Saturday, October 25, 2014

Negative emotions have benefits at times

Of course, this doesn't mean it's good to be the kind of person who is always looking for an excuse to treat other people badly.

By Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener
Oct. 20, 2014

Think back to the last time you had to navigate a customer-service situation.


Did you adopt a warm tone and play nice? Or did you raise your voice and speak aggressively? You are a nice person, so you probably chose the kind route. The tough pill for most of us to swallow is that those overbearing screamers often get their way.

Feisty personalities, although unpleasant, can be tremendously effective. The psychological agility we're advocating here would expand your repertoire to give you access to the tougher, more direct, and sometimes more effective approach. You're probably avoiding this strategy because you think that being negative is, well, negative. You may think that aggressive, hostile, or downright mean people are generally jerks and you don't want to run with that crowd. The good news is that a whole range of negativity — of beneficial negativity, mind you — has nothing to do with being a jerk.

Negative emotions can also help you focus on the situation at hand. When you are about to drill a hole in the wall, chances are that you pay close attention to the measurements involved as well as to the position of your hand. The anxiety associated with the downside risk encourages you to drill in exactly the right spot.


So if happy people gloss over the fine print and it leads to more comfortable interactions, then shouldn't we all be satisfied with their close-enough approach? Well, no, of course not. Would you really prefer a happy, easy-going attorney to a somewhat grumpier one who would be sure to catch every little problem in that new contract? We wouldn't, either.

The culture of air traffic control (ATC) tends to the negative. This is, in part, because ATC is a safety-conscious industry in which the downside of a risk of mistakes can be high. At the minor end of the spectrum, errors lead to delays and logistical complications; at the other end, costs can run into tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of people dead.


It's important to linger here for a moment and point out that most people make a huge mistake where negative emotions are concerned. They typically separate the experience of negative feelings from the expression of negative feelings. Most people we chat with are quick to accept that feeling bad is a valid, and even inevitable, psychological experience.

On the other hand, expressing frustration, or even too much sadness, is anathema to most folks. It's as if we expect ourselves to be computers, whose inner processes are largely hidden and divorced from what appears on the screen. This attitude exists in varying degrees across cultures; it's part of the idea that it's easier to live in a society where people are smiling than it is to coexist with people who are shouting.

But it misses the point that emotional expressions exist for a reason. Emotional expressions are an important way in which we communicate with others. A furrowed brow or frown warns people off when you aren't in the mood (and sometimes you're not in the mood). A gasp of fear has a contagious effect such that bystanders also feel a jolt of adrenaline and look around nervously. Expressing feelings, including negative ones, is a big part of the human emotional experience.

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