“To be, or not to be?” Who among us a few months ago could have dreamed the famous fictitious ruminations of that great Dane would carve themselves into our collective realities. Negativity is inescapable in the face of a global pandemic, and in these times, the famous question itself becomes inescapable. From the responsible citizen agonizing over whether or not to attend a social gathering, to the doctors and nurses deciding who gets the last ventilator, and who does not.
Too much negativity can be overwhelming, yet the same does not appear to be true of too much positivity (I can think of some exceptions but in general there seems to be an asymmetry). I invite the reader to pause for a moment and consider why that might be. There are likely a number of plausible contributing factors, but I will speculate about only one of them here.
What precisely does negation mean? What does it mean to utter something like: “It was not a beautiful sunny day today”? Is there any inherent meaning in the negation here or does it rely entirely on the meaning inherent in the affirmative statement? Negation itself is a slippery concept, and one that has bothered great thinkers for centuries. Aristotle for instance thought that the key to understanding the meaning of negation lay in the concept of opposition (Speranza and Horn, 2010). Accordingly, the meaning of both affirmative and negative concepts was best understood in their opposition of one another.
This insight lives on to this day in some theories of how negation gets its meaning. The two-step process account of negation for instance posits that in order to understand a sentence like “It was not a beautiful day today” one must first construct the meaning of “It was a beautiful day today”. The second step is to then cancel this meaning and instead replace it with the opposing meaning. On this account, one cannot understand the meaning of the negative sentence without first understanding the meaning of the affirmative one (Kaup & Zwaan, 2003).
That may strike the reader as obvious, and perhaps not terribly profound, but consider for a moment what it would entail. If this turns out to be correct, it suggests that understanding the meaning of a negative statement might require additional mental effort compared to understanding the meaning of the equivalent affirmative statement. For negation, one always has to arrive at the meaning of the affirmative anyway, but then there are the additional steps of cancelling and replacing that meaning.
A reader may then rightly ask whether there is any evidence for this additional mental effort, and the answer is that the evidence is unclear. A recent study however showed that the same brain system people use for preventing themselves from making a movement, appears to also come online to a larger extent when processing negative sentences compared to affirmatives (Beltrán, Morera, García-Marco, & De Vega, 2019). This provides suggestive evidence that there may indeed be some additional mental effort required for processing the meaning of negatives, and one might speculate that it could be related to some general-purpose cancellation (or inhibition) mechanism in the brain.
What, however, does this have to do with the question we started out with, namely why too much negativity appears more likely to be overwhelming than too much positivity? Speculatively, since it may require additional mental effort even to process the meaning of all the negative statements and utterances currently bombarding our existence, our mental faculties get temporarily overloaded and can’t cope. We simply need some respite from the negativity, and from all the mental effort it requires of us; a little time to reset.
So in these times when negativity runs rife through the empty streets, try from time-to-time to pause for a second and reflect on just how meaningless that negativity would be in the absence of opposition. The good times will eventually return. The negativity would be meaningless without them.
Beltrán, D., Morera, Y., García-Marco, E., & De Vega, M. (2019). Brain inhibitory mechanisms are involved in the processing of sentential negation, regardless of its content. Evidence from EEG theta and beta rhythms. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1782.
Kaup, B., & Zwaan, R. A. (2003). Effects of negation and situational presence on the accessibility of text information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 29(3), 439.
Speranza, J. L., & Horn, L. R. (2010). A brief history of negation. Journal of Applied Logic, 8(3), 277-301.