The Good, the Bad, and the Distinctive

Hans Alves, Alex Koch, and Christian Unkelbach, ‘Why Good Is More Alike Than Bad: Processing Implications’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017), 69-79.

This one’s been nestling in the pipeline for a while. I have been meaning to turn it into a substantial post without quite finding the way to do so. Anyway — fanfare — Alves et al. think literature knows something about your brain:

As noted by Leo Tolstoy in the opening of his novel Anna Karenina, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Recent psychological research suggests that Tolstoy’s observation even holds true in the broadest formulation that different pieces of positive information are alike whereas different pieces of negative information are negative in their own way. We argue that this similarity asymmetry is a robust and general characteristic of the environment humans live in, observable across various research domains, for which we provide examples in the following.

It has been argued before that negative information has a higher impact than positive information: it might have a great emotional effect, it might be remembered better. The point here is that this is not necessarily a property of our responses, but may tell us something about the information that is being processed in the first place. They offer ‘an alternative interpretation of valence asymmetries based on the observation that positive information is more similar than negative information’. Positive attributes are less extreme than negative ones. They suggest Aristotle was right all along when he said that the mean is desirable, and extremes not so: the good — the middle — strikes us less than the bad, the challenging outliers.


They cite research on language: people assess pairs of positive words as more similar to one another than negative words, as if distinctiveness in semantics is more a property of bad things than of good things. This scales up from individual words to descriptions. Alves et al. relate how descriptions of positive events were judged to be more alike than descriptions of negative events. Other research suggests that positive words are more likely to appear together than negative words, ‘which suggests that positive information’s higher similarity might in fact be a “true” property of the information environment’.
      They cite physical contexts, Goldilocks-style, to support the Aristotelian preference for the middle way. Human life exists best in the middle of various chemical and physical dimensions: not too hot, not too cold, and so on. Just right is less remarkable than an aberration high or low. The prototypical ideal tends to lie between things that our minds respond to more energetically.
      It’s no wonder, perhaps, that negative information, as they say, ‘attracts more attention’. Things that threaten the equilibrium by being new or extreme surely need to be acknowledged. So, if we need to understand how this quirk of human thinking works, to explain why we are more stimulated in certain ways by bad things than by good, it looks like environmental adaptation is a significant part of the picture.


This struck a chord with me for reasons that may become apparent when I quote a bit of an old lecture of mine. (This is actually taken directly from the handout, in which I offer a deliberately over-reaching description of Shakespearean Tragedy and Comedy as a way of getting what I hope is more detailed and nuanced stuff started.)

Tragedy and comedy are both hypotheses, the contemplation of which enriches our thinking about reality. They are equally valuable and profound, and they are opposites. Tragedy is a negative hypothesis, in that it imagines a world worse than ours, in which terrible things happen. But it has compensation for those who suffer and those who watch, because the characters at the heart of tragedy gain in distinction and individuality. Comedy is a positive hypothesis, in that it imagines a world better than ours, in which good things happen. It has compensation for those who benefit, and those who watch, because the characters at the heart of comedy lose distinction and individuality.

So you see, I also think there is a way in which good things merge while bad thing e-merge. And there may well be other ways in which literature works with, and perhaps tests, some of the subtleties: how (for example) certain language choices affect balances of sympathy and attention, and so on. Perhaps there’ll be more to say in the future.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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