Focusing on negatives helps catalyse change

Focusing on negatives helps catalyse change

That’s the idea on which a new study, 'Why people pay attention to negative information about the system when they believe it can be changed for the better', is based.

“Take America’s educational system. You could find some flaws in that,” says India Johnson, graduate student at Ohio State University, who co-authored the study with Kentaro Fujita, a professor at the university, the Psychological Science journal  reports.

“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.

Sometimes, though, people are motivated to change things -- for example, the US civil rights movement and the changes in Tunisia and Egypt this year, says Johnson.

Psychological scientists have found that people who want to change, for example, to do better at work are willing to take the short-term pain of hearing negative comments about themselves, believing that bearing this pain will actually help them improve in the long run.

Johnson wondered if the same was true for thinking about the whole social system. In one of the experiments conducted, the students were made to read one of two scenarios about a student who was unhappy with the freshman orientation at Ohio. Some participants read that he had successfully improved the system; others read that he’d failed, although he still believed in change.

Then each participant was told that the Department of Education had published an external review of the university, and were given a choice between reading a section of the report that focused on the university’s strengths or a section on its weaknesses.

The participants who read a paragraph about change were more likely to want the negative information about the university, while others preferred the report on positive information.

Other experiments found that people were more willing to read negative information about their own university rather than another one nearby, if it came from a diagnostic and trustworthy source.