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Being negative can be positive

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Being negative can be positive

A positive outlook can be great for our health. But research shows that negative feedback can bring about positive change.

Feeling cranky about your neighbour’s propensity for loud music at all hours? Does your workmate’s constant humming drive you to distraction? You might be surprised, but not the least bit grouchy, about the news that scientists have been studying the positive effects of being negative.

We know about the real powers of positive thinking. But do we sometimes make end runs around problems in order to achieve that positive outlook to the detriment of real, and positive, change?

A graduate student at Ohio State University wondered about how people can go about affecting change in a bigger way. “Take America’s educational system. You could find some flaws in that,” says India Johnson, who co-authored the study with Kentaro Fujita, a professor at the university.

“But we have to live with it every day, so people tend to focus on the positive and reinforce the system,” says Johnson, a university statement said. 

The new study, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, builds on other studies that look at the positive outcomes of receiving negative comments about behaviour. Ask a competitive athlete how helpful it is to hear her coach giving only positive feedback and you’ll likely get a grouchy response.

For people who are motivated to change—in the case of the athlete, to improve performance in order to win—negative feedback helps them focus on the areas that will affect improvement.

But Johnson wanted to look at change in a wider context, assuming that “if you want people to change a current system, or status quo, first you have to get them to notice what’s wrong with it.” She found that participants were motivated to seek out negative information about a given situation when they felt positive about their ability to change it. Johnson plans more research on the next steps to bringing about social change. 

More research may be needed, as well, to determine the right timing for your inner grouch to emerge to successfully put a cork in your workmate’s … humming.

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