Five to One


Bad is stronger than good.

You don’t have to agree with me. But know that this is the generally accepted truth. It’s hardwired into us. A negative experience will always weigh heavier on our minds and hearts than a positive one. I’ve heard this in pop psychology, most especially prominent in John Gottman’s rules for relationships. I was interested if this idea could be applied outside of the construct of marriage. What if I wanted to test the strength of my LTR with artmaking? I wanted some data. So for the past few days I’ve been working my way through this:

Before I read the article I thought, “Well that’s depressing to think about.” After reading it, I think “Oh god. It’s worse than you knew.”

To quote the first sentence of the article’s Concluding Remarks “In our review, we have found bad to be stronger than good in a disappointingly relentless pattern.” In just about every aspect of life (work, sex, relationships, learning, money, memory, emotions, development, trauma, our senses, even our social support systems) it would appear that negative experience vastly overshadows the positive. Check out p.338 for a particularly depressing study about the cumulative negative effect of a widow support group.

And the worst part is that this imbalance does not tip toward the negative just a little bit. How much more impactful is a negative experience than a positive one?

Five times more.

Let me repeat that: One nasty experience happens to you? You need FIVE positive ones to balance it out. You say something mean to your spouse? You need to do five nice things to erase your emotional debt. Lose $50? You need to get $250 back to feel recompensed in full.

Five to one.

This makes some basic evolutionary sense, right? One over-trusting instinct with a tiger affects the survival rate a lot more than being a downer about not wanting to try a new berry after the last one tasted gross. Or as a New York Times article about the review article said: “Negativity bias got built into our minds during millions of years of evolution because early humans who were oblivious to danger often got a brief, bloody lesson in natural selection.”

Anecdotally, though it’s startling at first, the more I think about it, the more I have a hard time imagining a world where this ISN’T the case.  Think about when you interact with a person who is needlessly rude or cruel. How many people does it take to reassure you that first person was an idiot asshole before you start to feel better? Easy to ignore those nice people. Harder to shrug off the jerks. Or, as Schopenhauer put it, “We feel pain, but not painlessness.”

In instances where we are particularly vulnerable (READ MAKING ART) this seems particularly germane. Write an essay, create an entire play, perform for 90 minutes in front of strangers and what you will focus on won’t be the countless moments of smooth sailing but the couple stumbles that overshadow everything else.

We even seem to naturally think people who say negative things are smarter than ones who are kind. We are apparently nature-made to give more credence to critical review. Take that literally for a moment actors, directors and designers. Do you remember the last nasty slight sent your way? Can you quote it? Do you remember its sting? Chance are, probably, yeah, you do. But do you have any recollection of the articles that praised and extolled your virtues? Science says probably not.

What the hell do we do about this?

Gottman, the same psychologist who first introduced the five to one ratio, proposes that  his patients in marriages place exaggerated emphasis on the positive in their home. The New York Times article cites a statistic that despite urban legend of asshole executives’ profits rising to the top, the most productive teams managed 5.6 positive interactions for every negative.

Back to the arts. I think we as a field suffer from a negativity epidemic. We thrive on investigating, deconstructing, even deifying our love/hate with what we do. The arts are sublime! But they make us feel crazy. It’s so hard to make, but if I’m not producing I’m worthless. We know that it’s the most meaningful thing in the world. But no one appreciates what we do. We are starving, after all.

And the problem is that even if we are equally vocal about the love as we are the hate (and let’s be honest that’s a really big if) here’s how the math starts working out:

Love/Hate  =


(Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate)

2 x Love/Hate =

(Love + Love)

(Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate)

3 x Love/Hate =

(Love + Love + Love)

(Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate )

4 x Love/Hate =

(Love + Love + Love + Love)

(Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate)

5 x Love/Hate =

(Love + Love + Love + Love + Love)

(Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate + Hate)

I think I’ve made the visual metaphor point here. What I think when I see this equation is this: casual nastiness and off handed disgust with creative process isn’t cute. This isn’t amusing disenchanted snarkiness. It isn’t artsy ennui. It is a systematic way to destroy something you deeply care about.

I am no innocent here. I’ll be first to admit having long prided myself on my relentless dissatisfaction with my work, on my need to never ever ever believe I’ve done enough. To seek out only the audience members that have “the bad” to say. To talk about pieces I’ve slaved over as if they were far less that what they could have been. To ignore the growth they engendered and focus only on the shortcomings. To never be satisfied and constantly undercut what I did do with what I wished it had been.

I thought this perfectionistic tendency was a sign of a creator that truly cared about the quality of the product I produced, self-satisfyingly pronouncing my commitment to settle for nothing than the very best. I say I am hard on myself, on my collaborators, and on the work because I love it. That I have to be that exacting, that regimented and suspicious. Forget the compliments, they’re for suckers. I don’t want them, I don’t need them, just tell what’s wrong so I can fix it.

Five to one.

Do you notice, fellow creators, how much you love a new collaboration? How easy it feels? Even if you know somewhere inside that the work with your long term collaborators is richer, isn’t it just more immediately gratifying to get that fresh newness that comes with someone you still want to bust your ass to impress?

Five to one.

Don’t you love that new rehearsal, new company, new medium feeling, where it seems like a certain weight that you have to drag around with your regular partners is just lifted? And why is it that you find yourself more and more frustrated by the increasing list of little flaws in those you’ve been working with over the years?

Five to one.

Do you sit with your colleagues and bemoan the state of your work, your form, and your function in it? Do you spend hours dissecting what’s wrong with what you’ve made or what you’ve seen?

Five to one.

Do you trust that your co-creators know how much you value them, their time and efforts? Do you take on faith that all those things you told them you loved about them when you started working together are still stored away in their memories for safekeeping?

Five to one.

Stop for a moment and think about what you do and the people you do it with. When you talk about it, when you talk about them, what do you say and how do you say it? For every, ‘This is bullshit’ do you have five ‘This is exactly what I needed’s ? For every, ‘I’m just so fucking tired of -‘s do you have five ‘Thank god I have -‘s ?

Five to one.

It takes five steps in the opposite direction for every one towards anger, resentment and negativity. For every thing I find that I am frustrated by, do I have five things I can say that I truly love about what I do?

I should. I’m not sure if I do.

And if I don’t, is that the fault of theater, or me?


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