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Why People ‘Go Negative’ And How To Stop It

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

In Lord of the Flies, a group of boys are marooned on a small island in the Pacific.

Free from the crushing dominance of tyrannical adults, their leader (he has a sea shell!) sets them three goals; to have fun, survive, and get rescued.

All hell soon breaks loose (don’t worry, I won’t spoil the ending).

It’s tough to find any social group in history which hasn’t endured their own lord of the flies moments.

Yet most social groups don’t disintegrate at the first sign of conflict. The groups endure, adapt and thrive.

The most effective groups find ways to:

  1. Resolve fights effectively.
  2. Create conditions that limit fights.
  3. Reduce fights as a % of the overall activity.

Disagreements and Fights

Let’s separate disagreements from fights. You possess enough empathy to respectfully disagree with one another. You can present your views as opinions instead of indisputable facts. You can sand any barbs or possible offence from your opinions. You can credit the value of other opinions before presenting your own. You can seek questions and wider viewpoints instead of narrowing the discussion to yours.

If you choose to do this, discussions become a genuine attempt to find middle-ground, gather ideas to find the right solution, and understand the will of the group. These are prosocial behaviors. We put the long-term benefit of the group ahead of our own short-term emotional state.

The problem is many people choose (perhaps not as consciously as we would like) not to do this. They get fired up and ‘go negative’. When people ‘go negative’, they put themselves and their immediate defensive emotional state first. They look to strike a killer blow instead of ending the war. Their time-frame shrinks to minutes and hours instead of months and years.

Why We Go Negative

We go negative when we sense a threat. Threats come in 3 broad forms:

1) A threat to our status (or honour).

Someone has done something which threatens our standing among the group or offends our honour. This is all mental of course (and often unintentional). People with a low self-esteem are especially sensitive to status threats and perceived insults (any disagreement can be perceived as an insult to someone’s intelligence, skill, or reputation).

This represents the bulk of conflicts – especially in online groups. You also see when members attack people on the group’s fringes (e.g. bullying) to feel closer to the nucleus of the group.

2) A threat to our limited resources.

This is when we see a rival for limited resources (money, space, even status again – by definition, there’s only room for 1 top expert). We attack the rival to preserve our own resources. Collaboration in this instance is almost impossible. Even mutually ignoring one another is tough once we see the other as an obstacle to our own success.

3) A threat of the unknown.

This occurs when we see someone (an outsider) or something new. The unknown is scary. We perceive it as a threat and take actions to reinforce the status quo which we’re familiar with. This happens when current members propose new ideas or new people show up. It provokes a feeling of disagreement and insecurity. This makes us go negative.

The Neighbour-Driveway Problem

Here’s an example. Imagine you live on a street with limited parking and see a new neighbour leave his car partially blocking your driveway.

Here you have all 3 threats in one place. Your status is threatened, you’re competing for limited resources (space), and you have an outsider.

Here are 4 options:

  1. You can ignore it and endure the problem.
  2. You can publicly shame him to others in the group (or in an online community).
  3. You can ask him directly to move his car.
  4. You can ask the group what’s the best way to resolve the parking challenges in the neighbourhood.

Options 1 and 2 (ignoring and shaming the person) are easier and less scary than 3 and 4 (asking directly and resolving the problem). That’s why we go for them. We can feel righteous shaming someone who hurt us (even unintentionally).

But shaming the person demands he, his family and his friends respond to protect his status.

Options 3 and 4 either resolve the problem individually (usually politely asking is best) or aim to find a solution without attacking the individual. We usually avoid these because they’re scary (he might say no!) or it doesn’t lessen our immediate anger.

When our status or resources are threatened, or we perceive something unknown, we’re likely to go negative.

So we need to resolve the problem effectively, create conditions that limit fights, and reduce fights as a % of the overall activity.

1) Resolving Problems Effectively

Anthropologists largely report most interpersonal conflicts were traditionally solved through a trusted mediator who communicates between the two upset parties to find common ground or an elder who decides in favour of one or the other.

The best way to resolve a conflict is privately. Either both members are told to tackle it directly between themselves or a respected leader figures out a compromise to move forward, or a judgement is made in favour of one which the other can respect or leave.

Once a debate turns into a personal conflict, the options are limited.

2) Conditions That Limit Conflicts

Groups that have the lowest level of conflicts share common traits.

These tend to include combinations of:

  • Shared and internalised long-term group goals. Members believe in the long-term goals of the group and understand achieving those goals requires group cohesion before individual pleasure. They believe they are in this together. They are trying to achieve something specific in the future.
  • Onboarding systems that ensure no-one is a stranger. Newcomers are introduced and welcomed to the group. A genuine effort is made to get to know them and understand them on a personal level. They know who to contact with questions and complaints.
  • A shared history. Members share a common history. They know how the group came to be and the principles it was founded upon. It’s important to teach newcomers the history of the group.
  • Common threat. They share an external threat. Perhaps a common enemy or even something broader – a threat to their resources which requires them to work together for survival.
  • Debts and norms of reciprocity. There is a broad web of social debts to one another and norms of reciprocity between members which would be impossible to tally up and fully repay. This web of social debts creates a strong basis of trust. Members are less likely to attack one another because they won’t be able to have their debts repaid (or get help on trust-based credit in the future).
  • Strong cultural norms. The group has strong cultural norms about what is and isn’t acceptable. These are enforced by group leaders who let members know kindly when they’ve been violated. Members are guided to use options 3 and 4 over 1 and 2 above.

3) Emphasis on More Positive Activities

Groups that endure use times of strife and difficulty to launch positive activities that unite the group.

They use the negativity as an opportunity to find solutions to the problems that arise. They call for people who might have the skills, knowledge, or resources to help solve the problem. They find ways different people can get together and help. They make the negative discussions only a tiny % of the activity that takes place.

This often means using the option 4 above e.g. “ok, this is a problem we’ve seen…how do we solve it in the future?”. This requires respected leaders. This means less leaders who have self-appointed themselves and instead leaders who have gained the legitimacy of the group. Once a negative problem has emerged, the leader begins bringing in people she knows to resolve it – and gives the emphasis and priority to discussions/activities that solve it.

You Can’t Stop Negativity

It’s not possible to stop negativity. There are too many sparky issues, too many explosive members, and too few connections between members to stamp it out.

What you can work to achieve is nurturing legitimate leaders who can resolve negativity, create conditions that limit people going negative, and using negative discussions as an opportunity to grow and improve the group.


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