Chapter 7: Negative Potency and the Self-Serving Bias

In Chapter Seven, Fyodorov struggles to muster up the courage to tell Roxanne about his love and admiration for her. He assumes the worst and races through the potential negative outcomes without putting much thought into the benefits aside from the obvious. In other words, he must force himself to follow his instinctive drive and ignore his negative thoughts. Why do humans focus so heavily on potential negative outcomes? Why is it so difficult for us to consciously ignore or override our emotions, memories, and thoughts?

According to Paul Rozin of Personality and Social Psychology Review, the principle of negative potency asserts that “given inverse negative and positive events of equal objective magnitude, the negative event is subjectively more potent and of higher salience than its positive counterpart” (Rozin). In other words, humans tend to respond to negative events with greater significance than they do positive events of equal value. This confirms my research question is valid, but why is this the case? As humans, we tend to approach negative circumstances with the mindset that adoption of a costly change would be difficult (Rozin). We switch into a “fight” mode to resist the negative change, but embrace the positive ones that make our lives easier/better.

Fyodorov was unable to put thoughts of embarrassment out of his mind as he struggled to work up the courage to talk with Roxanne; perhaps there is more at work here than only the human tendency to focus on the negative. Daniel Wegner of the University of Virginia has authored many articles and journals on the psychology of thought. In Chronic Thought Suppression, Wegner describes one of his psychological experiments where he asked his volunteers to think about anything but a white bear. The overwhelming majority, however, was unable to put the thought out of their minds and “mentioned it multiple times” over the course of study (Wegner). Interesting; this is an avenue I considered further researching last week.

The effect is the result of two mental processes – “a conscious… process that searches for distracters, and an unconscious… process that searches for the unwanted thought” (Wegner). These processes run in parallel and in order to think about “anything but” a white bear, for example, the mind must continually reiterate that it has to think of anything but the white bear. The mind specializes in tasks, each with its own requirements that might not agree with those of the others (Wegner). Fyodorov can’t help but consider his potential failure because his subconscious mind ironically reminds him as his conscious mind tries to forget.

This actually supports the research I conducted in my blog post last week: emotions originate from a very primitive portion of the human brain, and no degree of conscious thought or will can override such feelings. To make matters worse, the mind also responds to the command to forget/ignore by conjuring a list of “unappealing consequences” (Wegner). And when one is unable to indulge in “addictive substances during self-control attempts,” he/she can be lead to depression or intensified attempts at thought suppression.

The self-serving bias usually helps boost self-esteem by justifying success as result of one’s own good deeds and assuming cause of failure to be the actions (or lack thereof) of other external factors. For example, if someone shared feelings of affection toward someone only to be rejected, he/she might feel the other person is just ill-informed or doesn’t have his/her priorities straight (as opposed to feeling not good enough). Abnormalities in instances of this bias, however, certainly do exist and can lead to further depression or even psychosis (Blackwood).

Blackwood, contributor to NeuroImage Journal, poses a question I’ve also considered: which portion of the brain is responsible for distinguishing between internal (self) and external factors as the root cause of a particular stance? In other words, what biological factor determines the function of the self-serving bias? An experiment was conducted where volunteers were presented hypothetical situations (both positive and negative) and were told to consider the primary source of each situation. While having their brains scanned by an fMRI machine during the experiment, results indicated high activity in the “left lateral cerebellar hemisphere, bilateral dorsal premotor cortex, and right lingual gyrus” (Blackwood).These areas were particularly active when distinguishing between self-responsibility and external factors. This data suggests that “several cognitive processes” are at work when making such decisions, such as ecphory and autonoietic awareness (Blackwood).

In conclusion, there are many explanations for Fyodorov’s behavior. We’ve discussed implications of negative potency, dueling threads of neurological processes, and a negative instance of the self-serving bias; undoubtedly there are others. How can this type of stress impact lifetime longevity? What other functions do these factors perform in our lives as humans today?

Works Cited

Blackwood, N. “Self-Responsibility and the Self-Serving Bias: An FMRI Investigation of Casual Attributions.” NeuroImage 20.2 (2003): 1076-085. Elsevier. Web. 13 Oct. 2015. <http://www.sciencedirect.com.librarylink.uncc.edu/science/article/pii/S1053811903003318>.

Rozin, Pal. “Negativity Bias, Negativity Dominance, and Contagion.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 5.4 (2001): 296-320. Sage Journals. Web. 14 Oct. 2015. <http://psr.sagepub.com/content/5/4/296.full.pdf html>.

Weger, Daniel. “Chronic Thought Suppression.” Journal of Personality (1994): 615-40. Wiley. Web. 14 Oct. 2015. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.librarylink.uncc.edu/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1994.tb00311.x/epdf>.

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One thought on “Chapter 7: Negative Potency and the Self-Serving Bias

  1. Michael Pedersen says:

    Very interesting post, the idea that our minds can abstract away the engine of thought from the conscious mind is definitely intriguing. As you mention in the research by Wegner about unwanted thought, the mind is hard wired to react to the external world by recalling related items. This might be linked to the limitations of working memory and the way the brain has short term loops for visual and auditory information.

    The research you presented in this post and your previous one on emotions both seem to hint at a larger idea – how the brain “schedules” or prioritizes thoughts in working memory. This idea presents itself in the way that you described how the self serving bias causes individuals to ignore negative external thoughts or emotions. You also make note of it in the way emotions are created by the primitive brain which implies that lower level, unconscious processes, have a higher priority in working memory allowing them to over rule conscious thought. This idea that there are internal processes governing the structure of thought would be an interesting future research topic.

    In general it might make your research more cohesive if you considered phrasing your research in terms of research studies and the theories that spark them. Also, be aware that sometimes the flow of your paper gets garbled by terminology; suffice it to say that I got tripped up by phrasing more than once.

    Overall, I found your paper to have some very interesting research. The fact that there is so much to go on from here makes this a great launching point for further deep research.

    Liked by 1 person

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