Progress is made, but not noticed
Most people notice the negative quicker than the positive – and the negative has a stronger impact on them than the positive. This is known as the negativity bias and it probably has an evolutionary reason. For our survival it was more important to assume something was dangerous, than it was to assume something was safe and positive. Even though our circumstances have changed, and we’re less likely to be eaten by a lion when cycling to work, we are still overly sensitive to threats and negative information. We focus on the negative and are negatively affected by it.
Although it is good to focus on what needs improvement, our negativity bias captivates our attention too much and too often. Consequently, we tend to overlook all the good things that we do, all the positive things we accomplish and the effective actions we and the people around us do every single day. Progress tends to fade into the background.
The negativity bias draws our attention to problems, and as a result we don’t notice our progress as much as we notice our problems. There has been huge progress in every important aspect of life, but at the same time many people believe things have never been worse. There is less violence, less poverty, less disease, less child mortality, less inequality, to name just a few areas in which progress has been made. We have a much longer life expectancy, sanity, water, medicines and so on and so forth. Most people in the world live in middle income families; there used to be a gap between rich and poor, but that changed for the better over the last few decades.
Recent research showed that people often respond to decreases in the prevalence of a stimulus by expanding their concept of it. The researchers found that when threatening faces became rare, participants began to see neutral faces as threatening. When unethical requests became rare, participants began to see innocuous requests as unethical. When blue dots became rare, people started to see purple dots as blue ones. Social problems may seem intractable in part because reductions in their prevalence lead people to see more of them, is what the researchers conclude.
Progress is made, but if we don’t talk about it and focus on it, we don’t notice it and we miss out on the motivational and the informational aspect of it. The negativity bias influences our daily conversations. We are more inclined to talk about negative stuff then about positive things. Emotions are contagious, so when we talk with someone who feels sad or angry, we pick up the same emotions and create a feeling of sadness or anger ourselves. In a progress focused conversation, the idea is to come up with creative ideas regarding how to make meaningful progress. To get ourselves in a creative state of mind it is more useful to focus on what works to make progress than it is to focus on why things are not going so well. A progress focussed interaction therefore focusses on progress, both achieved and to be achieved.