Psychologically speaking bad outweighs good. We tend to remember negative experiences more clearly than positive ones. Bad feedback haunts us more than good feedback boosts us. And a negative experience with someone will color our relationship more than a warm one will. Why?
Psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues reviewed how negative experiences have a stronger impact on memory and experience than positive ones across a range of domains in a paper titled, predictably, Bad Is Stronger Than Good. They point out that giving negative information weight is often adaptive, especially from an evolutionary perspective. It would be important to pay attention to potential environmental harms and poisons, for example. They also point out that negative information may signal a need to change or adapt, while positive information sends a message that the current status is ok. We may pay more attention to negative information because it’s a call to action.
People’s tendency to favor negative information over positive impacts the healthcare experience as well. Here’s an example from Service Fanatics: How to Build Superior Patient Experience the Cleveland Clinic Way, by Dr. James Merlino, about how negative details can take prominence in memory over positive ones:
We all knew anecdotally that patients paid attention to virtually everything. It didn’t matter how good the medical care was or whether every safety contingency was covered. If a phlebotomist was rude when awakening the patient, a nurse seemed preoccupied, or a doctor didn’t explain things completely, the patient left with a negative perception.
(And, as you might have guessed, Baumeister and colleagues found that negative events and stressors like the ones Merlino mentions had a stronger impact on patient health than positive ones. So not only do staff missteps ding hospital ratings, they may also reduce patient well-being.)
So what can we do to limit the impact of negative events on outcomes we care about? A few things.
First, some researchers suggest being up-front with criticism may help mitigate the negative emotional effects of hearing it while retaining the performance improvements associated with implementing it. Criticism is often couched behind positive feedback that’s used as a cushion or decoy. People who expect to hear bad news behind every compliment will be tense waiting for it, and the compliments won’t register. Delivering the bad news first allows the stress to dissipate so positive news will hit home, too.
Second, and more importantly, I think, is that we can pay great attention to small details. So much of creating a good impression is in the little things. Some of the details that have made a big impact on my experience as a consumer include when:
- The folks at Burn Fitness remember my name
- The staff at our resort at Cancun folded towel animals for us each day and left them on the bed
- The gate agents for one of my JetBlue flights noticed I had a crappy window seat and proactively moved me to an aisle
None of these actions required a lot of investment from the company providing it, but all left a deep impression on me and helped secure my loyalty. These companies’ attention to detail makes them businesses well worth patronizing, in my opinion. All three of these businesses have also had small missteps in my experience with them, but a pervasive attention to detail has ensured a positive overall experience.
The third suggestion is to lead with your strengths. Everyone has signature strengths, and research suggests success happens when we focus on showcasing these while downplaying or avoiding weaknesses. If you know you’ve got an exceptional memory but struggle with detailed paperwork, your best chances of doing well lie in handling client relationships while a colleague deals with contracting. There’s a natural tendency to think we should work on the things that don’t come easy, but in fact, the surest route to positive outcomes is in spending times in the areas where we know we do well.
So how will you work to shape positive experiences for other people through your work? Where are your strengths?