Are Americans too negative?

NPR Photoillustration

“A wave of negativism rolls across the land. Many Americans are against instead of for. They would rather stop than start, subtract than add, demolish than build,” writes NPR’s Linton Weeks.

Legendary basketball coach Bob Knight has published a book titled The Power of Negative Thinking: An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results. Campus entrepreneur and motivational speaker Kristen Hadeed teaches people how to “Say No Without Being a Jerk.” One bumper sticker spotted recently in Washington: If It’s Bad For America, I Hope It Fails.

In American politics, zealots are taking opposition PACs — designed to tear each other’s candidates apart — to new levels. The Republican-backed America Rising encourages opposition research against Democrats, CNN reports. The Democrats have countered with their own attack PAC, American Bridge. Karl Rove has created the Conservative Victory Project to try to stymie the Tea Party at every turn. And perhaps for the first time ever there has been a PAC established, Stop Hillary PAC, to thwart a presidential candidate who hasn’t even formally announced.

Large numbers of Americans are anti: social, religion, anxiety and a lot more. Our stories are filled with antiheroes. We fight wars against drugs and poverty and illiteracy. Online gurus suggest that websites use negative keywords to influence their traffic. Ray Dalio at Freakonomics writes: “It is negative feedback that drives improvement” in many societal pursuits. And in the world of professional psychology, the naysayers are exploring the value of naysaying.

The Negateers

Barbara S. Held, a professor of psychology at Bowdoin University, says, “There has definitely been a backlash against both positive psychology and the American culture of positivity in recent years.”

Barbara has not only felt this negative energy in her field but contributed to it. She and a dozen or so like-minded colleagues and writers have formed a social observation group called “The Negateers” who keep tabs on the “positivity-negativity” wars. The nixname comes from the same spirit as Musketeers.

“We consider ourselves an organized backlash against both the positive psychology movement and the American culture of positivity,” Barbara says. The two movements feed on each other, she says, which “fuels the American culture of positivity by giving it the mantle of science” or, in some cases, pseudoscience.

Pro and Converse

The Negateers, Barbara says, are representative of a growing battle against the “tyranny of the positive attitude in America.”

The power of positive thinking, made popular by Norman Vincent Peale in his 1952 book of that name, may not be as powerful as it has been cracked up to be.

When it comes to thoughts, feelings, behaviors, Barbara says, a positive-negative dichotomy is false and simplistic. “What is constructive versus destructive cannot be divorced from context, goals, and individual differences.”

For example, she says, there are times when it may be constructive and, therefore, positive or good to be pessimistic in some contexts — such as looking for signs of a terrorist attack before Sept. 11.

Conversely, she adds, it could be destructive and, therefore, negative or bad to be optimistic in some contexts — such as not looking for signs of a terrorist attack before Sept. 11.

Today’s Question: Are Americans too negative?

  • logicaltoo

    NO. :)

  • PaulJ

    I get bombarded by so much promotion, that I need a certain amount of negativity just to be on the safe side.

  • James

    Nixname – you are a punny guy, Michael.

  • Jim G

    Negativity is a big concept… too big to answer positively. For most Americans our economic fortunes have been trending negative… or to put it another way, we’ve been running on a negative treadmill for decades now. I guess what goes around… comes around.

  • kevins

    Optimism saves lives and promotes health, but my sense is that negativity is as old as the tribes we evolved from…Ah, I can picture it…a FOX news caveperson, cloaked in a three piece hair-robe, etching anti-Obama symbols on a rock just inside the MSN caveperson’s territory…the fight is on!

    • Gary F

      Or Carrie Lucking of Alliance for a Better Minnesota! She’s dumping on people the minute she finds out they are running. Just follow her tweets!

      • JQP

        you empower those you follow … ERK !!! what have I done.

  • Sue de Nim

    Peale-esque positive thinking and reactionary negative thinking are equal and opposite mistakes. If it’s currently fashionable to be negative, that’s just a pendulum swing. I try to question all biases.

  • JQP

    Nope – we are just more aware of it.

    its rather like climate change and we’re all frogs.
    Who turned the burner on ??
    Us ??? Gad Zooks.

  • Jeff

    This is a tough one to answer…if I say No then I’m being negative by saying no (while disagreeing with the point)…meanwhile saying Yes would imply that we are in fact all negative by answering in the affirmative…far too confusing.

    • JQP

      sort of like the old…
      have you stopped cheating on your spouse ?
      No … oh so still at it.
      Yes … of so you did cheat.

  • lindblomealges

    We Americans, to me, are not negative, but they have lost the ability to analyze complex issues and circumstances, and they continue to insist on having a divided America instead of a collaborative America. Our national, statewide, and local problems can not be solved simply by saying no to spending. Suggesting no more spending is the only answer is like saying I refuse to pay my heating bill in Minnesota even though there are nights where the temperature is below 32 degrees. Likewise, suggesting Group A isn’t working their fare share or shouldn’t get help because I didn’t isn’t much different than having whites at the front of the bus, blacks at the back regardless of what’s happening. The truth is America HAS BEEN A MELTING POT ONLY ONCE in our history and that began during the 1970s. The rest of American History has been socially, economically, geographically, and racially segregated. The same holds true with respect to government spending. There has NEVER been a time in our history where Americans DIDN’T spend money to solve its problems EXCEPT during the Articles of Confederation, the one true time that the States controlled everything, and that RESULTED IN A COLLOSSAL FAILURE. But, rather than analyze our history and our current problems, we keep looking for the quick divisive ignorant solution and problems just can’t be solved that way no matter how much technology, deficit, founding father doctrine, we throw at it. We’re past the point of just making one man’s solution the end all be all for millions of others.

  • John

    No. For example, I am positive our country will go to war with Syria and I am positive that it was the rebels that used the gas on the people not the government of Syria. I am positive this is the same news media storm that told us that Iraq had WMD.

  • tjupnorth

    America became a great country with millions of immigrants who came with a “Can Do”
    attitude and a great work ethic. They chose leaders with a vision for a brighter future, and the courage to do new things and the good sense to fix problems. Together they educated the masses, settled a huge country, built the infrastructure, ended slavery, and gave every American the right to vote and pursue the American dream. As President Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you, Ask what you can do for your country.

    We have now come to a time where the theme is “Can’t Do”, where whining and opposition and tearing down have become ever so pervasive. To many of our leaders are working to diminish America, to promote division, to play special interest games that separate haves and have nots, and protect priviledge at the expense of better tomorrow. There ar no better examples of this than John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, naysayers pretending to be leaders who work tirelessly to diminish America.

    It is time for those of us who believe in the promise of America to rise and stamp out negativism where ever it appears. And that includes asking candidates at every level what they will do to contribute to a “Can Do” America! If there answer is

    “my ideology” or ‘my opponent is so bad you ahve to chose me” – don’t let them have your vote!

    We can change this disasterous negativism and get America working again!