People & Human Resources

Decision time: Research shows negative influences carry more weight

Martin Kovacs /

Erring on the side of caution may seem logical, but is negativity playing an overwhelming role in your decision-making?

Researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business have examined the influence of negativity on decision-making, finding that even during seemingly rational decision-making, negativity “plays an outsize role”.

Stanford GSB marketing professor Zakary Tormala and Stanford GSB doctoral program graduate Aaron Snyder’s research challenges assumptions that positives and negatives are equally weighted in situations where people are ambivalent.

In the study, which has been published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology earlier this year, Tormala and Snyder found that people become more conflicted and uncertain when just a few negative considerations were added to something positive, compared to when a few positive considerations were added to something negative.

More than 1200 online participants participated in the study, which involved answering questions about a fictional person called Frank, after first receiving varying bits of positive and negative information about this person.

People felt most conflicted when presented with a list containing five negatives and seven positives, and experienced more conflict then when they received a list containing six positives and six negatives.

Tormala explained that the research “extends the well-known principles of negativity bias and positivity offset to the study of ambivalence”.

“Ambivalence is not a comfortable state for most people,” he observed.

“If you understand your own feelings of ambivalence and where they come from, it might be easier to reconcile that conflict and feel better about whatever decision you end up making.

“It’s possible that you could resolve your own internal conflict more quickly, and thus take action more swiftly, by recognising that negative information has a stronger effect on ambivalence than does equivalent positive information.”

Tormala noted that while developing an understanding of the forces shaping our decision-making “helps illuminate the paths to feeling better about our own attitudes and decisions”, it does not necessarily guarantee better decisions.

However “it could help us identify more effective means of resolving uncertainty when it arises”, he observed.

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Martin Kovacs

Martin Kovacs is a journalist with experience covering the IT, consumer electronics, retail, finance and energy sectors.

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