In an article titled “Bad is Stronger than Good,” which appeared in The Review of General Psychology, Roy Baumeister and his research team posit that humans tend to simmer longer with bad emotions and memories and describe them more strongly than they do for good ones. The popular study worked with participants who gained or lost money, and overall they were found to feel more emotional over losing that amount of money than gaining that same amount.
From a biological standpoint, the authors have proposed that this serves a survival-related purpose. Animals who are more in touch with understanding Bad events will be less likely to stumble upon or encounter those events again. Sure, this may have significant implications for avoiding dark forests inhabited by bears or thick, unbashful flames after getting a second-degree burn the first time around. It might even help us avoid toxic relationships with people who exhibit the same signs of neglect, disrespect, and instability.
But if we think about the trajectory of human development—of understanding, of emotions, of maturity—and the ways in which it fluctuates not only back and forth but also up and down, across diagonal lines, it is hard to picture a moment in which someone is not crippled by one negative event, one Bad thing that shapes the way he or she acts. Or thinks. Or breathes. Yet when we meet new people, and we see these snapshots of action, of thinking, of breathing, that scare us because of the way Badness seems to pulse ominously below the surface, we panic. Our instinct tells us that this is a familiar Badness that we should unequivocally avoid. For survival’s sake, we should run the other way, as fast as we can until our lungs tear past the gaps between our ribs.
I got to know someone just a little better this past week, and the way she believes in collecting Polaroids, enough to fill dozens of photo albums, enough to stitch together like a stop-motion film, is something I both fear and admire. Anyone who knows me knows I’m quick to judge, and I’ve been called out on multiple occasions for facial expressions that were “kinda judge-y.” I am the Queen of Judging First Impressions & Subsequently Discounting People’s Good Will, and the way this woman exercises an authentic desire to keep collecting those photos despite moments of Badness gives me pause.
Labels are horrible—we hear that all the time, and this runs counter to every gut instinct people have to categorize things, to put things into boxes to serve their own individual purpose because there is an inherent desire to find patterns and differences between things. We do it as kids all the time. “Find 15 differences between Picture A & Picture B.” “What is the next image in this patterned sequence?” “What do these objects have in common? Which is the odd one out?”
But maybe our problem isn’t categorization or finding patterns. Maybe it’s believing that we categorize for archival purposes, to stow these things in dusty card catalog boxes and keep them disparate via thick cardboard walls, to refuse to let people prove that their patterns are fluid, 3-dimensional, viscous but dynamic. Maybe it’s seeing Badness and pivoting immediately on our heels to run the other way, as fast as we can until our lungs tear past the gaps between our ribs. To avoid the permanence of the Badness label for survival purposes.
Maybe it’s that people are as surprising as they are changing, and maybe Badness is as strong as it is fleeting.