John Tierney Author Interview

Portrait of John Tierney

John Tierney is a science writer who, among other things, is a contributing editor to City Journal and a contributing columnist to the Science section of the New York Times. He’s also a public speaker and makes frequent TV appearances. 

I really love his book, with Roy Baumeister, called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Greatest Strength. It was a New York Times best-seller and has been translated into 20 languages, and I found it invaluable in my own work.

I thought a lot about willpower as I was writing Better Than Before, my book about habit change (spoiler alert: habits get us out of the draining business of using our willpower) and also when I was trying to figure out my Four Tendencies framework, because I was puzzled by why I seemed to have easier access to willpower than many other people did (spoiler alert: I’m an Upholder).

His new book, also written with Roy Baumeister, is The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.

I couldn’t wait to talk to John about happiness, habits, productivity—and the negativity bias.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

John: Sharing joy is one of the quickest and simplest ways to boost happiness. Researchers call it “capitalization,” and they find it works wonderfully as long as the person who hears the news responds enthusiastically. Once I came across the researchers’ results while writing this book, I adopted the simple technique they recommend. When someone tells you about something good that’s happened to them, listen carefully, and put a smile and some energy into your response (“Wow, that’s great!). Then follow up questions to hear more details. That way the triumph becomes more significant, and the other person not only appreciates it more but also feels closer to you and more trusting and generous. The worst thing you can do is just sit there quietly, because your lack of response deflates the other person’s joy and can make them resent you. So no matter how you feel about them or their achievement, at least fake some enthusiasm.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

How much stronger bad is than good. I always knew that we tend to react to negative things—we’re devastated by a word of criticism even when it’s mixed with lots of praise—but I didn’t appreciate the strength of this negativity effect until I delved into the research. Psychologists have done lots of studies of what they call the “positivity ratio,” which is the number of bad events or emotions for every positive one. They’ve found that it typically takes about four good things to overcome one bad thing. Because of that ratio, it’s much more important to avoid bad than to do good. We pride ourselves on our sterling qualities and on going the extra mile in our personal and business relationships, but what really matters is the negative stuff. Avoiding mistakes and broken promises will do much more for you than going beyond the call of duty. Also, because of the negativity effect, what seems a trivial mistake of yours can loom much larger to the other person—and be remembered for a long time. Researchers have found that marriages and other relationships depend mainly on how people deal with negativity. When something goes wrong, stay calm, and don’t retaliate or escalate, because a small disagreement can quickly spiral into a fight with lasting consequences.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Like most people, I can be a procrastinator. I learned one trick for dealing with it while researching my previous book with Roy Baumeister, Willpower. We wrote about combating procrastination by following “bright-line rules” instead of your gut, and I found a couple of examples from the novelist screenwriter Raymond Chandler. He would go into his office and follow two simple rules:

1. You don’t have to write.
2. You can’t do anything else.

I use that technique every morning by going on what I call an email fast. Before having my coffee, I take a glance at my email to see if there’s anything that can’t wait until the afternoon. If there is, I deal with it quickly. Then I get my coffee and ignore email until noon so that I can concentrate on writing.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Your quiz classifies me as a Questioner, and it’s spot on. When I wrote a science blog at the New York Times called TierneyLab, the motto at the top of the blog was: “Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But that’s a good working theory.” Over and over in my journalistic career, I’ve found that the conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong when you take a close look at the facts. And one of the chief reasons for the error is our negativity bias: We’re always focusing on isolated bad things instead of looking at the big picture and appreciating how many good things are taking place.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

When I watch politicians and pundits railing at some supposed menace to society, I think of a line from the great journalist H.L. Mencken. In 1918, long before cable news and the web, he described public discourse as a “combat of crazes,” and observed: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

During the “energy crisis” of the early 1980s, when the experts were warning us that that humanity was about to run out of oil and other natural resources, I came across a new book titled The Ultimate Resource. It was by the economist Julian Simon, who argued that we we’d never run out of energy or anything else as long as we relied on the ultimate resource: human ingenuity. It sounded naively optimistic, but Simon put his money where his mouth was. He offered to bet anyone that the price of oil or any other natural resource would be cheaper at any date in the future. A couple of doomsayers—the ecologists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren—took the bet and picked a date in 1990. And they ended up losing $1,000.

That book changed my view of the world. It made me a confirmed optimist. I followed Simon’s advice—look at long-term trends instead of fixating on current difficulties—and began to see what was going right in in my life as well as in the rest of the world. Virtually every measure of human welfare has been improving for the past several centuries. The average human keeps getting healthier, better nourished, wealthier and better educated. I see no reason those trends won’t continue, because we’ll never run out of that ultimate resource—human ingenuity.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

We journalists pride ourselves on delivering bad news. We instinctively follow that old dictum, “If it bleeds, it leads,” because of the negativity effect: We know that bad news is the easiest and quickest way to attract attention. Sure, we need to report bad things when they happen, but we should put them in perspective.

For instance, we write so much about post-traumatic syndrome that people assume a traumatic event will inevitably scar you for life. That does happen to some people, but most people actually experience what’s called post-traumatic growth. Even though a single bad event is more powerful than a good event, over time people respond in so many constructive ways that they typically emerge more capable than ever of confronting life’s challenges. That’s the upside of the negativity effect: Bad events teach us and motivate us to improve, and there are other ways that we can exploit the power of bad for good purposes.

Psychologists have come to realize that they long suffered from the negativity effect in their own profession. Because bad events are stronger than good events, they’re easier to observe and measure, so psychology textbooks and journals devoted far more attention to treating particular problems and neuroses rather than offering general guidance for improving everyone’s mental well-being. Now that psychologists have recognized this bias, the new positive psychology movement is has been developing techniques for becoming happier. We call them Glad Games in the book, and we recommend that everyone try playing them.

Book cover of The Power of Bad by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister



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