Human cognition is biased towards negativity. We feel worse about losing money than we feel good about winning money. We think and reason more about what makes us sad than about what makes us happy. We pay more attention to negative events than positive events. We remember hardship better than fortune and rivalry better than conviviality. Punishment is more effective for learning than reward. Drama sells better than harmony. Disrespect hurts more than respect feels good. And hundreds of examples more.
In this blog post, I consider whether the negativity bias also distorts our ethical discussions.
According to utilitarianism, good is what maximizes well-being, which implies two statements:
- Good is what increases happiness.
- Good is what decreases suffering.
Our ethical negativity bias leads us to focus mainly on the second statement while often neglecting the first. In ethical discussions, we tend to look at how a personal decision or public policy might cause suffering and make people miserable, but we tend to overlook how it might increase happiness and promote human flourishing. Moreover, people tend to agree more on what causes suffering (slavery, starvation, genocide, violence against women and children, etc.) than on what causes happiness. As a result, our utilitarian calculations often fail to factor in the positive part of the well-being equation.
Three Controversial Examples
1) In-group favoritism. Discussions about in-group–out-group mentalities focus on how tribalism adversely affects those who do not belong to the tribe and how it causes suffering through tribal conflicts. However, an objective estimation of the total effects on well-being must also take into account the positive aspects of tribalism including feelings of belonging, purpose, pride, and supremacy, no matter how pathological they may appear. Our ethical negativity bias makes it seem obvious that the world would be a happier place if tribalism were abolished and if people would cease to form groups, but let us be aware that this is, first and foremost, a hypothesis.
2) Gender equality. Discussions about feminism focus on how gender inequality oppresses, limits, and hurts women, yet neglect how it may raise a society’s spirit. Our ethical negativity bias defines inequality and injustice as categorically bad, which prevents any positive aspect from being allowed for. Even mentioning the mere possibility of the equation having a positive side is reflexively dismissed as ‘male privilege’. Although privileges indeed invite cognitive biases, the very failure to see the utilitarian relevance of a privilege being a positive thing in itself stems yet again from an ethical negativity bias. While it is highly probable that the negative effects of gender inequality on societal well-being far outweigh the positive effects, we can only reach an impartial conclusion if we take into account all effects, not just the negative.
3) Religious fundamentalism. Discussions about religiosity focus on how extreme versions motivate bigotry, cruelty, terrorism, and oppression. Yet in order to evaluate fundamentalism rationally, we also have to consider the many ways in which it makes people happier, be it through faith, hope, meaning, or community. Non-religious people, in particular, tend to be negatively biased here because they cannot experience those positive effects. Nonetheless, once fundamentalism spawns terror, violence, wars, and crusades, pointing to positive aspects becomes irresponsible if not outright malicious; and although ‘war’ and ‘violence’ are emotional trigger words that again elicit an ethical negativity bias (e.g., can violence not possibly be experienced as something positive?), the aforementioned point applies here as well.
Since humans are psychologically predisposed to experience negativity stronger than positivity, the ethical negativity bias may function as an implicit corrective mechanism. For example, a discriminated person will suffer more from the discrimination than the discriminator benefits from it. The same psychological negativity bias ensures that a person who is excluded from a group will experience more negativity than another person experiences positivity for being included.
It may well be that our ethical bias to judge discrimination and social exclusion as categorically bad corrects for our psychological negativity bias and thus automatically prevents us from making faulty utilitarian calculations. But this is not true a priori.
In conclusion, we must be aware of our ethical negativity bias and cautious about correcting for it. To the extent that favoritism, inequality, injustice, unfairness, fundamentalism, etc. consistently produce net negative effects on overall well-being, we can categorize them as ethically bad and use them as heuristic principles for our utilitarian calculations. Yet we must never forget that they are heuristics.
Lastly, looking at the title picture again, there is something inherently good about the ethical negativity bias: Our first priority must be to decrease suffering, rather than to increase happiness, because a single miserable person can easily haul others into misery (terrorists, warmongers, school shooters, etc.), whereas this is hardly possible to the same extent the other way around.