Positivity is like the childhood best friend that we all take for granted: always there to catch us, always overlooked. It is interesting that most people easily extol the virtues of staying optimistic and upbeat, yet so much of social media is dominated by complaints and negativity. A recent article published in the MIT Technology Review sparked a reflection on this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone, especially social media influencers, needs to be more proactive in promoting more positive engagement on social media. Here’s why…
1. Negative emotions stay with us for a longer time.
I took a course in Positive Psychology a while back and another on Coursera earlier this year, and one of the key concepts that struck me was ‘negativity bias’. Negativity bias is the notion that negative encounters have a greater impact on us than positive encounters. If you were to have one positive experience and one negative experience in one day, for instance, the negative one tends to ‘stick’ with you longer. Recall the times when one bad encounter just made the day suck overall — that’s what the positive psychologists are talking about.
As Jacob Burak discusses in this Aeon article, this bias has evolutionary origins but doesn’t serve us as well now that we no longer encounter the threats we used to:
“Of all the cognitive biases, the negative bias might have the most influence over our lives. Yet times have changed. No longer are we roaming the savannah, braving the harsh retribution of nature and a life on the move. The instinct that protected us through most of the years of our evolution is now often a drag – threatening our intimate relationships and destabilising our teams at work.”
If we’re always adopting a fight-or-flight response to the experiences that we have, and if we focus so greatly on negative encounters, we can often be paralysed by them or behave reactively instead of proactively. This defensive stance can hardly be conducive for our personal growth and the growth of our relationships.
While it is clear that negativity has a role to play in ensuring a realistic and grounded approach to the problems that we face (as Burak discusses in the last few paragraphs of his article), I hardly think that we need to actively seek it out, given our default inclination towards it. In other words: Yes, we need to confront the negatives in our lives to ensure that we’re not blindly optimistic, but our nature takes care of that for us anyway. Let’s not be shackled by them, but practice the practical wisdom to balance negative and positive consciously.
2. Positive emotions support individual growth and development, and resilience.
One of the first readings that students of Dr Barbara L. Fredrickson’s Positive Psychology course on Coursera encounter is her article entitled, ‘The Value of Positive Emotions’. (I strongly recommend it to everyone.) It’s an eye-opening piece that sheds light on how positive emotions are basically life-giving.
“Instead of solving problems of immediate survival, positive emotions solve problems concerning personal growth and development. Experiencing a positive emotion leads to states of mind and to modes of behavior that indirectly prepare an individual for later hard times.” (p. 332)
Dr Fredrickson coined the ‘Broaden and Build Theory’, which basically states that positive emotions broaden a person’s mindset (and attitude) and build a person’s internal resources for future challenges (see also The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions by Dr Barbara L. Fredrickson). While focusing on negative emotions promotes convergent perspectives that lead to myopic worldviews (I’m sure we know of some complainers who are completely resistant to seeing the silver lining, and we’ve all been there at some point!), positive emotions allow us to appreciate possibilities, exercise creativity, and take a more integrative perspective. When you’re in that zone, you’ll be able to see more than one way out of a bad situation and, interestingly enough, your positive experiences may be amplified.
3. Our social networks can amplify the impact of messages. This is especially so for influencers.
The MIT Technology Review article that sparked this reflection discussed a concept called the ‘Majority Illusion’ that was discovered by Kristina Lerman and her peers from the University of Southern California (original article here). The theory basically states that our networks can give the illusion that a certain phenomenon or attribute is more common than it actually is thanks to the influence of certain better-connected peers in our networks. Since some people are more well-connected than others, any information these people disseminate will have greater reach. This greater reach translates into greater transference of the information they share and hence can “skew the view from the ground”.* Just think of how some Twitter influencers’ tweets go viral through RTs and MTs thanks to the sheer number of followers they have.
“For a start, it shows how some content can spread globally while other similar content does not—the key is to start with a small number of well-connected early adopters fooling the rest of the network into thinking it is common.”
In turn, this means that if you have a certain degree of influence, what you choose to share can have greater ramifications than you intend. As the authors of the MIT Review article wrote:
“That might seem harmless when it comes to memes on Reddit or videos on YouTube. But it can have more insidious effects too. “Under some conditions, even a minority opinion can appear to be extremely popular locally,” say Lerman and co. That might explain how extreme views can sometimes spread so easily.”
Why even bother?
If we consider the implications of the 3 reasons together, it becomes clear that it’s good to stop and think before we post on social media. I often think about how a sour encounter with someone can put a downer on my day and amplify this on social media where (i) the encounter reaches more people, and (ii) the encounter lives for a much much longer time.
Since we all are predisposed with a negativity bias, yet positive emotions tend to be more conducive for our growth, and the majority illusion implies that our social networks can skew the gravity of certain ideas, isn’t it important for us to exercise more intention when we post? This is especially so if we have influence in our circles. Let us be more proactive in shaping the content that we and our peers encounter, and promote that which is life-giving.
In the words of dear Uncle Ben:
With great power, comes great responsibility.
Everything You Need to Know About Facebook’s Controversial Emotion Experiment — Wired
The Science of Positivity in Social Media — Buffer
‘Sunrise’ by Susanne Nilson (Flickr)