Are Americans too negative?

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“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?