Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Negative Interactions Corrode Society; Neutrality is Not Enough to Counteract Them

I am working on an idea about negative and positive social interactions.

John Gottman, a famous divorce researcher, has argued that in a marriage, negative interactions are so corrosive that you need at least five positive interactions to balance them out - and more than that to keep your marriage in an emotionally positive tone.

Several positive psychologists have said that in our normal social interactions with friends and acquaintances we should have at least three positive interactions for every negative one.

It seems reasonable to me that the least intimate social relationships - the anonymous cash transaction at an unfamiliar store - needs at least ordinary civility on both sides to keep both parties on an even emotional keel.

Which leads me to an idea.  Negative interactions are socially corrosive. They are not neutral, but costly to society.  People who are consistently negative leave a wake of social costs for other people, and not just the ones they were negative to. It is as if they walked through the social world, dropping acid on others.

Negative people impose costs on other, so more positive people have to salve those wounds with extra positive interactions. The positive people have to make up for the residue of the negative - on top of the normal civility that we need to make sure our own interactions are at least emotionally balanced.

6 comments:

MJTC said...

My first thought on reading your headline was about homophobic bullying and the bad policies in some schools requiring teachers to be "neutral" on the topic. You're right, it takes so much positivity to outweigh that cruelty, and it's sad that teachers are being prevented from providing any of that.

Pastor Dennis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diane M said...

This makes a lot of sense to me. I would add that all of us sometimes spread negativity. So perhaps we need to look at doing three nice things every time we do one rude one - let somebody go ahead of you in traffic because you honked at someone else, for example.

I think you should look at the Internet, too, as it is now a way that virulent negativity sometimes spreads anonymously.

The other big question is how society can be structured to encourage more of the positive interactions - less frustrating commuting, more potlucks with your neighbors?

gruntled said...

I think that spreading positivity is something that is in the individual's hands, and does not need to wait on changing the social structure. If I let a car in to line because someone else honked their horn, that is a net positive. If I pick up litter that someone else dropped, that is a net positive that I can make without waiting on the world to change.

Diane M said...

True, we can each spread positivity, but it seems to me a sociology of happiness would include ways to increase positive interactions in a community.

gruntled said...

Agreed. I am for both. I just haven't figured out the social structures that reliably promote happiness entirely. Marriage, though, is clearly one of them.