Negativity Bias and the Problem of Evil

negativity, homeless, suffering

The Problem of Evil causes me more trouble in my faith than any other atheistic argument. It’s the best case against God. When I see children with cancer, or hear of vulnerable people being abused, I wonder how God could allow it to happen. The argument comes in several varieties, but it runs something like this: the world contains a lot of evil–let’s say the quantity is X, and X is too much. If the Christian God exists, the world would contain less than X. So, the Christian God must not exist.

cancer, child, evil, faith, negativity bias

Now, the reason we think that X is too much evil is because of its relationship to the amount of good in the world. If there was infinitely more good than evil, then I don’t think the problem would get off the ground. But it seems to many people that the good-to-evil ratio is less than optimal. Maybe there’s more evil than good, or maybe there’s just not enough good to “make up” for the evil in the world. Maybe the ratio would need to be 100:1 (good:evil), or 1,000:1. But whatever the ratio is, it seems wrong for a world superintended by the Christian God.

Doubting My Doubts

But a year or so ago, I read about something that made me question my reasoning about evil: negativity bias. Could it be that the power of the Problem of Evil argument rests on a flaw in our cognition? I first encountered the concept in Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. They call it “negativity dominance.” They talk about how the brain reacts more strongly to negative experiences than positive ones. For instance, look at these two images:

negativity, eyes
From Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 300.

According to Kahneman’s research, the image on the left will cause your heartbeat to speed up, but the image on the right will not. Researchers have also found that angry faces “pop out” of a series of faces, but happy faces don’t.(1) Negative images and experiences affect us more deeply and broadly than positive ones, and stick in the memory easier.

Slanted Perception

In a paper entitled, “Bad Is Stronger than Good,” researchers wrote:

Bad emotions, bad parents, and bad feedback have more impact than good ones, and bad information is processed more thoroughly than good. . . Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.(2)

negativity, child, evil

Another study claims that, “There is ample empirical evidence for an asymmetry in the way that adults use positive versus negative information to make sense of their world; specifically, across an array of psychological situations and tasks, adults display a negativity bias, or the propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.”(3) You only need to google “negativity bias” to see the mass of evidence. The bottom line is that our perception of the world is slanted. We tend to notice more bad than good, remember more bad than good, and feel the impact of bad more than good.

A Defeater for the Problem

So why is this a problem (or a ‘defeater‘) for the atheistic argument from evil? It undermines the argument, or at least the force of it, because our judgment about the good-to-evil ratio in the world is purely subjective. And if it is subjective, then it is undoubtedly inaccurate, and not just by a little. The bias is quite potent. How much good did we miss or forget or discount? How have we exaggerated evil in our minds? It’s not unlike an optical illusion.

negativity bias, evil, illusion

The truth is, we don’t know what the actual ratio is. Gathering such data accurately seems nearly impossible. But once we know we have a bias toward noticing and feeling evil, we should recalculate our judgment about the ratio. We should tell ourselves, “It may seem like there is far more evil than good in the world, but the ratio is probably closer to 1:1 than I thought.” And this should, rationally, lead us to doubt the force of the Problem of Evil. 

(1) Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, Ch. 28.
(2) Baumeister, Roy F., et al. “Bad is stronger than good.” Review of general psychology 5.4 (2001): 323.
(3) Vaish, Amrisha et al. “Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development” Psychological bulletin vol. 134,3 (2008): 383-403.

Bad Thinking, Part 3: The SI Jinx

missouri chase daniels SI jinx
Not Pete Rose

Pete Rose, infamous Cincinnati Reds baseball player, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August of 1978, in the midst of a 44-game hitting streak. That same week, his streak ended. Numerous other examples over the years foster the belief that players or teams who achieve SI cover-status will experience the “SI Jinx” soon thereafter. A pair of local favorites: the University of Kansas football program appeared on the November 2007 cover after an 11-0 start, and lost the following week to rival Missouri; Missouri then graced the cover in December 2007 after reaching their first #1 ranking, and lost the following week to Oklahoma. The SI Jinx strikes again!

Coincidence or curse?

SI jinx sports thinkingTo this day, many athletes shun appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In January 2002, Kurt Warner declined to pose for the cover, so the magazine ran a photo of a black cat instead. The headline: “The Cover that No One Would Pose For.” Are their fears well-founded? If it isn’t a curse, then what explains the bizarre coincidence?

Thankfully, Daniel Kahneman provides enlightenment. In Thinking, Kahneman describes a statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean.” (Ch. 17) According to Wikipedia,

Regression to the mean is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement—and if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first.

In other words, if an athlete performs at a remarkably high level one week or one season, the following week or season is very likely to be worse, and vice versa. I imagine that if SI started featuring especially low-performing athletes on their magazine cover, we would soon discover a SI Cover Miracle!

Getting Lucky

regression to the mean kahneman jinxOne reason for our error in judgment here: we fail to account for luck. In many endeavors, luck plays a huge role, including sports, academic testing, and business success. Our performance in these areas tends to follow a curve, with frequent average performances (relative to personal skill), and few examples of either really awful or amazing performances. Luck (or the lack) is usually what accounts for the “outlier” performances on the edges of the curve. But we attribute this to skill or other non-causal factors instead.

dice luck jinx thinkingKahneman relates an interesting anecdote about a flight instructor who claimed that praise for good performances was detrimental, but intense criticism for bad performances was helpful. Why? Because when he yelled at a pilot for an especially poor flight, the pilot performed better the next time out. And when he praised him for “clean execution,” he got worse. The instructor failed to realize that this was statistically predictable and probably attributable to pilot luck. A classic example of regression to the mean.

The Upshot

happy luck jinx regression to the mean kahnemanIn my daily life, identifying regression to the mean can help me avoid emotional whiplash. I know that an amazing day is likely to be followed by an average day, so I’m not as disappointed when this occurs. Similarly, a really horrendous day will probably be succeeded by a better day, so there’s hope! Substitute whatever professional metrics you like for “day,” and you can apply the same truth in your life: sales figures, enrollment, attendance, stock performance, child behavior, or team wins.

I also remember to include luck, or perhaps unpredictable Divine intervention, in my evaluation of performance. This means that my absolute best and worst performances are probably not solely attributable to my skill. I should look at my average as a better gauge for evaluation, rather than taking the “outlier” as the norm.

bad luck jinx thinking kahnemanFinally, we can do away with belief in jinxes. Even if you could show a high correlation between some odd event and bad performance, this would not prove causation. Interestingly, while 37% of SI cover stars were “jinxed,” 58% maintained or improved their performance following their cover appearance, according to an 1984 study. The jinx myth endures because of yet another kind of “bad thinking:” the negativity bias! We tend to remember negative events and give them more weight in our reasoning.

I still plan to give away a copy of Kahneman’s book to a lucky subscriber! Sign up for Ground Belief updates with your email for a very high chance to win (I only have 2 subscribers as of yesterday).

Bad Thinking, Part 2: Mood Matters

Law and Order: SVU. (Start the video at 9:36, but you may have to watch some ads.) Notice the shift in mood.

Scene: detectives asking a restaurant owner (Lyla) to look at the photographs of two criminal suspects, a man and a woman. Seemingly frustrated, she looks at them but doesn’t recognize either.

Lyla: I’m not really good with faces. I’m more of a word person.

Detective #1: Here’s a word. Focus.

[Lyla abruptly hands the photos back to the detective and walks away, obviously offended.]

Detective #2: What my partner means to say is that maybe you’re just underestimating yourself.

Lyla: [still mad] I don’t think so.

[Detective #2 turns on the charm and gets her to smile.]

Detective #2: Take a look at these photos one more time. Please.

Lyla: [sighs, smiling] This guy I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I’m pretty sure she was here that night.

This scene illustrates beautifully what scientists have discovered through tools like the Remote Association Test. A good mood raises intuitive abilities, but lowers logical attentiveness. A bad mood makes us less prone to errors in logic, but it’s like a wet blanket over intuition and creativity. Feeling nervous and criticized by the first detective shut down the intuition of the restaurant owner. But after her mood brightened, she easily recalled the face of the woman in the photo, because this is a function of intuitive System 1.

Implications

So what does this mean for us, as thinkers? Being aware of your mood can help you maximize your cognitive abilities. First, when you’re engaging in a creative or intuitive task, you’ll perform better if you’re in good spirits. If, prior to such a task, you find yourself in a foul mood, it would be wise to either, (a) put off the task (if possible) until your mood lightens, or (b) take some steps to improve your mood. Here’s one of my favorite TED talks on this subject that includes some very practical suggestions at the 10:56 mark.

 

Second, when you’re engaging in a System 2 task—analysis, problem solving, etc.—you’re likely to perform better if you don’t stroll into it casually. If you’re a more happy-go-lucky or optimistic person, it might be wise to stop and shift gears. Try some cognitive warm ups to crank up your System 2 and heighten your concentration. Work two or three simple multiplication problems, count backward from 100, or pick a word and find as many rhyming words as you can. (More “warm ups” here and here.)

Faith and Cognitive Modes

What about religion? Does mood matter when contemplating religious and metaphysical ideas? Yes. It matters because it affects which System is predominant. So which mode— intuitive System 1 or analytical System 2—is most appropriate for religious thinking? I’ve often wrestled with this question myself and I think it depends on your goals and on your context. If you’re already committed to a faith tradition like Christianity, System 2 is helpful when studying theology or when discussing religion with someone outside the faith, to give two examples. But worship, by contrast, requires shifting away from skepticism and toward openness. I find that praying and listening to a sermon are activities best done with a sense of receptivity, seasoned with a pinch of healthy skepticism, putting off the bulk of analysis for later.

skeptic faith thinkingFor those who identify as atheist or agnostic, it may not be as appropriate to suspend your skeptical guard, unless you find yourself desiring to believe. You should always leave open a small window of possibility, regardless, as I have written about elsewhere. But I have met atheists and agnostics who find belief unattainable given their current set of evidence. When I share about my own experience of God, they sometimes express a desire to have such an experience, in the hope that it would finally allow them to believe. For them, I would suggest partially lowering their System 2 defenses and cultivating an intuitive System 1 mind-set. Relationships, even between oneself and God, are best experienced through this mode, rather than by logical analysis.

Faith and Mood

What this implies for mood management is that religious believers will probably experience the full benefits of worship when their mood is good. Grief and lament remain important aspects of a full-orbed Christian faith, and perhaps research may eventually tell us how those moods affect our cognitive mode. But in general, I’m inclined to believe that a positive outlook enhances prayer and openness to hearing from God. On the other hand, if you only ever approach religion with your analytical System 2 on full alert, you may actually be blocking out the evidence needed to support belief. I recognize that there are some conundrums here, but despite this, there can still be good reasons for belief or for deciding on a course of action.

(On October 23, I will conclude the series by giving away a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow to one lucky subscriber to my blog. So, sign up with your email (on your right at the top of this post) before the 23rd to be eligible.’)