Why bad memories are more powerful than good ones

Why Are Bad Memories More Powerful Than Good Ones?

Why do I always remember the bad experiences and not the good?

Why is it that, at a gig, for example, I can perform for two and a half hours, have awesome tables that loved every minute of me being there. They were laughing, yelling, screaming, throwing underwear at me (OK, I may be exaggerating a touch!) and yet, on the drive home, my mind chooses to focus on that one table – the one that was hard work and just a little bit of a struggle?

“Why does my brain hate me so much?”

What is it about bad memories that intensifies them and makes them so much more powerful than the good ones?

Positive memories are like the normal baddies in video games –  the ones you can beat with one swift kick to the gut.

Negative experiences are like the end of level bosses – you need to dish out 375 punches, including three power-ups and five magic potions from a dwarf before they die.

Why Bad Memories Last Longer Than Good Ones - Sonic
Dr Robotnik – a man who answers the question, “How do you kill a hedgehog?” with “by building a spaceship and dangling a swinging boulder from it…”

If that wasn’t bad enough, negative experiences seem to last longer too. The morning after, I can struggle to remember the happy people, but could easily tell you the most minute details about the bad table – the number of people there, where they were sat and the order I would like to stab them in…that kind of thing.

I know what you’re going to say. You’re probably going to say…

  • That I shouldn’t let them get me down…
  • That I should be saying that ‘it’s over – there’s nothing I can do now’, so move on…
  • It’s OK not to be perfect…

There’s a difference though between SAYING these things and actually DOING something with them in a way that processes them and gets them out of my mind space.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really upset or anything like that (I’ve only phoned The Samaritans like 13 times). This is just part of my job. I’d just like to be a bit better at dealing with it.

Screw it, I’m going to Google why bad memories are more powerful than good ones…


Wait a second…

It’s OK everyone, it’s not our fault!

Usually, Googling your deficiencies is a terrible way to deal with a problem, especially at 6 am (when I’m writing this), but on this occasion, it turned out OK.

Apparently, we’re not all messed up. Negative experiences ARE more powerful – for everybody!

Yay! I’m not alone, special or different. Wait, what?

According to Roy Baumeister (and I’ll quote him verbatim to give this post a bit more weight and gravitas):

“Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.” – Roy Baumeister (from “Bad is stronger than good“)

In short, bad things are more powerful, have more impact and stick around longer.

Boo The Power of Bad Emotions

Yes, boo indeed, but WHY are negative emotions stronger? Is it just Sod’s Law and bad luck?

No. Like 78% of our mental screw ups, the blame for this lies with evolution.

To quote Baumeister and co again:

“Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes but less urgent with regard to good ones.”

You know what that means?


Bad And Good Emotions - Carlton Dance
Yay! I’m not a total screw up!

Blaming evolution, fun as that may be, doesn’t actually make these bad memories easier to deal with. We’re still left ruminating and pondering on them, but just knowing that this a ‘human’ thing, rather than a ‘me’ thing normalises it, and normalising things is one of the first steps to dealing with them.

Normalising allows you to say, “There’s nothing wrong with ME – I’m great!”, and have you actually believe it.

Everything is working as it should. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing – what my species has evolved to do over thousands of years – to be aware of the bad things going on in order to protect myself and my gene pool (eewww!).

It doesn’t make thinking about the bad stuff any better, but answering the questions, “Why am I doing this?” and “What the hell is wrong with me?” with, “because you’re a human being” and “there’s NOTHING wrong with you.” has made me feel, dare I say it (yes I do), normal again.

It’s fine that you remember the terrible stuff. That’s how we learn and get better. Just make sure that you also remind yourself that it’s also another sign that your brain is fabulous and doing exactly what it should.

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