The Power of Bad

How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It

[Amazon Link]

The Dewey Decimal Code on this book's spine is "158.1", which is "Self Help". I don't usually get self-help books. Haven't read one on purpose since I was in my twenties, I think.

But this one has back-cover blurbs from P. J. O'Rourke, Steven Pinker, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. That shouts out "Read this!" to me. And one of the authors, John Tierney, is a constant source of good stuff at City Journal. So I checked it out. Good move.

The cover is a little gee-whiz, but the premise of the book is provided by a couple pithy sentences right there on page 11:

To survive, life has to win every day. Death has to win just once.


This is a lesson pounded into our genes by billions of years of evolution. We are hardwired to appreciate its truth. This book goes into the broad implications of that "negativity effect". There's a rough rule of thumb: Homo sap. requires the perception of four "good things" to counterbalance one perceived "bad thing". This can lead to irrational, sometimes self-destructive behavior. Writ large, it can cause organizations to stifle innovation and forego valuable opportunities. Writ very large, it can cause an entire society to become overly risk-averse.

But we can learn better, and the book explores possible pathways in numerous scenarios. Some surprising: for example, there's an entire chapter on how a New York hotel deals with negative Trip Advisor reviews. But (for me) the payoff chapter was the public policy chapter. The authors set forth some assumptions:

  1. The world will always seem to be in crisis.
  2. The crisis is never as bad as it sounds.
  3. The solution could easily make things worse.

Covid, anyone? Unfortunately the book was written before that. The authors tick off the implications: The "Golden Age Fallacy" that posits some past era as ideal, our current age in irrevocable decline; terrorism; vaping; the war on drugs; technophobia. And more.

Of course, people can make money and/or gain political power off the negativity effect. Plenty of examples of that too.