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123rf17438812 bothThe current political campaign season, with its negative advertising and name calling, brought a question to mind: Why do negative ads work and what are the implications for you and your business? It was the impetus for researching why negative advertising works.

After all, why would you heap on more invective aimed at an opponent than discuss your virtues? For some of us, we may question if any politicians could possibly have any virtues given the negative ads run against them…

Why do negative ads work?

Why do negative ads work? It’s a good question. Politics is the ultimate zero-sum game; the winner takes all and the rewards seem to be quite good – both those of ego and sometimes the monetary. 

The stakes are high so we’d expect only the most effective ads to be run.

Taking a deep dive into the question of what innate human adaptations make a focus on the negative outweigh attention to the positive, Roy Baumeister, Elen Bratslavsky, and Catrin Finkenaur studied this in detail and published their findings in “Bad Is Stronger Than Good” 2001, Review of General Psychology Vol. 5, No. 4, 323-370.

Among many findings, it seems we are somewhat hard wired to pay more attention to bad outcomes or events and respond far less strongly to good. In fact,

we soon become tone deaf to success or good outcomes

we soon become tone deaf to success or good outcomes (even winning the lottery!)  and will return to the same level of happiness as before. Contrast that to someone who suffers a catastrophic injury. Even a year and a half later, that person will still be grappling with the depression and negative thoughts brought on by a bad outcome.

Think about it. Evolution meant you had to survive to reproduce, and to do that you had to be right every day and not repeat mistakes. Slow learners got eaten. Since around 7.5 billion of us are here today, we were excellent students! Hence, it’s not hard to believe that the study found a clear neural bias toward paying more attention to something bad and processing it more thoroughly and remembering it far longer.

Quit sit negativa eventus carborundum
(Don’t let negative events grind you down)

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In “Pitch Anything,” Oren Klaff’s book on how to pitch your deal and close it, he posits that

we respond to something new as eliciting one of three limbic reactions: Ignore, interesting, or fearful.

we respond to something new as eliciting one of three limbic reactions: Ignore, interesting, or fearful. In one of his examples, when walking to your car in a parking garage you are suddenly surprised by someone shouting, how do you react at a gut level before your higher order brain regions put it in context? He calls that the Croc Brain and it’s not a bad way to think about why bad elicits such a strong reaction and gets instant attention.

A related correlative is that we fear loss of something more than having it.

A related correlative is that we fear loss of something more than having it. In an experiment, one group was given a coffee mug and told it was worth $6. That group was asked what they’d sell it for. A different group was asked what they’d pay for it. The results? The group with the mug valued it at $5.71 while the other group said it was worth only $2 and change. 

Our innate focus on bad events profoundly affects our mood and how well we function.

Our innate focus on bad events profoundly affects our mood and how well we function. You sometimes hear this expressed as seeing the glass half empty instead of half full.  Seeing others as threats to your career or happiness can become pathological to the point of “going postal” in extreme cases.

Companies use this sort of thinking to grab and hold our attention. Want examples? Just Google “Mistakes business owners make” and you’ll get some 17.4 million results; “one of the main disadvantages” will return about 54 million results. Try “good decisions business owners make” and you get only 241 thousand results.

How can you use this knowledge?

  • First, awareness of why we react and think the way we do gives us a way to better process what we see and improve how we react to and internalize events. Should we let our view always be of the glass being half-empty? Knowing the human bias toward negativism will help you reframe situations and improve results.

    By understanding how others interpret and react to events gives us better insights in how to more effectively work with them, influence them, and persuade them.

    By understanding how others interpret and react to events gives us better insights in how to more effectively work with them, influence them, and persuade them.
  • Second, review your employee rewards programs knowing what you know now. Are they effective at raising morale? How might you make them more effective and rewarding?
  • Third, create better ads. Read this business best seller of applied psychology in advertising and marketing by Robert Cialdini, PhD. His book, “PRE-SUASION” (he’s cited in the 2001 paper by the way), explores how understanding our psychological makeup helps you improve your advertising through what you say just before you present your product, service, or argument.

Business success is all about understanding people. They (and you) are the key factors that either hold your business back or propel it forward as employees and customers. How intelligently you process events, good or bad, will greatly affect your success.

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