Why are people so negative?
February 23, 2006 8:10 PM   Subscribe

Why are people so negative?

I know that it's impossible to please everybody - but why do people always identify the flaws first and start criticising and being negative everytime they encounter something?
posted by arrowhead to Human Relations (36 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Aww. Have a chai tea and tell us what happened.
posted by xmutex at 8:18 PM on February 23, 2006

Because that is what they were taught to do?
posted by jca at 8:20 PM on February 23, 2006

Because things which are implemented correctly need no further comment.
posted by Ryvar at 8:21 PM on February 23, 2006

some people project their insecurities on to other people and situations.

sometimes they are just assholes.

but a lot of times they are just being honest.
posted by buzbomb at 8:23 PM on February 23, 2006

I don't really think that people are negative and look for flaws everytime they encounter something. I think there are situations when people are more prone to try and identify the flaws (ie academia where you are essentially trained to pick apart arguments) but there are also a lot of people who are complacent, happy to except things, and not intrested in criticizing at all.
posted by kechi at 8:26 PM on February 23, 2006

Flaws hit you in the face. Things that work fall into two categories: Innovative things, and standard things. Innovative things are not so easily noticed at all since they fall outside the range of expectation. Standard things are expected to be working.

An example is someone using a different computer OS - the user will straight away discover things that don't work the way they're used to, but will be oblivious to the alternative (and possibly even better) method of doing the same thing that that OS uses.

If something is working so well that the effect on you is as strong as the negative effect of a flaw (ie hits you in the face), people generally do respond positively. But it's hard to do that without being innovative... meaning the improvement will most likely go unnoticed at first.

Or to put it another way, flaws are much easier to see than improvements, and are additionally much easier to see ways of fixing/improving them.

Plus, y'know, many people make themselves feel better by pulling down others. I assume that mechanism needs little explanation :)
posted by -harlequin- at 8:33 PM on February 23, 2006

To some extent, people believe that critical thought requires such nit-picking; you have to show that you haven't unthinkingly bought into whatever's presented to you. Full-on enthusiasm can come across as naivete (for good or bad).

To some other extent, people who are being critiqued can hear negative comments much more loudly than positive comments. If you get three compliments and one insult, you're likely to remember the insult much more strongly, and for longer, even though the overall review was positive.
posted by occhiblu at 8:37 PM on February 23, 2006

This reminds me of the commentary on tonight's coverage of women's figure skating on NBC. Coincidence?
posted by minarets at 8:40 PM on February 23, 2006

I also hate the kind of snarky negativity you get early in threads on metafilter, but I'm often frustrated by the opposite. If I ask for an opinion about something I've worked on, I am hoping that people will take up the challenge and have something to say.

People with a serious commitment to well thought out criticism are actually pretty rare. It is risky and it takes a lot of effort.
posted by Chuckles at 8:48 PM on February 23, 2006

First, I should say that I've never cared for the negative/positive dichotomy. Or rather, I've never cared for the idea that it's better to say something "positive" than it is to say something "negative." I think it's always best to say something accurate; whether it's positive or negative is kind of beside the point.

But to tackle the question as you've laid it out:

For me, (what you would presumably call) negativity is kind of a utilitarian approach. Unless you're just some kind of jerk-off who enjoys inflicting anguish on people, criticism is a tool for identifying a problem so that it can be dealt with. Or at least understood. The assumption here is that you can always find something that needs improvement.

But if something is right - or beautiful or delicious or smells nice or whatever - there's nothing to improve. So why spend time talking about it? Some of the most inane conversations I've ever heard have involved one person saying something "positive" ("Oh, that's a beautiful color!") and the other person agreeing ("Yeah, we love it."). Can you imagine if you had to spend an entire day talking about such things? I don't know about you, but I'd consider suicide.

Of course, I'm oversimplifying. Human communication is vastly more complex than this. And being utilitarian all the time is just as annoying as being bright and positive all the time. But I do think that the primary benefit of (what you may choose to call) negativity is that it gets us to think about what's wrong and how to make it right.
posted by Clay201 at 8:49 PM on February 23, 2006

Because most people walk around this world nursing enormous emotional, unhealed wounds, and they respond to experiences defensively, hoping to protect themselves from further wounds.

I actually think this is the basis for most nuerotic behavior.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:50 PM on February 23, 2006

Negative criticism is the safe way out. Most people are too afraid to make the positive stand. It's very easy to criticize something. It's very difficult to say you like something and then have to defend your opinion against other people. And since most things do generally suck in the real world, it makes perfect sense to take the easy way out and offer negative criticism since you have a very good chance of your opinion being deemed the correct one in hindsight.
posted by nixerman at 9:01 PM on February 23, 2006

but why do people always identify the flaws first

Your experience has not been my experience.
posted by birdie birdington at 9:05 PM on February 23, 2006

It is much more useful for any organism to be aware of and focus on the negatives of a situation rather than sitting around patting itself or others on the back for how well they've done. Natural selection regularly rewards the pessimistic and downbeat.

It sucks for human happiness, but then again, human happiness is relatively low on evolution's priority list.
posted by tkolar at 9:12 PM on February 23, 2006

Flaws are inherently what make us who we are. We identify with them, because perfection is boring. It's what we thrive on, and seek out.
posted by cellphone at 9:50 PM on February 23, 2006

Ah, here's the article I was looking for.

The brain, Cacioppo demonstrated, reacts more strongly to stimuli it deems negative. There is a greater surge in electrical activity. Thus, our attitudes are more heavily influenced by downbeat news than good news.
posted by tkolar at 10:10 PM on February 23, 2006

I work with someone who's main area of creativity is to find something awful about every person she's dealt with. My (slightly regretable) response is to come up with a possible reason for each behaviour and to encourage compassion.

Her: Did you see the spelling here? It's atrocious.
Me: Perhaps the writer is dyslexic. Isn't it great that they're attempting tertiary education anyway?

Her: Can you believe how rude that student was?
Me: I think they're scared because they're new to the whole thing, let's cut them some slack.

If I knew why she was like that, maybe I wouldn't want to kill her so much. I think, maybe, she feels inferior normally and wishes to feel better by putting others down. However, IANA psychologist/psychiatrist/whatever.
posted by b33j at 10:22 PM on February 23, 2006

because they are insecure dorks. If they say something positive someone who's opinion they value might disagree and then their insecure dorkishness is now confirmed in public. Being negative is safe.
posted by caddis at 10:32 PM on February 23, 2006

I got quite a reputation for negativity when I was involved in product development for a software company. The president of the company (or someone else) would come up with ideas and bounce them off me and I would poke as many holes in them as possible.

I saw it as natural selection. I provided the hostile environment and only the strongest ideas survived.

It didn't make the people offering the ideas happy most of the time. But it did keep us from wasting time and money on a hell of a lot of half-baked or downright stupid ideas.

Why I was so negative? Because they were already counting the money the company would make from their idea. "If only 0.01% of the people on Earth buy the product" they would say with dollar signs in their eyes, when I knew the actual number for even a highly successful product was going to be much much lower. (0.01% of the people on the planet would be 600,000 people. Most of our products sold 10,000-30,000 copies and I believe only one ever did six figures. Everyone who had an idea thought that theirs was going to be the one to be huge, but it just wasn't likely. They thought 0.01% was a worst-case scenario, in their heads they were actually thinking 1%, but in fact even 0.01% was wildly optimistic.)

Praise won't help you correct your mistakes. Only criticism can do that. Praise can help the criticism go down, but adults do not need continual praise for things they already know they do well. Doing the job well is its own reward. Adults can be assumed to be doing their best most of the time, because they are adults and that's what adults do (though nobody is perfect). But people tend to be blind to their own flaws, while they overestimate their virtues, and adults recognize that constructive criticism from a third party is the only way to really improve.

In the context of the Olympics, you're looking at the best athletes every country has to offer. All of them, even the ones that finish last at the Olympics, are by definition better than anyone else in their country at their sport. They are all quite good and it is assumed that they will perform quite well. So when they do not, it is remarkable, and thus remarked upon.
posted by kindall at 11:08 PM on February 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Current issue of The New Yorker includes a review of two books examining happiness by psychology professor Jonathan Haidt and historian Darrin McMahon. Among the observations:

[H]uman beings make heavy weather of being happy. We have been hardwired to emphasize the negative, and, for most of human history, there has been a lot of the negative to emphasize.

Moving on to modern times, the reviewer cites this study:

Americans are about twice as rich as they were in the nineteen-seventies but report not being any happier; the Japanese are six times as rich as they were in 1950 and aren’t any happier, either.... [I]nstead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a “hedonic treadmill”: their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach.

Sobering stuff.
posted by rob511 at 12:01 AM on February 24, 2006

I think it's always best to say something accurate; whether it's positive or negative is kind of beside the point.

This is a bit of a sidetrack, but I think it was Edward de Bono who suggested assessing situations or propositions using a method he called the "PMI inventory" - plus, minus, interesting. He included "interesting" to draw attention to significant characteristics that couldn't be easily classified as good nor bad.

Ever since I read about this, pro-and-con lists have seemed fundamentally unsatisfactory.
posted by tangerine at 12:14 AM on February 24, 2006

It's mostly as simple as this: the positives of something are often more self-evident and, in discussion, dull, whereas the negatives can be fairly entertaining to disparage. Be it from a sense of solidarity in rejecting something, or from speculating how it could be better, or other things. In a given day, most people will do more of that than bland declarations of how great a something is.
posted by abcde at 12:29 AM on February 24, 2006

(Which is not to say other reasons like the evolutionary explanation are wrong - they're actually included in what I said, since I didn't limit the reasons it would be pleasing to talk about the negative.)
posted by abcde at 12:35 AM on February 24, 2006

To find a flaw is to indentify an improvement oppurtunity.

Perfection is something to strive for, but we will never acheive. The striving is what matters.
posted by Goofyy at 12:50 AM on February 24, 2006

Being a negative person, or as some have already stated "a jerk", I would have to say that it's a bit more complex than some are implying. The thing about negativity is that it's habit-forming. Oftentimes, it's not so much that you want to be negative, or that your first thought is negative, but that your only thought is negative.
If I think back, I'd say that negativity starts as just an occasional thing. You take the easy route and cut something (or someone) down rather than just ignoring it (or even putting a positive spin on it). After the first few times, you start to see that as the correct response to give. A few times after that, you start to lose sight of the positive way of viewing the issue. Eventually, it's quite literally a reflexive response. A positive response simply does not exist, in your mind. Why this kind of habit-forming occurs with negativity and not positivity is beyond my ken.
I just thought that it's important to note that oftentimes there is no malicious intent behind it, but just sheer stupid reflexive habit. Even if the person is fully aware of the stupidity of it, of the fact that it's an unthinking habit, it is a very, very stubborn habit to break.
I highly recommend that if you encounter such a person (myself included), try asking them in a non-judgemental way why in this particular instance they chose to respond negatively to you. It might give them pause to think, and realize they honestly didn't mean it at all.
If you just assume someone is being negative because they're a jerk, isn't that really similar to being negative yourself?
posted by nightchrome at 1:07 AM on February 24, 2006

We are alienated. Pretty much all of us. Life's not as good as it could, or should, be. This wears on some more than others.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:17 AM on February 24, 2006

Why didn't you ask what you could do to make people more positive? Perhaps you should look within yourself for an answer to your question?
posted by biffa at 2:46 AM on February 24, 2006

Negativity is very infectious. People are negative to you, so you respond negatively to that. Later you are negative to someone else without provocation, they respond likewise reinforcing your view of "other people are negative to me" even though in this case it was you starting the cycle. It all compounds over and over until you're hearing everyone as negative and being negative to everyone.
posted by nightchrome at 3:10 AM on February 24, 2006

I would also suggest that it's not just the general 'negativity' but also how people express that negativity. The education system in this country by and large does not do a very good job of teaching critical thinking and a lot of people never get past the "this sucks" part of analysis to be able to express themselves more like "this particular project would be a lot better if it covered x, y, z."

Also, saying "this sucks" can make people feel like they have power over it, while saying "this is cool" can feel like it puts whatever it is at a higher plane of existance than the person saying it, if they dont think they are cool themselves.

All the previous answers suck. ;)
posted by softlord at 5:38 AM on February 24, 2006

Cause human hardware is designed to solve problems, not ponder non-issues. At this point in our evolution the software is willing but the hardware needs an upgrade.
posted by parallax7d at 6:49 AM on February 24, 2006

My response to critisism: "I hear you, so what do you think I can do to improve blahblahblah?" If they have an answer, even if it's one I don't agree with, the person was being genuine, else person was being an asshole.

I usually answer people, "Do you really want to know?" because I have learned, some people have thin skins, and all they really want is external validation. Dicks.
posted by MrMulan at 6:50 AM on February 24, 2006

Because we are disappointed optimists.
posted by Decani at 8:53 AM on February 24, 2006

why do people always identify the flaws first and start criticising and being negative everytime they encounter something?

I don't know that this is really the default behavior for most people. Having said that there certainly some people that match this description, and I think that Astro Zombie's answer is a pretty good explanation for them, if a bit general.
posted by teleskiving at 10:30 AM on February 24, 2006

Part of the issue might also be because we tend to remember the negatives more than the positives, since you can't un-say them. If someone told you that you were ugly only one time, and then said you were beautiful fifty times, you'll still remember that time he told you that you were ugly.
posted by nakedsushi at 11:45 AM on February 24, 2006

I agree with nightchrome...I don't consider myself to be a very negative person, but sometimes I'll encounter people and it seems like all we can do is complain about something. Man this class sucks, I hate this assignment, etc. This usually happens more with acquaintances, because with closer friends I would be like...Hey! Snap out of it! Let's talk about something good now! Negativity completely feeds upon itself with the right people. I've learned to avoid these people...unless of course you just to vent with someone.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 4:36 PM on February 24, 2006

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