February 17, 2017

Reflections on the Gottman Ratio and Why We Rember Bad Things Better Than Good Ones

I had an interesting conversation recently with a patient in a support group for people with rare and poorly understood illnesses. She wrote about the frustrations of dealing with a medical system that is not structured in a way that would benefit patients with complex, time-consuming conditions. Other patients have frequently noted that the doctor-patient relationship is often fraught with tensions due to lack of time, resources and expertise. The patient in question related a particularly bad experience she had with a physician. I thought about it a moment then asked her if the better doctors outweighed the bad one. She said perhaps it should but she remembers that bad doctor more acutely than the others.

I had to admit, despite having some very good doctors on my own team, I have had a similar experience. Despite the doctors who worked so hard on my case and were congenial, the face of a doctor who left me in great pain and simply smirked at me when I complained of pain seems to have burned a more vivid memory in my brain. That made me curious. Is there a reason why we remember bad experiences and the people who dispense them more vividly than good ones? And could it perhaps simply be wired in to our genes to do so as a biological necessity?

Some researchers have studied this aspect of human memory and do indeed come to an evidence based conclusion that the bad most definitely outweighs the good and that bad memories are secured more indelibly into our brains and are more easily retrieved. Some of these researchers speculate that this might be an evolutionary key to survival. It just might secure your survival to have a better memory of a large animal that was intent on devouring you than for one that was a vegetarian.

There may even be a relationship between the body’s chemistry in a state of excitement and the way memory is recorded. This has great social and educational implications. There is buried deep in the medical literature, for instance, findings that point to fear of punishment being a better impetus to learning than reward. Uh oh! Bring out that yardstick! (Seriously, I’m not advocating a return to corporal punishment in the classroom).

The hard wiring and activation of bad memories over good ones, however useful it may have been in the preservation of our species, could most certainly cause some havoc in modern day life. The patients who have had bad experiences with doctors, for instance, may avoid seeking prompt and necessary medical attention. People who have had a bad experience with someone of a different race or gender would be vulnerable to developing a harmful bias, then, in their future interactions with a member of the "threatening group." And the implications for partisan politics is disturbing.

There is some research to demonstrate that "bad experience" may be not only apply to personal experience in real life but in second hand experience through story telling as well. I have experience with a transferred narrative after a prolonged stay in The People’s Republic of China. At the time my husband and I resided in China, we came to know elderly people who experienced the Japanese invasion of their homeland during World War II. Their first hand accounts of rape, torture and murder were horrifying. The telling and re-telling of these incidents over the course of four years served to etch a fairly strong anathema in to my brain. Their narrative became my narrative. As a consequence I found it impossible to interact socially with Japanese men of my own time in my own generation and I carried those sentiments with me after leaving China.

A transference from the Sino-Japanese war shaped my consciousness in a way that I did not like. I felt that something had to be done to extricate this negativity from my brain. The solution for me at the time was to offer English lessons to Japanese men from a local corporation. I got to know them and some of their wives. They were fine people who helped balance a weight implanted by another people from another time. (1)

I later applied the above soul cleansing principle to my first hand negative experiences with about ten neurologists by reading the works of Oliver Sacks, a famously empathetic neurologist. To my amazement I found that this author and I shared the same interests in art and fascination with paleo-botany. Sacks was refreshing to say the least but perhaps not quite enough to undo the damage of bad medical experiences. Why?

I found an explanation for this is in my reading about the Gottman ratio. This ratio was formulated by Dr. John Gottman’s experiments in human relationships, tabulating exactly how many positive interactions or experiences it would take to offset the negative. His experiments suggested that the number of good experiences needed to offset the bad were at least five to one. If correct, this five to one ratio explains much. It might explain why, for instance, when someone apologizes for an offense and we say "apology accepted," deep down we think "but not really." As Gottman would have it, five apologies would actually be needed to even the score. That would explain then, why three books by Oliver Sacks could not outdo ten bad neurology experiences - it would take fifty!

The Gottman ratio can be daunting to consider not only with regard to how negative experience received might permanently color one’s perception of others, but how a negative comment or action dispensed would take five positive examples from people who might represent one’s perceived group to counter or offset the offense. So if I behave badly as an artist, at least in someone else’s perception of me, would it take five "good" artists to offset the damage? What about my behavior as a woman? As a liberal? As an American?

How might the Gottman ratio play out in virtual communication? Might this relationship ratio have a bearing in a larger social and political context? This brings me to one of the problems of political communications, in particular, Twitter. I do not have a twitter account, and wish not to have one. Frankly, the current United States president ruined any desire on my part to communicate via this medium. I do not wish to be inundated with these communications, and the responses to them. These days, I am thinking of social media communication venues such as Twitter within the framework of the Gottman ratio of five positive experiences to counter one negative. From what I have seen thus far in the published tweets from our tweeter-in-chief, for instance, there are so many insults to so many groups of people in so many parts of the world, a five to one ratio in terms of apologies needed to counter the negative effects of these put him in a deficit of about 35 billion by now. And yet he persists! Why? His claims are that he must counter the negativity of the media. Tone, in some cases, could rightly be more tempered, as our president’s own words should be sufficiently appalling enough when reflected back by the media mirror. I don’t need to be persistently told how bad they are. The public, myself included, does need to be told when words and actions are illegal, why they are illegal, and what to do about it. We need to know what proactive measures need to be taken to preserve a democracy, and not merely be subjected to a yelling match after the fact. For as Gottman points out with regard to his ratio, the yelling match may produce in broad socio-political terms, what occurs in interpersonal relationships: partisan divides etched ever more irrevocably and deeply into our social fabric. And it will remain there for easy retrieval, perhaps for generations to come.

My illustration for the Gottman ratio is one big bad rotten apple with worms offset by the five smaller good apples required to nullify it. One plus five equals zero. In Gottman terms, this is what it takes to nullify the rotten apple. I hope that my color drawing makes the bad apple big and rotten enough for people reflect on its presence. In the mean time, I will find some more books to read by Oliver Sacks and company, and emphasize positive protest to defend what I wish to preserve in my democracy.

And this just in: I notice the writing of a woman neurologist. Looks like a good apple!


Colleen Cancio "Do we remember bad times better than good?" 4 October 2011.
HowStuffWorks.com. 13 February 2017

Roy F. Baumeister "Bad is Stronger Than Good." 2001, Review of General Psychology, Vol. No 4 323-370

Susan S. Lang "Dopamine Linked to a Personality Trait and Happiness," 24 October 1996. Cornell Chronicle

Www.gottman.com The Gottman Institute

(1) Some acknowledgment is due here, however, to the usefulness of storytelling, good or bad, for the role that this also plays in the relating of tales that serve as cautionary, educational, or therapeutic. By this I mean those tales that serve as historical warnings, tales to overturn commonly held misconceptions, and narratives that renew faith in humanity and democratic institutions.

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