Negativity, Risk, And Why Rugged Individualism Is (Mostly) Bunk

In his book with journalist John Tierney, The Power of Bad, social psychologist Roy Baumeister writes about what he calls the Negativity Effect. For most of humanity’s existence, we lived in dangerous environments where a single careless moment would mean death. Or as The Power of Bad puts it:

“To survive, life has to win every day. Death has to win just once.”

Because of this, our ancestors who reacted more strongly to bad than to good were more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Baumeister believes it takes four good events to have the same impact as an equivalent bad event.

Anyone who has ever felt like their day was ruined by a single minor inconvenience can recognize what he’s talking about.

But most of us no longer live in a world where death lurks around every corner. And in our modern, safer environment, the negativity effect goes from lifesaver to productivity drag.

Think about the math. Psychologically, you need four good events for every bad event to avoid feeling down in the dumps. But from an objective perspective, simply having more good than bad is a positive. To achieve a 4:1 ratio, we practice a conservatism that optimizes for that ratio, but leads us to pass on many possible actions (such as something with 2:1 odds of success) that would improve the expected value of our lives.

My personal solution has been to develop a strong tolerance for uncertainty (but not for downside). This allows me to ignore the usual negativity effect and try things that aren’t likely to improve or even maintain a 4:1 ratio, but are likely to improve my life. This is easier said than done.

But civilization has come up with a more general hack that most people can and do apply: collective action. Civilization is the safety net that leads most people to be willing to take more chances. And in our modern world, that actually creates value.

That’s why rugged individualism is mostly bunk. Unless you’re living in a regularly life-threatening environment, it’s a sub-optimal algorithm that is subject to the value-destroying negativity effect.

The corollary is that if you are living in a high-threat environment, it is an optimal approach.

This may explain why so many of my friends who served in the US military on combat deployments have a strong tendency towards rugged individualism, though whether that is because their environment shaped their personality, or because their personality gravitated towards that environment is an interesting question.

This may also explain why my civilian friends who subscribe to the philosophy of rugged individualism see apocalypse around every corner–when civilization collapses, their philosophy will go from liability to asset.

Once you recognize the negativity effect in your own life, you can counteract its effects and start taking more intelligent risks that increase the expected value of your life.

UPDATE:

One of my friends pointed out an important nuance: Many successful high tech entrepreneurs are both risk-takers AND see themselves as rugged individualists. One way I might explain this is to point out that Silicon Valley’s stock-driven approach to compensation provides collective incentives. Thus founders who are good enough at driving company value increases can behave in an almost-completely self-centered way yet still enrich those around them. Or, as Don Draper put it:

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