Axiom: We are drawn to the Novel and the Negative

A quick reminder before we start, because it’s been a while, an axiom – “a statement or proposition which is regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true”.

Normally, in these axiom posts, I would go off and link to articles that give evidence for, or against, the hypothesis, but I’m struggling this time around.

To be absolutely honest, I’ve no idea where this statement came from, and I’ve really struggled to find anything similar to this phrase anywhere else. I do, however, have lots of evidence to support the proposition, where I’m struggling, a bit, is in the joining of them together in a single statement.

Let me illustrate and you can decide whether I’ve stepped from proposition into fantasy by taking the parts of this axiom separately to start with.

The second part of this axiom highlights our attraction to the negative. I’m not sure I need to describe this given what we’ve been through over the last year. How many of us have found ourselves hanging on for the daily negative news as the pandemic continued? We know it’s not doing us any good, but for some reason we keep watching. This is where our old friend bias comes in – in this case Negativity Bias.

Negativity Bias defines our tendency to focus on the negative things, over positive things. This is our brain trying to protect us, keeping us alert to the danger around us, looking out for those scary beasts lurking in those hidden places. Not many of us are expecting a fearsome man-eating cat as part of our normal day, but our brain doesn’t know that.

Moving on to the second part. One of our super-powers as humans is our ability to pattern-match, we see patterns everywhere, even when they aren’t there. If we see a series of numbers, we instinctively continue the pattern – trying reading 1234 without thinking 5. On the reverse of this ability, we are fascinated by the things that don’t match the pattern, the novel things. Why are we so fascinated by Pi? It’s partly because it’s uniquely novel, we think, it doesn’t fit any pattern. People who are perfect spellers (not me) struggle to read something with spelling mistakes. This is not because they can’t understand the meaning of what is written, but because the mismatch from the pattern is so distracting. Where I struggle with reading is in the use of double spacing 😉.

Put these two things together and you have a fertile recipe for all sorts of behaviours.

Why do people buy into conspiracy theories? Do they fit the pattern of novel and negative? So, so many times.

Why does certain gossip travel faster and wider than other pieces of information? Is it the news about someone’s unexpected downfall or failure? Absolutely novel and negative.

Working, as I do, in technology, you’ll find that people love to talk about all the technical difficulties on a project. They particularly like to discuss the high profile and the unexpected issues – novel and negative. These difficulties often dominate the energy of the team way beyond their significance to the overall outcome. The attention that the novel and negative demands saps the team from other activities.

Why does clickbait work? So often it’s because the title is constructed to suggest something novel and negative: “ABC Returns from Holiday, Neighbour Does This.” Accompany this with a negative picture and you have a winning formula.

Why are there so many news sources, and why are so many of them so awful. It’s a constant stream of novel and negative and we are hooked.

Look at any list of best-sellers and you’ll see them covered in the negative-and-novel – crime, biography, thriller, horror.

You’ll see these negative-and-novel responses everywhere once you start looking for them, but what are we to do about it? I return to a quote I’ve used before on this site:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor E. Frankl

If we recognise the stimuli in our lives, and the likely background to them, we are, in my experience, more likely to recognise where the gap is and use our power to choose our response. If we are looking out for that tricky novel-and-negative stimuli there is an increased chance we will treat it for what it is.

I’ve not delved into the impact that these stimuli have on us, but I have some anecdotal evidence that it’s not good. Like many people I went on an enforced news fast for a period to create a separation between myself and the stimuli, I felt so much better. In my work context I’ve tried to look at issues from the perspective of their overall impact and not to get sucked into worrying about the latest panic. I’m finding that doing this helps me to focus on the important things.

Just because our brain thinks it’s important doesn’t mean that we have to pay attention to it, and in this case it’s probably better that we learn to filter out the novel and the negative.

Header Image: This is Bassenthwaite Lake just before a lovely evening swim.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.