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.

Why Are We Afraid To Talk About Our Beliefs?

fear, amygdala, beliefs

Our family walked down to Hillsborough Bay, where a spectacular view of the fireworks could be enjoyed. Bayshore Boulevard, with its seemingly ancient stone rail, stretched along the water, just down the street from Grammie’s house. I stood on my six-year-old tip toes to see the salty water below lapping against the rocks. This walk down to the water was a common ritual on visits to Grammie’s house, especially on the Fourth of July. As we stood waiting for the fireworks to launch over the water, my father hoisted me up and put my feet on the railing. I screamed in terror! “No, no, put me down!” My Dad held me securely, insisting I was safe, but I remained unconvinced. He finally relented and put my feet back on the firm, safe, concrete sidewalk. Never was concrete so comforting.

This, my friends, is a tale of the amygdala, a tale of fear. The amygdala, an almond-sized part of your brain, tells you when “fight or flight” is necessary. It’s the alarm going off in my six-year-old head, saying, “Get off that railing before you plummet to your grisly death!” Perfectly reasonable fear, right? (Please don’t take my Dad’s side!) Some of our fears, however, are less rational. 

Why Belief Discussions Trigger the Amygdala

fear, amygdala, beliefs

A belief discussion is a conversation about religious, political, moral or other kinds of important beliefs. I think that we fear belief discussions for the same reason we fear physical confrontations–fear of being hurt. But the injuries we fear are mental and emotional, not physical. Of course, if we know that the other person agrees with us completely, then no fear! But typically, we suspect there will be disagreement. And disagreements often feel like mental punches, bruising and even crashing through our worldview. I’m not saying that all conversations about beliefs are “fights,” but they often can be.

Our amygdala normally helps us to avoid danger and protect our bodies when necessary. But it can get a little too jumpy. In our age of social media and high-stress work environments, our response systems are on high alert too often. “The result,” writes New York Times columnist Kate Murphy, “is often a juiced-up amygdala more apt to flip you into fight, flight or freeze mode in response to even the slightest concern, and keep you there, rather than return you to a state of calm in the absence of clear and present danger.”

Calming Your Amygdala

relax, meditate, amygdala, beliefs

So what do we do? There are several options. First, you can avoid all belief discussions. This seems neither realistic nor desirable. It lies outside reality because any community we engage with will draw us into belief discussions. To avoid these conversations is to avoid meaningful relationships altogether. It is undesirable because without engaging in dialogue with others about important issues, we never mature in our own views. We remain as children, clinging to simplistic perspectives with inadequate support.

A second approach is learning to suppress your amygdala. I’ve read a number of articles on practices and techniques for avoiding amygdala-triggering. Psychologist/author Arlin Cuncic writes that, “Emotionally intelligent people know how to de-escalate their own emotions as well as those of others by becoming engaged, focused, and attentive to their thoughts and feelings.” Dr. Matt Lieberman found that when people label their emotional reaction, like saying “I’m feeling angry,” the amygdala response decreased.  “Psychologists and neuroscientists are also finding that the amygdala is less apt to freak out if you are reminded that you are loved or could be loved.” Dr. Ried Wilson writes that we can train our amygdala to not freak out by simulating stressful scenarios with positive outcomes.

I think these techniques are helpful, but I want to propose a third approach. Rather than training ourselves to suppress our amygdala, why not take a preventative strategy? I think we can find a way to prepare ourselves so that belief discussions don’t trigger the amygdala at all, or at least trigger it far less often.

Strengthening Our House

brick, amygdala, beliefs, secure

Remember the tale of the three little pigs? The story teaches us that a well-built house, though it takes more time and and effort, provides peace and security. The first two pigs probably experienced fear and anxiety when the wolf approached. But not the third pig. Now, I’m not saying that those who disagree with us are like dangerous canines who must be barred from our lives. The analogy in the story only goes so far. What I am saying is that a strong house/worldview, constructed carefully with solid bricks/beliefs, decreases our fear of injury.

So if you want to experience less fear and more confidence in belief discussions, you might take a page from all three play-books mentioned above. Avoid unnecessary, hostile conversations. Learn to de-escalate your panic reaction by labeling your emotions, remembering that you are loved, and even practicing belief discussions with safe people. But most of all, do a little “home improvement.” Survey your worldview, reflect on important beliefs and your reasons for holding them. Shore up sagging cross beams, repair the leaky roof, replace parts that are weak or inadequate to bear the load of a mature set of beliefs. This takes time and effort, but the payoff is peace, intimacy, and even the ability to persuade when needed.