we’re not invited to a party or turned down for a date, we’re not likely to feel upset but instead, numb.

Dr. Baumeister explains that this is also likely a result of evolution. If we were, say, being chased by a tiger in the jungle, we might momentarily hurt ourselves tripping and falling. Instead of letting that pain hold us back, our body releases chemicals that numb the pain, so we can stay alive longer. Although the threat of tigers has diminished, our survival instinct remains, especially within our social spheres. The pain of social rejection hits hard, so our body starts out by removing feelings altogether, says Dr. Baumeister.

Because rejection causes our feelings to subside, humans experiencing a lack of belonging are also more likely to lack empathy. As a result, social rejection actually makes us unpredictably aggressive. Those facing the burn of not being included are much more inclined to lash out against those around them. This is why teens, constantly entrenched in the socially ruthless environment of high school, might scream insults and slam the door in your face.

It’s easy for parents to fall into this same trap. In the episode, Dr. Baumeister and I discuss how you can work through this urge to lash out with your teen. When it comes to negativity, you might also struggle to tell teens bad news or put punitive measures in place. In the interview we  talk about how you can introduce these not-so-positive parts of parenting.

Getting into the Necessary Negatives

Even though we sometimes wish everything was perfectly peachy, life isn’t a bouquet of roses. Sometimes you’ve got to deliver bad news or dole out some punishment. Dr. Baumeister and I talk through how you can handle all these unpleasant but unavoidable tasks.

When we have some unfortunate news to impart, we often adopt a “sandwich” approach, delivering good news first, then bad news, and then good news again. However, Dr. Baumeister discredits the effectiveness of this method. He says this concept emerged as a way to postpone delivering bad news, but doesn’t make dreadful information any easier for the listener to stomach. Instead, he suggests sharing bad news first, and then the good. Our minds crave relief after receiving a load of unpleasant info.

Do you often find punishment hard? Well, you should still consider it an important option, says Dr. Baumeister. In his studies, he’s found that punishment is much more effective than positive reinforcement at motivating individuals. You can entice someone with a reward for meeting a standard, but it will work much better if you threaten to take something away, Dr. Baumeister explains. Therefore, you shouldn’t be afraid to punish kids who are out of line.

For example if a kid is struggling to get good grades, it’s typical to offer them some cash for every A or B. However, it might be wiser to give them that cash up front, and let them know that for every C or D, they’ll have money taken away. This method has been proven to work with factory employees, young kids, and even teachers.

In the Episode…

Dr. Baumeister’s many years of research make for a riveting interview this week. In addition to the topics above we talk about:

  • Why you shouldn’t scrutinize your own parenting too much
  • The significance of “bad apples” in a group of people
  • How social media can be a positive force
  • Why we always think the past is better than the present
  • How we often create too much fear around vaping

Although it’s in our nature to focus on the negative, we can use our tendencies to our advantage. By understanding why we’re so obsessed with bad events, we can break the cycle of negativity.

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You have been doing really well-cited research in the field of social psychology for a long time. I love your book Willpower, a lot of people do as well. And so really interested to know why your most recent book, you decided to write it about bad and about the negativity effect and why bad things tend to be so much more impactful than good things.

Dr. Baumeister: Well, we chose this book, I worked it out with my buddy John Tierney, used to write for a science writer for the New York Times. Like most researchers, I have several long running programs of research, but I did this paper that’s outside of all my other stuff. I just noticed a pattern in reading the literature that psychologically bad things seem to have stronger effects than good things.

Dr. Baumeister: So I got together with a couple of colleagues and we wrote an article and reviewed it in multiple fields and published it in a medium journal and didn’t think that much more about it, but over the years it’s become hugely cited. It’s number two out of my 700 publications. We realized this is a much bigger deal than I had thought at the time. After Tony and I had written the Willpower book, we were thinking about what to write next and we had a couple ideas and he looked over things and said, “Well, this, Bad is Stronger Than Good was the title of the research article. He said, “This could really be something.”

Dr. Baumeister: And it linked in with his ideas. He knows a lot more about politics and business and stuff like that than I do. So we settled on that. That was the reason for choosing that one. I like working with him and I think it’s a real important life lesson. I’ve had several professors at other places say, “This is something I tell my students that this is something you can use as you go through life.” I just realized that the mind is programmed to overreact to bad things relative to good things. And you need to adjust to that and deal with that, and that it should affect how you treat other people and how you even understand that your own mind getting carried away with bad things and understand what’s going on in the world and in in the media.

Dr. Baumeister: Tierney had spent his career in journalism, said everything has to be a crisis of the sort of pressure from editors to make a big deal of everything. And he said it’s such an irony because life is really getting better and better by all objective measures. People live longer and happier and more comfortable lives than ever in the past. And yet the media and the books are all full of doomsayers and predictions of imminent disaster. And he said, “Well, how can we put this together? Irish people so obsessed with impending disasters that mostly never occur.”

Andy: Some of the things that you pointed out in the introduction to this book I thought were so fascinating. And I think there may be ideas from the paper that you published or other things that you’ve picked up from other researchers as well, but even just some of these simple ideas like that there are so many words for negative things, but not corresponding words, opposite words for positive things. There’s no opposite of trauma.

Dr. Baumeister: Yes. But it’s a big thing. Trauma is a single bad event that affects you for weeks, months, years, thereafter.

Andy: For the rest of your life, you’re scarred.

Dr. Baumeister: Whereas there’s no corresponding word and then probably no corresponding phenomenon for a single good thing that changes you. People might talk about a religious conversion as having a lasting effect. But apart from that, and in terms of the diversity of things that traumatize people, there’s nothing like it. In sex, for example, a really bad experience can affect your sexual feelings and responses for the rest of your life, but a good experience, no matter how good, doesn’t do much.

Andy: Maybe you’re walking on air for a couple of days, but then you just come back down to reality.

Dr. Baumeister: My colleagues have actually done research on relationships that, in say, marriage or sex has about a three-day afterglow. Good sex between spouses makes them happy about three days. And then their happiness goes back down to where it was before.

Andy: Yeah. So what is it about bad things that makes them so much more salient and that they can have such more long lasting effects?

Dr. Baumeister: Well, we think the mind is designed that way probably for evolutionary purposes. I should give a little bit of the story of how it came around to this. When we were originally reading through the literature and finding this here and there, we said, “Well, let’s find out what the exceptions are because that’ll make an interesting theory.” We can say, well, bad is stronger than good over here and here, but not in all these other places. So something about here and here, that’s what explains it. This is how psychology researchers think. Only we couldn’t find exceptions. It was just there, everywhere. And so it was a little disappointing as we would make a more interesting and complicated theory, but it added the excitement that, wow, we must be dealing with one of the basic properties of the mind. So we had to look, and evolutionary past something to shape it at that basic a level.

Dr. Baumeister: And there’s even findings with, say rats in the laboratory, that show they react more strongly to bad things than good things. So again, it’s not like something we’ve learned in school or whatever. It is deeply embedded in the mind. And the way we act to that and just think about evolution and avoiding bad things is much more crucial. Evolution is about surviving and reproducing. Life has to win every day. Death only has to win once. So the people or even the very simple animals, long thousands, millions of years ago, who were accessibly attentive to danger and threat and poison and killers and so on, they probably survived better than the ones that were focused on pleasures and happiness and didn’t worry as much about the bad things. So it’s hard to prove that that’s what happened a million years ago, but something like that has to be the case for it to be this widespread. Because again, we’ve found it over and over in one sphere after another.

Andy: One of the things you write about in here is that when it comes to child rearing, bad parenting scars children, but being especially conscientious doesn’t reliably make children happier or healthier. And it’s a theme throughout the book. You also talk about this hotel in New York and the game of trying to get good reviews and across the board, there’s this phenomenon where you’re better off spending your energy trying to avoid the really bad or please the people who are maybe going to leave a one-star review who are really, really negative. And similar thing with parenting here. It sounds like when really bad things happen, that can really scar a kid. So focusing your energy on trying to avoid that is a better almost use of your parenting energy than trying to have all these really good experiences or be overly conscientious or something.

Dr. Baumeister: Yes, yes. So it’s become a thing in our culture that you want to do everything perfect. And you have to be the perfect mother or the perfect father, get exactly the right music to play in the crib and do exactly the right things and so on. But the researchers who study child development say, “Ah, you should just try to be a good enough mother.” If you’re in the top 95%, it doesn’t make that much difference in terms of how well the kids turn out. And if you’re the super mother and do everything perfect, your kids might turn out great or they might turn out just so-so. As long as you’re not really in the bottom 5% or thereabouts, then you can really mess your kid up. How kids turn out depends on a lot of things, on their schools. There’s a strong argument that the peer group makes a much bigger deal than the parents do.

Dr. Baumeister: One argument is that the role of the parents is to get your kids into a neighborhood and a school system and so on where they can have good peers, because those are the ones that really shape the personality of the kid, not so much what the parents teach them. So all this excessive worry about being the perfect mother or father is really unnecessary and unhelpful. There’s even pretty solid data on intelligence, which is a mixture of the genes you’ll get from your parents and your experiences, that bad parents. Let me start with the good parents. The good parents, it’s really just the genes. You don’t improve your children’s intelligence by being good parents. You just enable them to perform up to the level of their genetic capability.

Dr. Baumeister: But the link between the genetic endowment and the kid’s intelligence is much weaker with bad parents. Bad parents can mess your kid up and make the kid less intelligent than his or her potential. That kind of data is I think quite impressive. So again, you can’t make the kid better, but you can make the kid worse. So maybe avoid doing the bad things.

Andy: You can help them to fulfill what their natural capability is, but you’re not going to lift them up above that.

Dr. Baumeister: Right. You can’t lift above it, but you can knock them away below that.

Andy: You can prevent them from getting there. Yeah. Another interesting point you had on the next page was don’t expect credit for going the extra mile, which I guess is closely related. But I think often this is a common thing with parents where we feel so unappreciated. And I did all this, I went above and beyond and did all this extra stuff and it’s not even being registered.

Dr. Baumeister: Yes. This was something actually, John,, my coauthor noticed, and he found it in business that you order something and they’ll tell you we’ll have it next Wednesday. And if you get it on Monday or Tuesday, you’re like, “Oh, that’s great.” But it’s not a big deal. You don’t really give them much credit, but if you get it late, if it’s Thursday or Friday, “Oh, they promised me on Wednesday! What’s wrong with them!” So, you don’t really get much credit. It was supposed to come Wednesday. Here it is on Tuesday. That’s nice. But the same thing with say showing up to a meeting, being 10 minutes late, you know, “Grrr.” But being 10 minutes early doesn’t give you any extra credit. So again, all those things to get along with people well and whether it’s in business or relationships or whatever, avoid doing the bad things. That’s much more important.

Dr. Baumeister: And I periodically ask my students, “Okay, why do you think someone should have a relationship with you? What make you a desirable partner?” And they all say positive things. I’m a good listener, I’m supportive. But those things don’t make that much of a difference. The big thing that people who study relationships say they’re really affected by the bad things. If you can avoid saying something nasty when you’re in a bad mood or you’re frustrated. If you can avoid wasting the couple’s money on some stupid venture. You can just avoid being late when you promised them you’ll be there at a certain time. Those things carry a lot more weight in terms of the quality of the relationship. People think their relationships get better and better, but the researchers that track them over time say really not so much. They mostly start off good, because you’re attracted to each other. Great.

Dr. Baumeister: And so, basically they either stay the same or they go downhill. The task for maintaining a good relationship is to avoid the going downhill. And that’s what’s caused by the bad things and especially bad responses to bad things. When one is unpleasant and the other is unpleasant in response, that’s what starts the downhill spiral going much faster. The practical advice is be attentive to the bad things you do and don’t do them. And if you do bad things and we have the rule of four. Don’t think, well, I kind of annoyed my partner last week. So I better do something nice to make it up to him or her. Try to do four things. Do that, you’ll be in much better shape because the one good thing won’t make up, it may in your mind, one good thing makes up the one bad thing, but not to them and not to the relationship. It takes about four to break even.

Andy: So there is a really interesting section of the book about delivering bad news or harsh feedback. And I think a lot of the ways that we’ve been taught to do it is the sandwich approach where we sandwich the bad thing in between two good things. But you point out in here that that’s maybe not a good way to do it. Why not?

Dr. Baumeister: Well, that is a bit of a psychological thing here. If I have to give you some bad news about your performance, I don’t really like to say it, because it’s not pleasant for me. You don’t really want to hear it. And so the temptation for me is to postpone that. So I start off with going through the good things, but you’ll know something’s coming.

Andy: “Come on, get to the point.”

Dr. Baumeister: Yeah, “get to the point.” So you might have some introductory remarks or an overall impression, but then get to the bad stuff right away. It’s usually not as bad as your worst case fear. So tell the bad. And then after the person digests that, then they’re ready to hear some good stuff. That’s how the mind works on its own too, accepts the bad and then it starts to look for ways to make things better. So you hit them. Well, this was the worst thing, and then you accept that for a moment. And then, well, but then on the other hand, there are all these good things. So there’s plenty to work with and you’ve just got to fix that bad thing.

Andy: And I like, then you come back to the bad thing also a little bit at the end, so that you do make sure that you leave them with, you don’t just leave them with all the good stuff.

Dr. Baumeister: Well, yeah. I don’t know if you need to do that. They certainly heard it. Although people are surprisingly sensitive in some cases. I’ve heard professor, chairs of the department, saying when you give your annual feedback to those people, I told him this was what he was doing wrong. But he wouldn’t–

Andy: Selective hearing.

Dr. Baumeister: Yeah. But again, that’s another reason to bring it up first so you make sure they get the message. It’s an item. There may be no perfect way to deliver criticism to others. But when people know there’s good and bad, they’re certainly vigilant for the bad. So they’re not really paying attention to the rest of it till you get to the bad stuff first.

Andy: So it’s more like an open-faced sandwich.

Dr. Baumeister: [laughing] Yes.

Andy: There’s a lot of stuff in here on punishment versus rewards and what motivates people to behave. Well, I think we like to reward people because it feels better, but-

Dr. Baumeister: People learn fast, even rats learn faster with punishment than reward. It seems to be a basic property. This has been a big thing in the schools, because they always want to think, well we could get away with giving bad grades and oh, you shouldn’t even mark papers with red ink anymore because it’s too negative. Just focus on the positive.

Dr. Baumeister: But first of all, in terms of information for learning, getting both good and bad is the best thing. I mean, my professor who sponsored my dissertation, I think his educational philosophy was that if you just deliver a lot of really good criticism, thorough and thoughtful and so on, then you don’t need to bother with praise. His students who survived all had pretty healthy confidence in themselves. Otherwise they fell apart, but he turned out quite a few of us and we learned a lot from him.

Dr. Baumeister: But then I worked with somebody who gave both praise and criticism and I said, “Oh, this makes it a lot easier to learn faster.” So on a pure informational basis, you need to supply both. That’s the most effective for learning. But if it’s one or the other, criticism works better than praise. There are nicely controlled studies, like they will give children a jar and say, “Well, every time you get one right, you can put a marble in it. We’ll give you a marble.” Or they give other children one full of marbles and say, “Well, every time you get one wrong, we’ll take one out.” So it’s the same contingency, a marble for a right answer. But the kids learned a lot faster when the marble was being taken away for wrong answers than when they’re being given them for right answers.

Dr. Baumeister: There’s even, I think we mentioned it in the book, a followup study with teachers. It was the same thing, that the teachers are supposed to teach their kids to reach a certain level on the region-wide test at the end of the year. They did half of it, told the teachers that you’ll get a big bonus if 60% of your kids reach this criteria. The others, they’d give them a bonus at the start of the year and said, “Well, you have to pay it back if the kids don’t.” It’s exactly the same amount of money, the same students, the same everything. But even the teachers showed the same thing. Their students did a lot better when the teachers had the money and were afraid of losing it than when they were going to possibly get it as a bonus. So they have punishment is for better or worse is important part of learning and the attempts to get rid of it are just weakening the whole educational project.

Andy: But it strikes me that what these studies show is that it is really a matter of framing. And it’s almost the same exact thing that you’re offering in both of these scenarios. Or you have another study in here that you talk about workers in a factory. Some of them, they tell them if you meet your goal at the end of the week, you get an extra bonus on your next paycheck. Whereas the other ones, they just increase their paycheck. And they say, “If you don’t meet your goals, we’re going to deduct it from your paycheck.” Same exact thing, but it’s just whether it’s framed as a bonus or framed as a penalty has a big impact on how well the person performs.

Dr. Baumeister: And that shows you how you can work with this property of the mind to get best results. Understand that the mind is designed to overreact to bad things more than to good things. So set up the situation, as you say, frame things to take advantage of that.

Andy: Yeah. Instead of telling your kids that you give them $200 for every A, just give them the $200 now and say they’ll owe you money for every B.

About Roy F. Baumeister

Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, is the author of more than 30 books, notably Willpower, which was a NYT Bestseller, and The Power of Bad. Dr. Baumeister has published well over 500 scientific articles. In 2013, he received the highest award given by the Association for Psychological Science, the William James Fellow award, in recognition of his lifetime achievements.  

Although Roy made his name with laboratory research, his recognition extends beyond the narrow confines of academia. He has appeared on television shows such as Dateline NBC and ABC’s 20/20, as well as on PBS, National Public Radio, and countless local news shows. His work has been covered or quoted in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Newsweek, TIME, Psychology Today, Self, Men’s Health, Businessweek, and many other outlets.

Currently, Roy is riding out the winter in Utah.

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